Policy Today magazine cover
August 9, 2006

Are today's parties driven purely by ideology, or do local interests still have a place on the agenda?

You're outraged, and you're not going to take it anymore. But to whom do you take your complaints about a deteriorating health care system, potholes on Main Street or failing schools in your community? The traditional mantra of "Call your congressman!" seems quaint in an age when the agenda seems ultimately driven by ideology and party interests. Still, experts and legislators alike insist that all politics are, and will remain, local.

Notwithstanding the inherent—and deliberately crafted—tension in our federal system, it's evident that the give-and-take between local and national interests has evolved significantly over the past few decades. And, as is often the case, the catalyst has more to do with the structural peculiarities of our government than ideology or personalities.

Who's steering the ship?

Most Americans can be forgiven for their confusion when it comes to the complexities of our federal model. In many ways, what we have today is a bizarre parody of what the Framers envisioned in the late 18th century. Thomas Jefferson would likely recoil at the concept of federally-mandated educational policies like No Child  Left Behind, and the dominance of today's political parties would leave Madison shaking his head. Regardless, the two-party system has been the default setting for American politics for generations, and it doesn't appear likely to change any time soon. The question, then, is whether or not our increased reliance on political parties comes at a cost to local interests.

Most members of Congress argue that local issues come first when deciding their individual agendas, but there are exceptions. When your very presence in Washington is due to a helping hand from the party brass, allegiances often waver.

The chosen ones

Many have argued that the phenomenon of "candidate picking" by party leaders in Washington has disconnected people from their representatives. Others say that the practice is purely natural. Regardless, national party leadership now has a much heavier hand in selecting candidates than it once did, according to Congressman David Price (D-NC). "Congressional candidates are heavily recruited now," he says. "Both parties have a lot to do with who is running and they weigh heavily on the nominee once they win the election."

How does this affect the local/national dynamic? By placing more emphasis on ideological cohesion than local representation. Many scholars trace the phenomenon back to Newt Gingrich's 1994 class. "I'm not the first one to observe this, but part of their allegiance—their marching in lockstep here—was a result of how they were recruited, funded and ultimately, how they won their elections," explains Price. "The nationalization of that election took place on many levels, including recruiting and financing candidates. As we can see, that ended up being kind of the wave of the future, with both parties doing more of that now."

But greater party discipline doesn't always come at the expense of local representation. "There's clearly a recent trend in both parties toward very high-powered campaign committees in both the House and the Senate. The trend toward stronger party leadership in the house is long-standing though. There are all sorts of reasons for it, and only part of them is related to electoral politics," explains Price. The respected Duke University political science professor should know; he literally wrote the book—The Congressional Experience—on the process.

The rise of the consultants

With a system that pushes representatives into a perpetual campaign cycle, many have argued that campaign consultants and other political operatives have seen their role strengthened as legitimate local concerns are drowned out by effective sound bites. That's not entirely true, however.

"They certainly have a degree of influence, but it will vary tremendously from member to member," notes Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK), himself a former university professor and campaign consultant. "At the end of the day, very few consultants will continue to have a stake in the issues. Overall, their maximum influence is usually during the first campaign."

Political consultants probably wield more power in state legislatures than in Congress. In states where term limits guarantee an atmosphere of continuous turmoil, two fringe groups—lobbyists and political consultants—see their influence wane and swell, respectively. "Term limits don't help lobbyists because lobbyists gain their influence by building relationships and doing it over time," says Cole. "But they increase the influence of the political consulting community enormously."

Hijacking our political parties?

So, local interests aren't being altogether subverted by campaign consultants or the demands of party leadership. But what about others? David Horowitz and Richard Poe's recent book, "The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party" and hundreds of distressed political blogs suggest that a small cadre of high-profile, well-funded individuals can shift a party platform and even play kingmaker in certain elections. "That sounds a little farfetched to me," scoffs Price. "Hillary Clinton is a draw because she's a very prominent person who is likely to run for President of the United States." Price notes that the top fundraisers in the house are mainly official party leaders. "It's not like there are a lot of free-floating members who have huge amounts of cash to shower upon marginal members," he says.

A sign of the times

Beyond anything else, advanced technology is probably the biggest thing to happen to local representation in the past 25-30 years. Constituents can now contact their legislators by mail, fax, phone, e-mail, instant messenger, SMS or in person. And while that greater connectivity would seem to benefit the local interest, it comes at a cost. "It fragments the policy process," explains Cole. "Ultimately, the more things you have to compromise with people on, the more difficult it is to come to an agreement."

Pressured from so many angles and under a crush of information from interest groups, constituents, party leaders and their own staffers, can members of Congress be blamed for toeing the party line? "We have a combination of local people who don't want to face reality and short-term political thinking on both party's behalf," says Cole. "In the end, national problems drive national policies. We're going to have to do some things in the future that aren't easy just to hold onto what we have."