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The Results of Attacks on America’s Political Parties Were Predicted

It was way back in the fall of 1961, in Sever Hall, Harvard Yard, and I was taking notes in a class on urban politics taught by Professor Edward Banfield. Tall, distinguished looking, yet approachable, he resembled an academic Gregory Peck. Earlier, at the University of Chicago, the good professor had been an intimate observer of the first Mayor Richard Daley and the Democratic machine in Chicago, so his instruction had the authority of experience usually missing from political science courses.

Banfield said that even though the Daley machine had managed the year before to deliver Illinois to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, it and all other party machines were doomed. They were dying, he said, because New Deal legislation and post-World War II prosperity made voters less dependent upon the charity of the machine; but also because civil service reform had ended the party’s control of jobs, and because the former immigrant groups whose votes the machine counted upon “were developing a bourgeois view of ethics.”

The machines’ practices were, indeed, corrupt and in need of correction. But with the rise of a political reform movement that Banfield already discerned, parties as a whole would likely be weakened, he said; and weaker parties would hurt the public even more than the old fashioned graft had done. The nature of corruption would change rather than disappear, and in the end, the cost to democracy would be higher than ever.

Banfield’s analysis clashed with my youthful idealism, so I mostly rejected it at the time. But I had enough sense to tuck my notes away for later reflection. And, referring to them now, here’s what I find.

Political parties, according to Banfield, serve to “harmonize social expression” that otherwise would be dispersed into “specialist political groups and interests that have no discipline or collective loyalty.” But self-righteous reformers tend to ignore or scorn this role.

“Reformers are usually upper class people for whom petty stealing is not a habit,” Banfield dryly noted. But if you define “bribe” properly, as “any such advantage by which an official is induced to do other than his duty,” one can see that there are different ways to offer a bribe from those used by corrupt machines. Perfectly legal offers of votes–something mass membership interest groups do routinely–could constitute such a bribe. Also, voters can be bribed as easily as politicians; a targeted government benefit program will do the job nicely.

Motive is the key to understanding what is fair, yet motive is not always easy to know, Banfield reminded us. This is a central problem with all ethics legislation. However, one at least can say that “In the long run, private bribes are cheaper than public ones,” since subsidies of individuals and groups by government–the legal kind of bribe–are more expensive than occasional petty graft. Moreover, “To the extent vulgar inducements are ended, public ones are likely to increase…It may break us financially at some point.”

Destroying the power of the parties in the name of reform, Banfield declared, would have several other consequences. Where once parties could pick their own candidates and fund them directly, there soon would be “an advantage for incumbents in elections (since they will be better known); an advantage for the influence of ‘names’ over issues; more attempts by candidates to make contradictory appeals to all groups; a temptation for ‘personality’ campaigns to turn into smear campaigns; and an inability after an election to force through unpopular but necessary measures.”

In an article he published about the same time, Banfield went on to explain that the very flaws reformers found in political parties, such as their basis in local and regional concerns and self-interest, helped make them more effective and less dangerous than their supposedly purer rivals, the organized interest groups and self-starting individuals. Purity in politics, he saw, threatened to become the enemy of good political consequences.

“There is an inherent antagonism between ‘democracy of procedure’ and production and maintenance of a good society, (so) that some defects of procedure are indispensable conditions of success from the standpoint of results. Therefore, what the critics call the ‘archaic’ character of the American party system is a very small price to pay for government that can be relied upon to balance satisfactorily the several conflicting ends that must be served.”

When logrolling and patronage were disallowed, for example, a President would have to turn increasingly to manipulating the electorate with charm and personality. “TV and the arts of Madison Avenue would become more important in politics,” Banfield predicted. “…Whereas the political trader maintains his control by giving and withholding favors to individuals (a circumstance which makes his control both dependable and in its operation cheap), the president would have to maintain his by the uncertain and costly expedient of offering to whole classes of people–the farmer, the aged, the home owner, and so on–advantages that they would have only at each others’ expense.”

“There is, then,” he continued, “a danger that reform will chip away the foundations of authority upon which the society rests….(O)ur very goodness and democracy may lead us to destroy goodness and democracy in the effort to increase and perfect them.”

Thirty five years later, all the predictions from Professor Banfield’s crystal ball have become reality:

Parties are weakened by restrictions that don’t apply to politically active issue groups like the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club or the AFL-CIO, let alone the media, while individual candidates–also tied down by strict ethics and reporting laws–fight desperately to find money to answer lavish TV attacks launched by such groups.
Our public disclosure and ethics laws are obsessed with proceduralism.
The advantages enjoyed by incumbents and rich self-starters are greater than ever.
Appeal on television, rather than capacity for governance, dictates candidate selection.
Politicians regularly bid for voters with expensive baubles from the public treasury–whether special interest tax breaks or free college aid.
Public budgets are several times what they were in 1961.
The inability of elected officials, once in office, to enact tough, but necessary, legislation (think of Medicare) is so commonplace that it almost goes unremarked.
For such reasons, my support goes to the real reformers in Congress who are trying this year to strengthen the parties, and definitely not to the privileged interests and their supporters who want to weaken political parties still further.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.