In a season characterized by some of the most bitter partisanship in living memory, it would seem easy to make the case against political parties.
Of course, this particular season, the intensity of the conflict has much to do with the candidates at the top of the respective tickets, not just the elephant or donkey they represent. But whatever the merits of trickle-down economics, we certainly are witnessing trickle-down politics in a particularly vicious way.
Couple this reality with the significant trend toward voter registrations of the “no party affiliation” variety, and one reasonably might ask, “Do we really need parties?”
The answer, as a survey of our own nation’s history or that of any other country that has aspired to representative democracy makes clear, is a firm, if perhaps regretful, “yes.”
One of the great ironies of the American Adventure is how early and decisively our words and our actions conflicted. The same individuals who participated in the drafting of what would be known as the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, also passed into law the Alien and Sedition Act that set profound and self-serving limits on freedom of speech and the press. And the same individuals who wrote passionately about the “mischiefs of faction” and despised partisan machinations quickly formed political parties once the Constitution came into force.
The former paradox reflects, in my opinion, the humanity and self-interestedness of people whose vision, in thoughtful moments, was greater than their reach in the day-to-day struggles of governing. The second, however, reflects the practical realities of representative democracy even on the scale of the original 13 colonies.
In the absence of legislative parties, assembling a majority to support any act of legislation before a large legislature is a tedious if not impossible task. There simply are too many people to court one-by-one, too many adjustments to make in too many provisions of the bill, too many deals to strike.
We might wish to imagine that noble women and men could assemble together in a legislature to debate the merits of legislation, then decide based on the merits. But legislation is not philosophy; the merits have to do both with the broad policy ideas and the details of implementation. Noble-minded disagreements over these matters are inevitable. Less nobly, each bill offers countless opportunities to harm, protect or advantage one segment of society as compared to others. Representatives, because they are representatives, will fight over these opportunities as well.
Parties formed to facilitate this process, to establish substantial factions that could be moved like armies across the legislative battlefield. Party discipline, in the form of rewards to the faithful and consequences for the turncoats, became the necessary means by which these factions were held together. And people learned to play along, recognizing that there is strength in numbers and rewards for those who serve well in the ranks.
These simple realities of human behavior and the legislative process have meant that, in every legislature of any substantial size, something that looks, sounds and smells like political parties has emerged and thrived.
All of these observations apply readily to Congress and to our state legislatures. They would not have to apply to candidates for president or governor, individuals who have at least a degree of autonomous power once elected. That parties elevate a selected member to pursue the executive office is a reflection of the parties’ recognition of the importance of these offices and of the remarkable political payoffs that await the party that controls the executive mansion. That they struggle mightily over both who their standard bearer is and how he/she is packaged is a testament to the impact the top of the ticket can have on the fortunes of legislative candidates down ballot.
This is not to say that we are stuck with the two dominant parties we have (and a host of lesser, interesting, but electorally ineffective parties). It is to suggest that we are stuck with political parties and, as a result, with at least some degree of partisanship.
But we can, and have, pushed back against the drive to turn everything into a party fight, every office a party prize, every policy a partisan payoff. There are places where parties are not necessary and are, indeed, destructive. The typical municipality is the classic example. I’ll share why that is true later this week.