Everett Ehrlich notes that decreasing information costs --i.e. the Internet-- now enable outside groups to do what only big political parties used to be able to do--i.e. organize effective national campaigns. And that's before you consider the effects of the McCain-Feingold law, which Ehrlich doesn't mention but which makes circumventing the parties not only possible but imperative. (See, e.g. Edsall's article on the "shadow" Democrats in the same edition of WaPo.)
Ehrlich draws some pithy conclusions from the parties' obsolescence:
For all Dean's talk about wanting to represent the truly "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the paradox is that he is essentially a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party. Other candidates -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark -- are competing to take control of the party's fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value, as part of his marketing strategy.
Regarding the Kaus / Feiler Faster Theory on political trends, momentum, news cycles, Kaus says:
In short, political trends that used to last for weeks now last for hours. It's like watching the 1984 campaign on fast forward, except that the calendar still drags on into early June, meaning there's room for plot twists we could only dream of in 1984. To be commensurate with the speeded-up news cycle, the calendar would probably have to be compressed even more. Maybe we could have had the whole thing wrapped up by St. Patrick's Day!
Of course, voters may not entirely be keeping pace with Trends 1 and 2. Are they really as well-informed and conscientious as before--swooning, having second thoughts, rebelling, coming "back home," and so forth, just as they used to, only more rapidly? Can you keep dividing time into smaller and smaller bits without bumping up against the limitations of the human brain?
I would read James Gleick's book Faster and come up with some conclusions on that question. But I've got to get this up on the Web quickly before somebody beats me.
I did read Gleick's book. But I sped-read it and didn't retain much. Ha. No. It was ok. I think the big flaw in Kaus' thinking -- and most pundits are guilty -- is that everyone is paying attention to everything. Even folks like my dad, who watch the nightly news every 'cycle', don't know that Bush's turkey was plastic or Lieberman is moving pro-war to distinguish himself from Dean.
The news cycle is sped up, there is more maneuvering and counter-maneuvering, but the vast nation of voters is only half-paying attention, maybe catching bits here and there, and in general not hanging on every soundbite. I think there may be some kind of fluid dynamics analogy: if you have two kids having a waterfight in the ocean, the further out you go the less the tide is affected.
For those scoring at home: Politicians and handlers = waterfight kids, Voters = tide / waves