The Evolution of American Political Parties

Are we on the verge of a major shift in the way our political parties operate in this country?

Jill Lapore has published a postmortem of the 2016 New Hampshire Primary, and perhaps of the political parties that we have known in recent years. Her basic point is that political parties have been with us since the early days of the Republic, and have undergone rapid change several times, in response (mostly) to new forms of communication.

The dates she cites are often arbitrary; evolution (as she admits) is a gradual process. Still, she provides a good synopsis of how rapidly new technologies have changed the way messages are delivered. Obvious examples include the introduction of new printing presses, which made newspapers cheaper and thus more accessible, the arrival of the telegraph, the beginning of the radio era, and so on. There were also more gradual, but equally dramatic, developments, such as rising literacy rates.

In addition to technological and social shifts, there were political movements, seemingly always fueled by an impulse to remove power from the élites and spread it around to the average voters. This year’s election cycle follows both of these trends, with the wide use of smartphones and social media marking the new technology, and “The Party Crashers” embodying yet another shift away from the party élites. Lapore says “this may be the first Presidential-primary season with free Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere.”

I’ve been politically aware nearly all my life, with periods of activism sandwiched around the years I spent getting an education and having a career. I was heavily involved with the Civil Rights and the Vietnam War protest movements in the 1960s and 70s. I became reengaged with politics after I moved back to Massachusetts (my home state) in the 1990s.

My earliest memory of having an opinion about an election was in the 1956 Presidential race. I was shocked to see a bumper sticker on the car of a friend’s parents, advocating a vote for Adlai Stevenson. “How unpatriotic!” I thought, since Dwight Eisenhower was The President. How could you not support The President? Those were the days of the Red Scare, when we learned to hide under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack, and people built and stocked underground bomb shelters where they could hang out long enough to let the radioactive fallout dissipate or drift away. And Eisenhower built on the booming postwar economy (when the top marginal income tax rate was 90%) by constructing the interstate highway system that now bears his name. The purpose of that system was not to facilitate commerce, but to enable the military to move missiles rapidly around the country to fend off the expected Russian invasion.

Then came the the election of 1960, and by then I had become somewhat more sophisticated. I watched the first televised debates, and strongly favored John Kennedy over Richard Nixon. There was something (beyond the 5 o’clock shadow) about Nixon that I found troubling, and I later learned that my instincts were correct when I met Jerry Voorhis and heard his stories about how Nixon had beaten him with dirty tricks to win Nixon’s first political office, in 1946.

Not long after JFK was elected, we experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, and suddenly it appeared that those bomb shelters might come in handy after all. It was a scary time. On the lighter side, it was the first time I appeared on national TV. One of the networks was filming a special about how America was reacting to the Crisis, and one segment took place in Stockbridge, the archetypal New England town made iconic by the paintings of Norman Rockwell. I was asked to take part in a staged stroll on a crosswalk as the film crew panned Main Street.

Much later, I became involved in the “New Media” aspects of political campaigning, which was right up my alley, since my career in finance had been based on the use of sophisticated computer models. I supported and worked on the campaigns of Howard Dean, Deval Patrick, and Barack Obama. These campaigns were all heavily reliant on new technologies to reach out to voters, and all three of them were considered unlikely outsiders when they started their campaigns.

This year, these themes seem to be playing out again. So far, many of the predictions of the “experts” have not come to pass; voters are an ornery lot. It’s certainly a fascinating process to watch.

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