Are parties in decline? Is the rise in candidate-centred politics demonstrating the ability of political parties to adapt in response to perceived weaknesses? Discuss.
Throughout Western democracies, political parties have lost their appeal. Membership of major parties has declined dramatically, while our strength of party affiliation is continually decreasing. The ‘mass party’ which emerged as the dominant actor of the twentieth century and peaked during the 1950s were initially the focal point of democratic participation, now they have memberships reduced to a quarter or less of what they had a few decades ago. The decline in political parties, in conjunction with accessibility of mass media, has led to the deterioration of internal party campaigning. As such, the party professional with their polling, surveys and other aspects of systematic elections research have replaced the party worker as the primary method of gathering campaign information. In the United States, political parties have responded to such weakness by utilising candidate centred politics, in which candidates mobilise their own electorate. Whilst the decline of political parties is prevalent within Britain and Australia, these electorates have not adapted to this movement away from the party organisation and continue to vote according to party-orientation as candidates are unable to gain their own base of support with voters placing party policies and national issues over candidate value.
By the 1950s, a portrait of the American electorate was drawn that emphasised ‘the absence of ideology or specific issues as political motivations for the American voter and the overwhelming importance of a sense of affiliation with party for presidential and congressional voting.’ Partisan identification was the anchor of stability for the political system; however, following the impact of short-term events during the 1960s, such as the Vietnam War, there was a decline in party loyalty as the American political system was weakened. Such decline is indicated by the substantial decrease in voter turnout, the sharp rise in split-ticket voting and an increase in volatility within the electorate. As the political parties’ ability to polarise opinion weakened and voters were set politically adrift, the candidates themselves had to fill the power vacuum. The American electorate had entered an era labelled by Frank Sorauf as the candidate-centred campaign in which ‘the party professional had given way to a different type of professional- the advertising and public relations man, the management specialist, the media specialist, the pollster- who performs services for candidates based on the skills he has acquired in non-political fields.’. The party, as Sorauf claims, no longer played the main role as the organising intermediary in the campaigns as ‘candidates increasingly mobilised their own electorates.’ As political party organisations became less important in mobilising voters, and as voters became less inclined to vote a straight party ticket, candidates began to turn to professionals who possessed the skills to market candidates through other media. Consequently, the primary factor in the rise of candidate centred campaigning is the atrophy of political party organisations within the U.S. Since the early twentieth century, there has been a gradual decline in the control exercised by party organisations over the most important aspects of the electoral process- candidate selections, issue positions, setting of strategies and allocation of campaign resources. The new politics of campaigning have arisen because of changes in the American political scene that have weakened traditional party structures and strengthened the personality of the candidate. Once powerful party organisations, such of those at their height during the 1950s and 1960s, which mobilised a pre-existing base of voters behind a party ticket, had now given way to a new politics dominated by...
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