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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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On the MoveOn Ad

I am moving out of town on Saturday - and so have not had much of an opportunity to blog, but I did want to comment on the ad that MoveOn.org ran in the New York Times. Politically, it was obviously pretty bad for congressional Democrats. It was something that was foisted upon them, and it was something that they paid a price for. I find it fascinating that an outside group could have such an effect on the Party of Jackson - and I took the whole affair as an example of how our political parties have fallen into decline, and how the consequence of this decline has led to a kind of civic incoherence.

Groups like MoveOn exist largely to serve functions that the political parties used to serve, but no longer serve. They used to be unimaginable - the Democratic Party once did all of the things that MoveOn now does. But over the last sixty years, the nature of our electoral politics have changed. The parties no longer serve so many functions. The functions still need to be served. And so up pop groups like MoveOn.

There are many reasons for this decline in the power of the parties. One reason is that the federal government has sought systematically to weaken them. The parties have been castigated as enemies of true democracy, and hamstrung accordingly. Were it not for the free association clause of the First Amendment, some good-government do-gooder types would have outlawed them years ago.

The consequence of this is, as I said, the out-sourcing of the functions that the parties used to serve. In many respects, this has been a good thing. Multiple points of access to our political system provide us all with a lot of benefits - but there are also a few drawbacks, some of which are quite significant. We saw one of them this week with the MoveOn ad. It was an ad that the Democrats did not endorse and would not have endorsed if given the chance. It was an ad that gave the GOP an opportunity to shift the debate - from talk about the course of the war to talk about the war's opponents. It was entertaining political theater, but it meant that the political conversation of the week was more incoherent than it should have been. Because of the ad, different people were talking about different things. There was far too much cross-talk. This is a shame, considering the importance of the conversation.

And this is a typical consequence of weakened parties replaced by multiple outside groups. All of these groups come to the conversation with slightly different points to make. And so, our political discussion is one in which there is frequently no consistent, coherent agenda. The conversation is quite unmanaged. Instead, everybody says whatever it is they want to say. While an absence of such an agenda gives more people an opportunity to say their peace, it reduces the chances that anything of real value will come from the discussion. Cross-talk rarely produces coherent policy outputs.

E.E. Schattschneider, one of the most insightful students of the political parties, once said that American democracy is unthinkable without them because they set the agenda of our government. Parties that are responsible set the agenda in a way that is relevant and coherent. That is, they make it so that our national political conversation regards issues that are of importance to citizens, and that can result in real solutions to these pressing problems. Weakened parties, like those of today, lack the capacity to set the agenda. One of the consequences of this is incoherence. Without the parties managing what gets said, everybody says whatever they want to say, and we have nothing but crosstalk. Politics reduces to an extended episode of Hardball. And, just like in Hardball, nothing of importance is ever accomplished. Everybody just yells across one another.

-Jay Cost