Aren’t political parties bad for democracy? Shouldn’t smart voters stay away from parties altogether? No and no.
Lots of smart people have pointed out the problems that political parties can create. James Madison, for example, worried that factions would cause officials to decide important questions based on narrow interests rather than the public good. George Washington (whose cabinet members had already started the first political parties) really lit into them in his Farewell Address. He said parties incentivized misinformation, biased administration, foreign interference in domestic affairs, Civil War, and eventually, despotism. Gulp.
But the thing is that on balance, political parties are good for democracy. You’d rather live in a democracy with functioning, competitive political parties than without them.
Political parties do four really useful things for democracies and the people who live in them:
They Help Set the Agenda
In every legislature, some group controls the agenda and gets to decide what bills actually get considered for passage. If you think policy is important, you should care about who establishes that agenda. Every democratically elected legislature has a process for setting the agenda, and it is usually a power granted to the group that can put together a majority of votes in the legislature. George Washington’s own Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, started the Federalist party because he wanted to get Congress to pass a series of bills, and it was easier to do this by establishing a coalition around his agenda than to start fresh on every issue.
They Help Organize Elections Around Common Agendas
Once you realize that controlling a majority of seats in the Congress lets you control policy, what to do? Obviously, the party that has fewer members wants to organize voters to elect more members of their group, so they can control the agenda and pass bills. That’s what Madison and Thomas Jefferson did when they started the Democratic Republican party. They found some candidates who promised to be their allies and helped them get elected. That’s what parties still do today–connect candidates and voters who support the same agenda.
They Help Voters Vote
Parties are also useful to voters. It’s hard to know who all the candidates are. It’s hard to know if they are good people and if they will keep their promises. It’s hard to know which elected official to hold accountable for the performance of the government. When parties stamp their seal of approval on a candidate, they help voters to distinguish between candidates. They also help voters know which bums to throw out if they don’t like how things are going.
They Legitimize Newcomers
Finally, parties control the supply of candidates and direct their ambitions toward a collective effort. Without parties, the most famous people, or those whose names appear first on the ballot, are likely to get the most votes. Candidates who want to be serious contenders for office have to seek the support of a party, and to get it they have to prove to some knowledgeable observers that they are reasonably qualified for office. Parties provide an extra screening mechanism for candidates, and that’s not a bad thing.
Partisanship has its downsides, sure, but parties themselves are essential to well-functioning democracies.
Have questions about civics or political science? Let me know!
– Dr. D