The decline of political party power

The primary system, which took power out of smoke-filled rooms and handed it to voters, was a self-inflicted wound from which party bosses have never recovered.

Once upon a time, earmarks and other perks encouraged partisan loyalty up and down the food chain. But party leaders stripped themselves of these prerogatives, like soldiers tearing off their stripes.

As party power has declined, the relative strength of special interests has grown. Outside groups often have more money and flexibility than the parties.

And yet, news of the parties’ demise hasn’t really reached the voters. The ranks of people describing themselves as independents have been swelling for decades, at least partly on the mistaken belief that breaking from the parties is a bold act of rebellion, when in reality they’re kicking a dead donkey — or elephant.

The real source of power in politics resides in personalities, not parties. It’s been hard to see this until recently because the personalities of old were career politicians — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama — hiding behind the partisan light show like the man behind the Wizard of Oz.