Cash dash pushing party politics aside
To paraphrase an old folk song, "Where have all the politicians gone?" American electoral politics is in the middle of a revolution that is seeing political parties become mere campaign vehicles without drivers or even fuel. Replacing the old party system and its party operatives is money -- simple and clear. How has this happened and, more importantly, why?
In the last third of the 20th century, political reformers attacked traditional party politics and its politicians. Reform meant doing away with party hierarchy and loyalty by demanding a more open system in which the "people" and not the "party faithful" could pick their candidates.
This reform erupted first in the national Democratic Party, but it eventually overflowed into the Republican Party, reaching down to state and local politics as well. Even in the "Boss"-run city of Chicago, where the late Mayor Richard J. Daley ruled, party positions range now from "afterthoughts" to "no thoughts." He would not recognize his once-vaunted Democratic organization/machine, because most of the city's 50 wards no longer hold monthly meetings where precinct captains and others used meet to hear candidates. Moreover, among Chicagoans and loyal Democrats, who cares or even knows who is the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Committee -- a position Daley held before he became mayor and one he never gave up.
If this "de-partying" of American politics has happened in Chicago, imagine the party organizations in the rest of the nation. Money politics has replaced party politics. Today the press, pundits and professors view viable candidates by how much money they have raised or can raise.
The entire process for major offices now hinges on dollars for paid advertising, dollars for high-priced consultants and pollsters, and dollars for "techies" who can put together a field organization based on the latest technology. To be sure, volunteers still matter but, again, all this is beyond the party system. The ultimate political endorsement today is a check signature.
In modern American, instead of so-called party hacks or bosses dominating campaigns, we have millionaire or billionaire hacks funding elections. Clearly the U.S. Supreme Court, in a couple of astoundingly absurd and stupid decisions, has played a critical role in making it easier for the dash-for-cash crowd.
Historically, American politics has gone from a narrow constituency base to a wide-open one -- good! Though not part of the Constitution, major political parties evolved into a stabilizing force for a diverse democratic republic -- good! The evils of caucus politics and bossism crumbled under the pressure of progressive legislation in the first part of the 20th century -- good! However, the demise of political party power has allowed a few individuals to dominate presidential elections as well as many if not most statewide elections -- not good!
Fundraising is the new mother's milk of politics. And though we still go through the charade of national party conventions, debates and position papers, they now matter much less. Who knows, perhaps in a cost-savings move we could put all major offices up on eBay and let the bidding begin fair and square.
• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg and Chicago.