The appearance of unconventional figures in politics is one reflection of this trend. Strong party machines tend to produce dull and forgettable candidates. A candidate selected by a party machine might have to tell voters that “I am not a crook;” such a candidate would probably not need to make a television commercial to explain to voters that “I am not a witch.” Populist politicians tend to be more flamboyant; they have to be able to mobilize their followers. From Jesse Ventura to Al Franken and Sarah Palin, we are seeing more politicians whose ability to command attention and mobilize the base counts for more than their ability to rise patiently through the ranks of a party machine.

Our weak party structures also contribute to one of the worst features of contemporary American politics: the rise of political dynasties. While these were not unknown in the country’s past, ever since the Kennedy clan made its bid for permanent political power, we have seen more sons and daughters of politicians try to carry on the family trade. In general, organized political parties try to fight that trend; advancement in politics is given to the loyal as a reward for long service, not to glamorous upstarts as a reward for their genes.

Family candidates flourish in an era of weak parties; the high name recognition and celebrity status of political heirs combines with a ready made fundraising network. Daddy can make the introductions and the calls.

While I cannot call the age of Boss Tweed a golden age of American political virtue, populism, plutocracy and dynasticism have traditionally been seen as signs that a republic is in trouble. The rise of populism means that a gap has opened up between the leadership elite of a society and ordinary voters. Alienated from a system that is no longer seen to be working, populist voters believe that the system and the establishment are the enemy. Clearly, an establishment which allows such a climate to flourish is an establishment without the skills or the character to lead.