Sunday, March 25, 2012

Both parties "outsource"

I've been pleased to see some much-deserved recent pushback against articles that falsely equate both parties. (A recent favorite was Richard Cohen's article claiming that Republicans are irresponsible and Democrats likely soon will be, so they're both the same.) But Kevin Baker's piece in today's New York Times goes way too far in the other direction:
Republicans have fallen prey to one of the favorite tactics of just the sort of heedless, improvident, twenty-first century capitalism they revere. Their party has been outsourced.
For decades, Republicans have recruited outside groups and individuals to amplify their party’s message and its influence.
Baker frames this "outsourcing" as a strategic choice by the Republican Party, but one that has caused it to lose control of its message. And if the focus is solely on using conservative media (Fox News, Limbaugh, etc.) to echo or even generate its messages, then yes, this is a disproportionately Republican phenomenon. But outsourcing vital party tasks goes well beyond having news outlets echo talking points. Both parties have seen outsiders take over the key roles of fundraising, staffing campaigns, generating media strategies, and organizing volunteers over the past half century.

The recently departed James Q. Wilson noted the rise of the "amateur Democrat" back in the late 50s and early 60s. These liberal activists were taking over the party roles that had previously been filled by patronage workers in the old party machines, until a series of court cases and law enforcement crackdowns made it impossible for mayors and governors to keep all those party people employed on the public's dime. And it's not like the only people generating Democratic legislative and public opinion strategies are directly employed by the Democratic Party. A broad coalition of liberal interest groups famously worked together to craft a strategy to defeat the Bork nomination in 1987. Conservative interest groups helped defeat health care reform in 1994, and their liberal counterparts helped make another version law in 2010.

And as for fundraising, please read Karen Crummy's recent analysis of 527 and Super PAC spending in the Denver Post. Crummy finds that in the 2010 election cycle in Colorado, Democratic-leaning groups outspent Republican-leaning groups by a margin of 150 to 1. This helped Democrats retain control of the state senate and a U.S. Senate seat in an otherwise strongly Republican year. The people running this Democratic effort are mostly the same ones who organized in 2004 to get around campaign finance restrictions that hampered the formal parties but not the outside interest groups.

Now, one may legitimately quibble with the whole concept of party outsourcing here. Arguably, interest groups and prominent private citizens have always been key components of the major political parties. This is a key point that I and my co-authors (Kathy Bawn, Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller) argue in "A Theory of Political Parties." But to the extent that there has been a change in recent decades, it's really affected both parties.


Joe said...

I think your use of Wilson's work is not quite right. His Amateurs were in California, where patronage was slim compared to other big cities that struggled to deal with the end of that form of party organization. The Amateur Democrats were a response to the absence of strong party organizations in California, not a replacement for one.
Otherwise I generally agree that this "outsourcing" is nothing new and that there is symmetry. The party apparat may have shifted from salaried party positions to self-sustaining consulting firms, but they are still highly partisan.

Seth Masket said...

Actually, Wilson's book chronicled amateur movements in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. The latter two hardly wanted for patronage.

Joe said...

That's what I get for committing to memory only the parts that were relevant to my research.

This is why I would never comment on David Karol's blog, if he had one.

Ryan Sears said...

Thanks for making your recent published works available here. I've enjoyed reading your thoughts since as an undergrad taking Zaller's courses. This helps me keep my finger on the academic pulse as I've been out of that realm and trying to make sense of the party apparatus around me in the political world. Appreciate the access and analysis, and I'm looking forward to the new paper.