Interesting article by political scientist Morris Fiorina in the recently published essay collection by Alan Gerber and Eric Patashnik, Promoting the General Welfare.
In "Parties as Problem Solvers," Fiorina notes the argument that he had been making for many years (and that I personally have considered persuasive) to the effect that national politics would function better if the parties were stronger. Several strands to this argument. One is that interest groups are weakened if the parties in effect cartelize and thus reduce any one group's market power. A strand emphasized by Fiorina held that "unified political parties led by strong presidents were more likely to act decisively to meet the challenges facing the country, and when they took their collective performance records to the electorate for ratification or rejection, the voters at least had a good idea whom to reward or blame."
He notes that the 1980s were the high water mark of responsible behavior by relatively united political parties.
He then notes what has happened since:
“In 2002 a Republican administration ostensibly committed to free enterprise endorsed tariffs to protect the U.S. steel industry, a policy condemned by economists across the ideological spectrum. Also in 2002 Congress passed and President Bush signed an agricultural subsidy bill that the left-leaning New York Times decried as an ‘orgy of pandering to special interest groups,’ the centrist U.S.A. Today called ‘a congressional atrocity,’ and the right-leaning Economist characterized as ‘monstrous.’ In 2003 Congress passed and the president signed a special interest-riddled prescription drug plan that was the largest entitlement program adopted since Medicare itself in 1965, a fiscal commitment that immediately put the larger Medicare program on a steep slide toward bankruptcy. In 2004 congressional Republicans proposed and President Bush supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a divisive proposal that had no chance of passing. After his reelection, President Bush declared his highest priority was to avert a crisis in a Social Security system he insisted was bankrupt, by establishing a system of personal accounts [that had zero relationship to solvency – my addition], while disinterested observers generally pronounced the situation far from crisis and in need of relatively moderate reform – especially compared to Medicare. In 2005 the Republican Congress passed and President Bush signed a pork-filled transportation bill that contained 6,371 congressional earmarks, forty times as many as contained in a bill signed by an earlier Republican president in 1987. Meanwhile, at the time of this writing Americans continue to die in a war of choice launched on the basis of ambiguous intelligence that appears to have been systematically interpreted to support a previously adopted position.
“The preceding are only some of the more noteworthy lowlights of public policies adopted or proposed under the responsible party government of 2000-05. All things considered, if someone wished to argue that politics in the 1970s [with its lack of party discipline] was better than today, I would find it hard to rebut them. Why?”
Fiorina argues that the reasons for the failure of strong-party government to deliver the anticipated benefits include:
1) The change made politics more conflictual, with winning vs. losing being much more clearcut and all-important, leading to permanent campaigning and the disappearance of any intermittent efforts at actual governance. Party positioning for the next election becomes all-consuming all the time.
2) Voters were offered clearer and more polarized choices than they actually wanted, leading to much less responsiveness to public sentiment in a heterogeneous society.
3) The parties now seek 50% plus one vote, not maximizing their votes, since once you have a majority you can pass almost anything you like (well, Social Security privatization aside) without having to claim a popular mandate.
I offer some explanations of my own for the failure of party government to improve the political process, including a variant of #3, in my new book.
This whole subject requires a lot more thought from political scientists and from everyone who is interested in the proper (or at least adequate) functioning of our government institutions. For now, the only clear takeaway is: Be careful what you wish for, or you just might get it.