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Virtual Unity: The Morphing of the Party System

August 13, 2000|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

Remember the ads that said, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile"? Well, political parties in the United States face the same problem. They've become brand names that elicit less and less loyalty from voters. Particularly younger voters inclined to say, "Democrats? That's my father's party." "Republicans? My mother liked them."

In the 19th century, political parties were organized like armies. They had troops, headquarters, torchlight parades, war chests and spoils. They looked after their constituents with jobs and patronage. Politics was "us" against "them." Campaigns weren't to persuade the undecided. They were to rally the forces.

Before polls were invented, parties in highly competitive states like Indiana would often commission a total canvass of the electorate. That meant interviewing 100% of the voters to gauge party morale. Voters were asked to identify their religion, their occupation and their creed. Creed? Sure: Democrat or Republican. Independents were few in number and generally scorned as "the third sex."

In the 20th century, as voters became better educated, military campaigns gave way to marketing. Instead of rallying the party faithful, parties had to reach out to independent voters by using the tools of persuasion: advertising, polls, focus groups. And now, infomercials, which is what political conventions have become.

Remember Elizabeth H. Dole's Oprah-like performance at the 1996 Republican National Convention? "Tonight, I'd like to break with tradition," Dole said as she descended from the podium. "For two reasons. I'm going to be speaking to friends, and I'm going to be speaking about the man I love. And it's just a lot more comfortable for me to do that down here with you." Brilliant marketing. A far cry from the stem-winding oratory that used to mark party conventions.

As marketing took over, the ranks of loyal partisans began to diminish, particularly after television came to dominate politics in the 1960s. By 1980, the ranks of both Democrats and Republicans had shrunk, while independents grew to one-third of the electorate. By 1998, independents were nearly the largest party. They are very much the largest party among younger voters.

Partisans are fans. If a team is losing fans, fewer and fewer people show up at the games. If the parties are losing fans, fewer and fewer people show up at the polls. Look at what's happened to voter turnout. In the 1960s, more than 60% of the voting-age population showed up to vote in presidential elections. In the 1970s and '80s, turnout dropped to slightly more than 50%, even though it was becoming easier to register and more convenient to vote. In 1996, a majority of voting-age Americans didn't even bother to vote.

Parties have been displaced by personalities. Heroic personalities like Colin L. Powell. Offbeat personalities like Ross Perot. Colorful personalities like Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Personalities whose appeal crosses party lines like Arizona Sen. John McCain. The question is, how much longer can the parties freeze these guys out?

U.S. politics is now a two-way dialogue. Candidates talk directly to voters through television. Voters talk back through polls--and, increasingly, the Internet. Nothing much left for the parties to do except raise and spend soft money, which will be the principal offstage activity in Los Angeles this week.

The conventions are marketing devices for selling candidates, often by obscuring issue differences between the parties. The Republican convention in Philadelphia was a great show, but it was the least political political convention in history. That was a deliberate strategy, aimed at downplaying divisive issues and ideology. As for the Democrats, they're about to nominate the party's most conservative ticket in 50 years.

Prince George versus Prince Albert. What difference does it make? After 30 years of moving apart on the issues, Democrats to the left and Republicans to the right, the two parties have started moving together. Under President Bill Clinton, the Democrats--make that, the New Democrats--have moved to the center on economic issues.

Vice President Al Gore, for example, recently told financial leaders in New York, "If we stick with disciplined fiscal policy and if we earn and maintain confidence through our decision-making, then low interest rates and capital costs will do more to promote growth and create jobs than deficit spending could ever achieve." President Calvin Coolidge couldn't have said it better.

This year, it's the Republicans' turn. Texas Gov. George W. Bush is trying to pull his party to the center on social issues. Bush has an ingenious approach for dealing with conservatives. He endorses their positions ("I just don't believe in gay marriage") while embracing their adversaries ("I welcome gay Americans into my campaign"). Behold: the compassionate conservative.

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