For the first time in nearly a century, we have witnessed the stunning spectacle of a Republican Party so fractured it has struggled in multiple rounds of balloting to choose a speaker of the House. This Washington drama reflects larger structural forces that are changing American democracy.
Revolutions in communications and technology have transformed our democracy in more profound ways than just the more familiar issues of misinformation, hate speech and the like. They have enabled individual members of Congress to function, even thrive, as free agents. They have flattened institutional authority, including that of the political parties and their leaders. They have allowed individuals and groups to more easily mobilize and sustain opposition to government action and help fuel intense factional conflicts within the parties that leadership has greater difficulty controlling than in the past.
Through cable television and social media, even politicians in their first years in office can cultivate a national audience. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered Congress, she already had nine million followers on the major social media platforms, more than four times the number for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an order of magnitude more than any other Democrat in the House. Recognizing the power social media provides, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a provocateur in the opposition to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid, has said he wants to be the A.O.C. of the right.
The internet has also generated an explosion of small-donor donations, which enables politicians to raise large amounts of money without depending on party funds or large donors.
Despite being stripped of her committee assignments, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, raised more than $3 million in small donations in the first quarter of 2021, a staggering haul for a new member of Congress. National attention on cable and social media reward the provocative, the outrageous and the ideological extremes. Representative Elise Stefanik of New York transformed herself from a moderate to a “warrior” for Donald Trump, a move that helped engender a torrent of small donations.
Control over committee assignments was once a powerful tool party leaders had to encourage members to follow the party line and punish those who did not. Now major legislation is often developed in a more centralized process among a small group of party leaders, rather than through the committee process, which has made committee assignments less valuable. In addition, members no longer need to serve on important committees to gain national profiles or attract campaign funds and, with modern communications tools easily available to individual members, can still readily mobilize opposition to proposals. Those challenging Mr. McCarthy for speaker know they run the risk of being punished in their committee assignments, should he eventually prevail. But that threat no longer carries the weight it once did in an era of free-agent politicians.
Many members also benefit from being in increasingly safe seats, which leaves them unconcerned about general elections and encourages playing to more ideologically committed primary voters. The power to gain a national audience and raise more than enough funds through small donations has also encouraged the rise of politicians who are in the game more for the attention and opportunities it provides than for governing. The risk of cable television hosts turning on them is a much greater concern than failing to get particular committee assignments.
That the simple first act of a new House — the majority party choosing a speaker — is so fraught exemplifies the difficulties that political parties now face in being able to manage themselves, let alone govern. Even Mr. McCarthy’s concessions to his hard-core opponents in his party made little difference. Either because of personal dislike and distrust, or because they want to demonstrate their power to take down a potential speaker, they maintained their defiance.
This particular battle is one sign of the new world of political fragmentation now confronting nearly all democracies. Political fragmentation is the dispersion of political power into so many different hands and centers of power that governing effectively becomes far more difficult.
Economic and cultural conflicts drive this fragmentation, but it has been enabled by the communications revolution. In the proportional-representation systems of Western Europe, the traditionally dominant large political parties have splintered into a kaleidoscope of smaller parties. In the United States, the two major parties have been internally split, with leadership having less capacity to overcome those divisions.
The Democratic Party shows one way parties can overcome these fragmenting forces that threaten to pull them apart: the specter of major electoral defeat. In the current moment of unity, it is easy to forget the bitter conflicts between more moderate and progressive wings that the party managed to overcome only in the last year.
During those months of internal party bickering, threats and name calling, public approval ratings for President Biden and Congress plummeted. It took the near-death experience of 2021 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey for progressives to give up their demands and permit the infrastructure bill to pass on its own, eventually followed with an Inflation Reduction Act that had been significantly reduced in scope. One advantage the Democrats had was having control of the White House, which helps discipline a party since members see their electoral fates tied to the president’s success. Fewer of their members also seem more interested in performative politics than legislating.
As Mr. McCarthy’s bid for speaker highlights, the incentives for opposition and the ease of mobilizing it — for policy as well as party control — have become enhanced. Marshaling collective power has always been more difficult, but it remains the essential component for delivering effective government. The emerging forces of fragmentation will continue to bedevil the leaders of both political parties, as they do parties throughout democracies today.
Richard H. Pildes, a professor at New York University’s School of Law, is the author of the casebook “The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process.”
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