The Long Decline of Political Parties

A couple weeks back, I received some troubling news from the California Moderate Party. After three years of toiling in the weeds of The Golden State’s political fringes, Ash Roughani finally decided to throw in the towel on his latest effort to establish a genuine, grassroots third party.

As a Democratic activist, it would seem odd for me to lament the loss of what could only have amounted to another siphon of progressive votes at a time when the left is so fractured that we can’t capitalize on our own victories. But the failure of the Moderate Party is just another symptom of the slow death of the political party system as a whole.

The pros and cons of this shift can be debated ad nauseum, and I’d be happy to have that debate, but this fact remains: Over the past 16 years, political party registration in California has declined by more than 10 percent, and voters who “Decline to State” a party preference have more than doubled.

Neither major party has been immune to the trend. Democratic registration has declined by nearly 4 percent; Republicans by 6.5 percent. Three California counties have “DTS” registration rates over 25 percent, including Santa Clara at a tick over 28 percent.

A younger generation is coming of age, freed from social constructs and taboos, gleaning knowledge from Google instead of textbooks. Social networks, as opposed to million-dollar ad campaigns, shape their opinions. And they don’t care whether you have an ass or an elephant on your direct mail piece. All they want to know is what have you done for them lately.

This is a generation for whom free agency is a way of life. They’re used to floating from island to island, obeying every whim that strikes their fancy, and most importantly making up their own minds. This isn’t the first we’ve seen of it, either. It’s a bloodless revolution that’s been waged for decades, right under the noses of the cognoscenti who act like their world could never come crashing down around them—the fat cats who think they’re too big to fail.

Boy, are they in for a surprise when the oil runs dry and the water runs out. At that point, a 21 percent DTS registration rate will be the least of their concerns. And when the spit hits the fan, those who wave the partisan banner will have to decide which brand comes first: Country or Party?

In the meantime, there’s always the option to join the We Like Women Political Party. Seriously. You can Google it.

Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and a proud native of San José. He is currently running for a seat on the Santa Clara County Democratic Party Central Committee.


  1. I’m working on something… Not going to say what right now (hint, tech based) but when it’s finished, the entire notion of parties will no longer be a factor in the minds of voters.

  2. It’s not correct to say that “political parties” have declined in California.

    SOME political parties have declined. Witness the total ineffectiveness of the Republic “brand” doing anything useful to elect Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina despite tens of millions of dollars of campaign spending.

    But another political party has quietly emerged to dominate the political landscape.  In fact, that party is SO dominant that California is legitimately a “one-party state”.  The power of the dominant party is so great that party movers and shakers are embarrassed to even call attention to it.  So, it remains “the party with no name”.

    The “dominant party” used to be thought of as the “Democrat” party.  But the constraints on a political party to make at least some pretense of civility and restraint became too much of a burden on the party’s movers and shakers, that they quietly and descreetly began thinking and acting as if they were “beyond” and “above” quaint and obsolete partisanship.  They were not a “party” but a “new way of doing politics”.

    The best way to think of this “new way of doing politics/party with no name” is as a kind of a political “flash mob” based on flexible political tribalism.  To hell with high minded political principle, to hell with the public interest, to hell with the good of society, to hell with the children.  The objective of this party is simply to organize tribal war parties for raids on the taxpayers and looting the public treasury.

  3. This essay preaches “the slow death of the political party system as a whole,” with the blame or praise placed squarely on the younger generation “coming of age, freed from social constructs and taboos, gleaning knowledge from Google instead of textbooks.”

    Unfortunately the poster’s link to statistics does not provide evidence that it is younger registered voters who are eschewing partisan labels.  It is voters over 50 who have had several decades to notice how both major parties have failed the nation and the state in terms of social, taxation, budgetary, and educational policies.  Neither party has recovered its stability following the defeat in Vietnam and the social revolution of the sixties.

    But I’ll bet the largest drop-off in partisan registrations is among the 50-and-up set which is the voter cohort that provided the most support for the new voting system of non-partisan primaries for state officials, congressional candidates, and state legislators beginning this June 5.  The credit for that vote would go to the over-50s because they vote the most.

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