The Party’s Over: The Failure of Politics in America


As part of my teaching of Political Parties in the US Politics I have been reading a couple of notable texts on the theory of political parties. This is the notes from the first.

  • “Political parties in America have a peculiar status and history. They are not part of our written Constitution. The Founding Fathers, in fact, were determined to do all they could to see that they did not arise. Washington devoted much of his Farewell Address to warning his countrymen against “the dangers of the party in the state.”
  • By 1970, half again as many called themselves political independents as had done a generation earlier. In the 1968 election, more than half the voters reported splitting their tickets.
  • But the heritage of the Eisenhower era has not been so easily obliterated. Once broken, the links between the public and the political parties, the government and teh parties, have not mended. The fateful separation between national policy and party responsibility that began sixteen years ago continues today.
  • Traffic jams, smog, pollution, crime, inflation and a dozen other problems measure the failure of the government to anticipate, to identify and to remedy the unwanted side effects of America’s prosperity and growth.
  • The dirty little secret of American politics in the 1970s is that every single essential service we depend on some public agency to provide is seriously under financed. In an era of general affluence, we are simply not paying enough in taxes to maintain the necessary basic community service.
  • The classic, academic distinction between parties and interest groups was given us by the late V.O. Key, Jr “Pressure groups seek to attain the adoption of those policies of particular interest to them; they do not nominate candidates and campaign for control and responsibility of the government as a whole. Their work goes on regardless of which party is in power in the state, city or nation. Theirs is a politics of principle. “We must be partisan for a principle and not for a party,” and Samuel Gompers, speaking for the American Federation of Labor. “Labor must learn to use parties to advance our principles and not allow political parties to manipulate us for their own advancement.”
  • An interest group that is old and well established has an advantage over one that has just been formed. One that has a single narrowly-defined objective, directly related to the economic well-being of its members, is likely to be better financed and more successful than a group with a long agenda and an altruistic approach to issues. The first rule of interest group government is to “look out for yourself.” This means to the extent we rely on interest groups we resign ourselves to a significant degree of stagnation and selfishness in our public policies.
  • What is true of the South is true of the nation as a whole: It is not a single bloc of voters, but many such blocs which have cut loose from all their past allegiances and are on the move. While the South has been growing more Republican, New England and some suburbs have been growing more Democratic. Blacks have shown increasing political independence; like other minority groups – the Mexican-American, the American Indians – they have demonstrated their growing political consciousness by showing their willingness to shift partisan alignments in order to achieve their own specific goals. As the members of congressional Black Caucus said in 1971, “We do not intend to have our vision obscured by partisan blinders where the interests of our constituents … are concerned.”
  • Presidential press conferences have been carried live on television for fifteen years; each of the last four Presidents has used the medium more extensively for speeches than his predecessor. Senators, governors, congressmen, mayors all do their TV “reports to the people.” Political expenditures for purchased television time increased sevenfold between 1952 and 1968-one of the major reasons for the inflation in campaign costs. Television not only bypasses the party as the middleman in political communication, it tends to de-emphasise the party as part of the political process.
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