Why We Need Political Parties

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

6 thoughts on “Why We Need Political Parties

  1. Your 4 answers and framers concerns over “factions” are strong arguments against the need for political parties. I believe all that can be accomplished BETTER without them. Parties setting the “agendas” inherently stifle free thinking and attempt to guide or set forth the course of “democracy” as they see fit. Voters can think for themselves and newcomers can be made known with an honest media.

  2. Casey, thanks for your thoughts. I have to say though, many of your arguments actually further convince me that we DO NOT need political parties in the modern age, or at least that their power needs to be severely reduced.

    “Controlling the agenda and the supply of candidates” and “allied politicians helping each other get elected” – that doesn’t sound like free and open democracy. “Most famous people getting the most votes” – that sounds like the current reality, not the hypothetical one.

    The two-party duopoly is NOT good for democracy. It’s based in tribalism, a result of our winner-take-all electoral system, and drives division and polarization.

  3. I have very little faith in Democrats and Republicans working together to keep this the greatest country in the world, too much self interest at any cost.

  4. Instead of your conjecture on bow political parties are good, let’s look at certain historical realities.
    By 1787 at the State levels some form of party system had formed during the years when the US functioned under the Articles of Confederation. Madison decries this system in Federalist 10, pointing out whole list of the evils of political parties (e.g. [The effects of political parties] “have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished” or “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties”, and many other excellent and accurate assessments on political parties). Washington was equally condemning of them after they were formed in the Federal Government in 1791;92 (depending on what criteria we use), with statements like how [political parties] “may now and then answer popular ends”, but ultimately the serve as a means ,”to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government”, stating that the parties will “put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party” and that “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” We could go on and on about why political parties should never have been allowed to start and that’s without even look at the Anti Federalist Papers, where they talk about how the wealthy gain control via the parties or how the parties do the take over slowly so as to not alarm the people, etc….
    So let’s look at an historical even that provides a clearer picture of how things work without vs with political parties.
    1789 our currents system of government begins (Washington is sworn in as President in March 1789(, In June Madison presents the amendments we know today as the Bill of Rights to Congress. Amending the Constitution is the single most difficult form of legislature to get passed. and Madison hand them a list of amendments. With NO POLITICAL PARTIES to guide them (i.e. tell them how to vote) the House argued, debated on Madison’s proposed amendments. Then, with no political parties to tell them how to vote the Senate di the same as the house. It took roughly 15 weeks (109 calendar days) for the US Congress to get a 2/3 majority in the House and 2/3 majority in the Senate and approve the Bill of Rights….with NO political parties. Then it went to the states (where parties did exist) and it took over 2 years for the states to approve them. With political parties they can’t get a budget approved in a timely manner and had racked up a ruinous dept. Everything is for the Party, not the people, not the nation.

    As Madison said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” We need to stop believing the myths on why we need parties, heed the warnings our founders left us, and get rid of the parties so we can start to straighten out the mess we have. And parties to help with getting the right people for holding office. They only push those loyal to the party and try to get rid of anyone who isn’t.. The control the ballots at the state level so that they can control the governments at both State and Federal.

  5. Ooops, I meant to say April for Washington’s swearing in. Hung up on the old traditional date of March for swearing in the President. Forgot that they had not been able to meet the March date with Washington.

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