On the eve of the California primary, I was chatting one of my high school friends about the insanity of this election. At one point in the chat, she lamented the existence of parties within the U.S. electoral system. While we didn’t spend much time discussing the costs and benefits of parties, I definitely understood where she was coming from: It is incredibly frustrating that we have such limited options regarding who we can vote for, and it’s even more frustrating that the two major parties are lining up behind such lackluster candidates. That being said, I think there is no real alternative to the party system. The number of parties and the power they possess can certainly be changed, but their existence in a democratic system is all but inevitable.
Why is this the case? Well, to answer that, we need to understand why political parties exist in the first place. Parties first started to emerge in the early democracies/liberal autocracies of the late 19th century. In particular, Germany and Britain saw the emergence of powerful parties as their legislative bodies expanded in scope and power. This was not always the case, however. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, most “democracies” had legislatures with only limited prerogatives, and these legislatures were largely composed of monied bourgeoisie who were uninterested in the demands and desires of the masses. During this period, most parties were ad hoc and organized around tradition and social and professional stratification. Politicians formed alliances with like-minded aristocrats, but these political coalitions were far less structured and polarized than in modern politics. Moreover, the political system was much more clientelistic because people didn’t use government power to push the country in a new direction, they used it to enrich themselves. After all, with people voting for individuals instead of parties, it was far easier for politicians to bribe supporters for their votes. Because voters weren’t asked to support a particular ideology, they just voted for whoever would help them the most; in other words, they were supporting candidates instead of ideas. This was true in America as much as in Europe. For example, Andrew Jackson famously filled the bureaucracy with his supporters not because they were competent bureaucrats or necessarily represented a cohesive ideological party, but because they supported him and demanded political favors in return. Thus, the period of early democratization was characterized by graft, clientelism, and very loose political coalitions. If strongly ideological groups did exist, they usually only coalesced around very specific and narrow issues. Thus, you might have a “free-trade bloc” or a “fund the navy faction,” but there were never large parties with a broad and diverse platform.
This changed, however, in the early 1900s. By this point, democratization had advanced significantly, and while there was still no universal suffrage, the franchise had been significantly expanded beyond the relatively limited voting rights of the early 19th century. Thus, “catch-all” parties began to emerge as the old aristocratic networks were seen to be too ossified and disorganized to seriously compete with the new and innovative parties that mobilized public support. The looser, more ephemeral networks were simply unable to keep up and were thus forced to morph into catch-all parties that brought in wide-ranging views and interests. These parties became, in essence, a brand. They were built around grassroots backing, and they were thus able to count on wide and energetic support in elections. However, their supporters were not necessarily an ideologically unified group. Indeed, in the early period of party formation, parties were highly decentralized with organizers and bosses working at the local level to generate support and push voters to turn out. The broad and diverse platforms offered by these catch-all parties also limited the sense of unity and undermined cohesiveness. In short, the ideological homogeneity of the party was secondary to winning elections.
Of course, this did not remain the case for long. Over time, the new catch-all parties became just as ossified as the previous clientelistic networks of the aristocratic legislators. Instead of the organizers and small town party leaders being largely autonomous agents, they became pipelines through which party elites transmitted messages to supporters. After all, a loose and raucous group of supporters is great for drumming up support and getting people to vote, but it often leads to rash and ill-conceived policy. Just look at the Bernie Bros and Tea Partiers of today. Thus, as these new catch-all parties began to win elections and hold actual power, they tended to moderate because they understood that the extremist positions of their most vocal supporters often proved to be untenable. The elite power-holders of the party became the de facto leaders, and they used the organizers and old grassroots networks to communicate party ideology and strategy. In essence, the roles reversed. Instead of the broad coalitions of interest groups uniting at the grassroots level to lift the new catch-all parties into power, it was the small and powerful elite that controlled the direction and message of the party. Nevertheless, parties’ platforms remained broad enough that they were still able to capture large segments of the population.
This was an imperfect solution to the problems that existed with the loose aristocratic networks. After all, it forced diverse and disparate interest groups to cohabitate within the same party. (This dynamic is still present today: Libertarians – a group that supports almost completely unrestricted civil liberties – resides in the same party as evangelicals – a group that wants strict regulation of social practices based on religious law.) Nevertheless, these catch-all parties did allow previously disenfranchised groups to be represented in the corridors of power, at least partially ameliorating the democratic deficit that existed during the early period of democratization. Moreover, while specific issues and policies were often ignored, broad philosophies and core ideologies began to define political parties. Indeed, these ideological beliefs were how parties signaled to would-be voters that they deserved support. In essence, parties engaged in what is referred to as “interest aggregation.” They created a large group of loosely aligned people and unified them into one cohesive party, therefore allowing these diverse interests to aggregate their political power and thus exert more control over the political direction of the country. This system still exists today, and it defines how both Democrats and Republicans operate. While voters don’t always get the exact politicians and policies that they want, they usually get party leaders who are close enough to their position to be acceptable. Moreover, they get power. They are no longer just one person in a small town, they are a member of an organized and cohesive party that wields immense power.
Of course, not every party is a catch-all party. There are some parties, like the Greens, that are relatively limited in the issues that they care about. Yes, they have a fairly far left platform, but they ultimately care about the environment, and that’s about it. Indeed, when one looks at European coalition governments in which the Greens are a member, they usually hold cabinet positions in areas like Energy, Interior, and Environment, leaving the economic and foreign policy ministries to the other coalition partners. However, in the American system, catch-all parties are the only ones that can succeed because the single-member plurality (SMP) electoral system used in the U.S. ensures that there are only ever two competitive parties. Obviously, parties cannot generate major support by focusing on fringe issues; they need to have a broad and all-encompassing platform that engenders broad support from a number of interest groups. Thus, effective parties are forced to be moderate, catch-all parties. If you are upset with your current choices, don’t blame the parties. It’s not their fault that they are forced to embrace divergent and wide-ranging interest groups to stay competitive. Instead, blame the electoral system. That is the real culprit; the SMP system is what limits us to two, relatively mundane (though increasingly polarized) parties. If you want change, advocate for electoral reform. I, for one, believe that we should adopt a parliamentary form of government with elections based on the German model. Evan, by contrast, thinks presidentialism isn’t all that bad, but that our electoral system should be changed from SMP to a single transferable vote system. Ultimately, the specific path to reform is debatable; that we need it is not.
Parties are a necessary evil of effective democratic systems. They provide order and discipline to what would otherwise be an unruly and unproductive process. (Just imagine hundreds of legislators trying to agree on legislation without a party hierarchy organizing and directing them. It would be complete and utter chaos.) Instead of abolishing parties, therefore, we should instead focus on abolishing our two-party system. That way, while we will still have to live with the existence of annoying and often myopic parties, at least we’ll have more options from which to choose.