DE GRACIA: Are political parties in America obsolete?

Do American voters really need political parties in the 21st Century? Photo: Does America still need political parties at the ballot box? (AP Photo Collage)

HONOLULU, May 3, 2013 – National security culture has sucked the wind out of the post-9/11 world. Nearly everything in mainstream American culture is perceived today through the lens of the ongoing Global War on Terror and its special circumstances. But could the way America votes in the future take a cue from evolving military theory?

After the success of Operation: Desert Storm and the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union in the same year, U.S. military strategists went back to their think tanks and began peering into academic crystal balls for visions of the coming 21st century. The end of the Cold War and the onset of rapid informatization of society led several theorists to believe that the Westphalian state was in diminution and that the traditional powers of political ideology, nationalism and state geography would be displaced by special interests, theology and ethnicity.

The conclusion these thinkers reached was that the U.S. military should prepare for these changes by undergoing what they termed a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). In a 1995 report, the Congressional Research Service wrote “a revolution in military affairs takes place when one of the participants in a conflict incorporates new technology, organization, and doctrine to the extent that victory is attained in the immediate instance, but more importantly, that any other actors who might wish to deal with that participant must match, or counter the new combination of technology, organization and doctrine in order to prevail.” RMA, it was argued, would be the end of strategic “big war” and lead to the rise of small, tactical “hyperwars” and numerous hotspot conflicts.

So do we have a Revolution in Political Affairs?

Much like the changes in the U.S. military, the way political candidates conduct campaigns (and the way their covering parties support them) in the year 2013 is a vastly removed experience from the late 20th century.

In the past, voters heavily relied on party identification as a means to determine which candidates most closely matched their ideological fit. Clear distinctions between major parties reinforced the electoral effectiveness of this cognitive strategy. Likewise, endorsements from major newspapers or reporting by mainstream broadcast media could often make or break the success of a party during an election year as the public relied on “big info” sources to determine their ballot choices.

In the year 2013, we have the mass proliferation of microconstituent relations in which elected incumbents and political challengers alike can communicate directly and frequently with not just populations but individuals through the use of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube and more.

Domestic mainstream media outlets likewise must compete with easily accessible international media competitors as well as an endless array of private bloggers and video channels, some of which have passionate fan bases that exceed traditional media. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously remarked during a congressional hearing, “We are in an information war and we are losing that war.”

The Era of You Don’t Need That

The result of this paradigm shift in mass communication technology is that populations can bypass the traditional electoral “gate guards” of approved information from political parties and brick-and-mortar big news organizations and develop opinions and relationships directly with candidates and movement leaders.

The technocratic mindset of the 21st century often asks questions like “Do we really need aircraft carriers?” A less ridiculous question would be “Do we need political parties?” (U.S. Navy File Photo)

Today, a relatively unknown person with no significant prior political exposure or national recognition can upload a thirty second rant on YouTube and in hours become an international sensation while the chairman of a political party can issue a press release that is largely ignored by all. A single photograph with a short text caption uploaded to Instagram can reach – and influence – more people in minutes than an expensive, full-page advertisement in the New York Times.

The power of the Information Age to override borders and negate notions of national sovereignty was witnessed overseas during the Arab Spring when revolutions began not with the shots of rifles but with tweets on Twitter and status updates on Facebook. If these kinds of revolutions can occur in states with relatively firm government controls of information and the Internet, the implications for America’s electoral system where there is relatively little censorship is significant.

Do political parties actually still matter in 2013? Do you need a Republican or Democrat Party when voters can directly develop a constituency relationship with political personalities and organize their own voting blocs through the Internet? Whole campaigns have been won and lost as a result of information spread through new media and candidates are devoting more and more emphasis to these methods to win elections.

Has a Revolution in Political Affairs begun? The increasing technocratic society we live in has given rise to an era of micromanagement and human determinalism where critics spend all day preaching to markets and governments alike that “You need this. You don’t need that.” We are living in an time of obsolescence witch hunts, as is to be expected from a corporate society that perpetually seeks the artificial perfection of the newest thing and symmetry through standardization of all. But perhaps today one of the biggest things America truly doesn’t need any more is political parties.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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