It is perhaps the central irony of our politics today: We live in an incredibly polarized and partisan moment, but our political parties have never been weaker.
As odd as it sounds, political parties in democracies have an important anti-democratic function. Traditionally, the parties shaped the choices put to voters. Long before voters decided anything in the primary or general elections, party bosses worked to groom good candidates, weed out bad ones, organize interests, and frame issues.
In the modern era, the story of party decline usually begins in the aftermath of the 1968 presidential election. The move toward primaries and the democratic selection of delegates took power away from the bosses.
After Watergate, there were more reforms, curbing the ability of the parties to raise and spend money freely. This led to the rise of political-action committees, which raise cash independent of the formal party structure. As Senator Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said during the floor debate over the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill in 2001: “We haven’t taken a penny of money out of politics. We’ve only taken the parties out of politics.”
Outside groups — the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood, unions, etc. — often do more to effectively organize voters around single issues or personalities than the parties do. The Kochs, Tom Steyer, George Soros, and Sheldon Adelson serve as party bosses, only outside the parties.
Technology is another, less obvious force siphoning power from the parties. For instance, as political historian Michael Barone has noted, the telephone dealt a grievous blow to political conventions, where insiders have outsize power.