He admits it might sound “weird,” but a South Dakota political science professor thinks American politics might be suffering from too much democracy.
“As our politics have gotten more democratic, they’ve gotten worse,” said Jon Schaff, of Northern State University in Aberdeen.
He is the guest on a new episode of the Journal’s Mount Podmore political podcast. The 20-minute episode was released today on the Journal website, iTunes and other podcast apps.
In November, Schaff gave a talk titled “Why is American Politics So Screwed Up?” in Aberdeen. He gave a condensed version of the talk on the podcast, focusing on the eroding power of political parties as one cause of political dysfunction.
The nation’s formerly robust two-party system was a moderating force, Schaff said, because it forced “people who disagree on some things” to decide that they “agree enough that they should join one or the other party.”
But beginning with the progressive movement around the turn of the 20th century and culminating with the rise of primary elections and campaign-finance reforms in the 1970s, powered drained away from the parties.
The weakening of the parties was good in some ways, Schaff said, and counterproductive in others. Primaries caused parties to lose influence over their own candidates, he said, and campaign-finance laws caused candidates to rely more on special-interest groups as traditional methods of fundraising grew more regulated and difficult.
Schaff said the result is a modern political system in which candidates are more beholden to the extreme views of interest groups than the moderate views of traditional parties.
There are no easy fixes, Schaff said, especially since those who've taken power away from the parties are unlikely to give it back. But Schaff proposed two ideas.
He would like to see more caucuses used to choose candidates for national office and fewer primaries. He said caucuses tend to be moderated by “people who are a little more serious about maintaining a party coalition.”
He also thinks limits on individual contributions to candidates for federal offices should be significantly loosened or removed altogether, as long as strict transparency is enforced.
“Money would start to flow to candidates and to political parties instead of interest groups,” Schaff said. “And it is easier for us to hold candidates and political parties accountable than it is interest groups.”