How political parties have changed over time

How political parties have changed over time

A number of factors have led to political parties getting weaker. Stanford political scientist Didi Kuo explains why and what implications this could have for 2024 and beyond.
Politics illustration Image credit: Claire Scully Claire Scully

This story originally appeared in the Stanford Report.

As Americans head to the polls this year, a growing number of voters are disgruntled by national politics and their elected officials. Survey after survey has found that Americans are increasingly falling out of favor with the country’s two political parties – a trend likely to continue in what Stanford political scientist Didi Kuo is describing as a “brutal” campaign season.

“Americans are already exhausted by it, even though it has barely begun,” said Kuo, a center fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

Like other democratic institutions, political parties are reckoning with a crisis of public confidence.

“Political parties remain critical to organizing democracy but they are beleaguered,” said Kuo.

Stanford Report sat down with Kuo to learn more about the discord between political parties, candidates, and voters and what these fissures may mean for the 2024 election.

No longer gatekeepers

Kuo sees several factors that have led to political parties’ waning support among the American public, including reforms made in the early 1970s.

Until then, political parties used to have more power in selecting the party nomination for presidency.

But after Hubert Humphrey secured the Democratic Party nomination in 1968 for president of the United States without ever taking part in any of the country’s primary races, changes to the presidential nomination process were made to give voters more power in deciding who will represent the party at the general election.

“Political parties used to be gatekeepers in politics. Now, voters have a much bigger say in determining who’s going to be the presidential candidate,” said Kuo.

Those changes made it possible for Donald Trump, an insurgent candidate who had neither formal membership in the Republican Party nor any previous military or government experience to secure the nomination.

Over recent years, incumbents have faced challengers in primary elections who often tout their lack of government experience as a strength rather than a weakness.

“The party seems to have very little leverage determining who gets to run under its party label,” Kuo said.

This makes the party vulnerable to outsiders and radical candidates, and also undermines the party’s ability to choose candidates who share the party’s priorities. The party has few ways to manage factional conflict or vet candidates for office when it cannot serve as a gatekeeper in politics.

More susceptible to outside influences

Another change Kuo sees as transformative to the current political landscape was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 – also known as the McCain-Feingold Act – that limited financial contributions people can make to political parties and campaigns.

“That had the consequence of expanding the type of financing that donors would pursue outside of the party through 501(c)(4)s or super PACs,” Kuo said.

In addition, the ruling by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case equating corporate, political communication to that of an individual has also accelerated new ways for political power to take shape.

“What we see is a world not just of parties trying to vie for seats in the legislature or candidates, but also of these external party organizations that sometimes are connected to the party and sometimes not,” Kuo said. “These groups can run their own ads, drum up support for their own issues, and collect a lot of money, sometimes undisclosed, on behalf of specific candidates and parties.”

Kuo thinks these party-like organizations will be particularly important in 2024. “Many groups are mobilizing voters around specific issues, such as abortion rights, while others may mobilize for and against specific candidates, like the faction of ‘Never-Trumpers’ from 2020,” Kuo said.

A growing appeal of populist candidates

Another issue Kuo is paying attention to is the rise of populist, extremist candidates, a trend occurring both in the U.S. and across the globe.

Kuo, alongside her colleagues at FSI, have examined how after the financial crisis of 2008, an increasing number of voters on both the left and right have become frustrated – aggrieved, even – by their democratic and economic institutions.

“One of the things people were turning toward were populist candidates who claimed that the entire system was rigged,” Kuo said.

Kuo added: “2024 is going to be a really difficult year for Congress. It’ll be a real test of whether or not extremists can still outperform moderate Republicans.”

New ways to mobilize

The advent of digital and social media has had a transformative effect on how political parties and candidates can rally their base. In addition, data analytics afforded by these new tools has also helped candidates build targeted and effective communication strategies – all without the backing of a political party.

An example of that is Stacey Abrams, who led a galvanizing campaign to flip her home state of Georgia from Republican to Democrat in the 2020 election.

“Stacey Abrams had a massive organizational, multiyear effort in Georgia because she was convinced that you could turn the state blue, but the party was not behind those efforts,” Kuo said. “It was driven at a local level.”

Meanwhile, the same tools that have helped candidates reach people at the local level are also being used to find support beyond their precincts.

“There’s empirical evidence showing that new candidates who come into the political process to challenge an incumbent often have a lot of support from outside their district,” said Kuo. “It’s easier now for people to find candidates they support and circumvent a traditional party approach to cultivating a candidate.”

No longer reflecting what voters want or believe

When Americans are surveyed about how they feel on different policy issues, they are actually not that divided. Rather, it is the political class that has become more polarized, leading voters to feel alienated from their party.

“People feel distant from parties more and more,” Kuo said.

Increasingly, people are shunning a party label entirely and identifying as independent. Here too, political scientists see changes among how independents behave as well.

The conventional wisdom was that independent voters were people who didn’t like labels but were still solidly Democrats or Republicans, Kuo explained.

“Now, there is new evidence showing that people who call themselves ‘independent’ are turned off by the party system and see both parties as corrupt. They are very cynical about the role of special interests,” she added. “They don’t think their vote matters. When people develop this attitude, that’s more of a rejection of the party system. Many voters may feel unenthusiastic about another Biden-Trump contest and disillusioned with both parties. However, there was record turnout in 2020, and hopefully cynicism will not keep people away from the polls when the stakes of the race are so high.”

Political parties have gotten weaker

Overall, these changes have culminated in political parties becoming weaker.

“Parties have always had this tension between being run by a set of leaders who make decisions and also being democratic,” said Kuo.

Over the year to come, Kuo expects tensions to continue – not only among political parties but with other democratic institutions as well.

“I think there will continue to be a big tension between what the Supreme Court rules on things like democracy and rights and what people actually want,” Kuo said, adding how this has already been seen at the state level where voters have taken a collective stand against issues like restrictive abortion measures.

“Hopefully, there’s some way in which democracy can serve as a corrective to some policy areas where people feel as if a majority opinion is not represented.”

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