Monday, January 21, 2008

Machine Politics

My friend Kyle finds growing evidence of seriously dirty tricks by the Clinton campaign in Nevada this weekend, including this report at DKos. Many of the charges seem consistent with this email to Andrew Sullivan. I'm not going to comment on the charges of fraud in New Hampshire, which I think still lack any real substantiation; however, there is little doubt that the Clinton campaign had better resources there to make sure that it got its supporters got to the polls.

What all this shows is that political machines still exist in this country at a national level - they're called the party establishments. While it is overly pessimistic to think that we haven't advanced since the days of Boss Tweed, it is also naive to think that political machines suddenly disappeared overnight. This is especially true in the case of party primaries, where one group controls most of the relevant infrastructure, much as Tammany Hall controlled all of the infrastructure in New York City during its monopoly on power.

When a candidate is the favorite of his or her party's establishment, they get access to the entire party infrastructure. In a primary, that access is particularly valuable since the party infrastructure includes control over the primary/caucus procedure and process. We've seen hints of this in New Jersey, where the local GOP party establishment is nearly unanimous in its support of Giuliani.

Political parties in this country are really just rough coalitions of interest groups. These interest groups support the party within which they think they will have the greatest amount of influence. In doing so, rather than striking out on their own, they are able to reap the benefits of the party's massive infratstructure. But that infrastructure is controlled by die-hard party members, not the constituent interest groups. The die-hard party members have an ideology that is best described as fusionist- nothing more than a conglomeration of the top priority issues of each of the constituent interest groups. However, we should keep in mind that the die-hard party members are themselves a constituent interest group, whose primary goal is maintaining the overall party coalition (which entails that they keep control over the reins of the party to keep one constituent group from gaining too much power and annoying the other interest groups). Their top priority isn't implementing policy goals, but ensuring the party retains a hold on power, and that they retain control of the party.

There is also a certain sense of entitlement that comes along with controlling the party - the party doesn't belong to the constituent groups, but instead to the establishment who built the party. The constituent groups are just there because the establishment lets them be there because they are politically convenient at the time. We see this sense of entitlement in the GOP with Hugh Hewitt's meltdowns over John McCain, which he calls an attempted coup that must be stopped in order to "put the campaign back into the hands of the people who built the party over the past 28 years."

When you have this kind of sense of entitlement - as the Clintonites largely do with the Dem Party - the temptation to use your control of the party's vast infrastructure to ensure you keep that control are overwhelming. If you can do so in ways that are ethical (like massive get-out-the-vote operations), then great; if that won't work and you must skirt the boundaries of ethics without necessarily reaching outright fraud, then so be it. As a result, you get what happened in Nevada this weekend, you get the campaign against McCain in 2000 in South Carolina, etc.

By becoming part and parcel of a party, interest groups get access to the party's infrastructure on the groups' top priorities; but when it comes to secondary and tertiary issues, the party winds up having a much bigger effect on the interest groups than the interest groups have on the party. The interest groups, unless they are sufficiently large, do not control the party; the party instead controls them.

The problem we face in this country is that our system of campaign finance regulation, federal control of the airwaves, etc. have institutionalized the two-party system on both the national and local levels. As long as that system is institutionalized, interest groups will be unable to mount credible efforts on their own, which means they will have to continue to subvert their secondary and tertiary goals to the wishes of their chosen party's establishment. And that establishment isn't about to allow itself to lose control of the party, at least not without a fight. The end result is that our national and local governments wind up being controlled primarily by two super-factions, rather than the shifting factional interests envisioned by Madison's Federalist Number 10. When these two super-factions that control each party's infrastructure have to share power, government is at least tolerable as there are truly competing interests on each issue. But that doesn't change the fact that the super-factions' first goal is always maintaining their control of the party infrastructure.

More at Memeorandum.