By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The United States is deeply divided along political lines. Partisan politics, attack ads, and even the election process itself are weaponized in the 21st century. A new series looks at the benefits and drawbacks of political parties.
Most countries in the world have more than one political party. In fact, India even has about 2,500 different political parties. In the United States, although there are several parties with candidates who run for president every four years, the race is usually dominated by the Democrat and Republican nominees.
With these parties come advantages and disadvantages. In a democracy, political parties can compete for votes by offering voters what appeals to the nation—or just attack each other and try to look like the lesser of two evils. In his video series Democracy and Its Alternatives, Dr. Ethan Hollander, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wabash College, gets to the bottom of the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of political parties.
What Are Political Parties?
“Political parties are organizations that attempt to gain and maintain political power, and to influence public policy, usually by participating in elections or by helping their members attain political office,” Dr. Hollander said. “Campaigning for office and winning elections—that’s what political parties do in stable, functioning democracies.
“But in dysfunctional states and dictatorships, political influence is sometimes achieved by other means—like violence or intimidation.”
If this sounds to you like a mixed blessing, you’re not alone. Political parties can perform a number of functions both good and bad. In countries with weak or dysfunctional governments, political parties sometimes step in to build schools and hospitals, collect the trash, and other duties, and they usually do so with their own resources.
In more stable, functioning democracies, political parties help an electorate make informed decisions.
“We’re all busy; we have things to do,” Dr. Hollander said. “Sometimes we don’t have time to follow politics as closely as we might otherwise want. It turns out that political parties help us make accurate political decisions—that is, decisions that actually represent our views. They do this by acting as a kind of shorthand or abbreviation for what our representatives stand for.”
Political parties in these nations can also organize and assemble people of like-minded ideals to pursue common goals.
How Do Political Parties Act in Weak Democratic Nations?
On the downside, many of the actions undertaken by political parties can be malevolent, corrupt, and deadly. Dr. Hollander mentioned Hamas, a political party that operates in the Palestinian territories, as an example of this.
“Hamas advocates for Palestinian sovereignty, and also for the Palestinian Authority to adopt stricter Islamist political policies,” he said. “But Hamas also has a military wing. If elections don’t go your way, or you want to make sure they do go your way, it’s helpful to have an armed militia. That way, you can provide security for your members, intimidate opponents, or carry out actions on behalf of your supporters.”
And not all of those actions are taking out the trash—at least, not literally.
Areas with weakened governments often find political parties allying with security forces to frightening extents. The Nazis had their Brownshirts and the nationalist movement of Northern Ireland, known as Sinn Fein, had the Irish Republican Army.
“Political parties also play an important role in authoritarian regimes—that is to say, countries that have functional but nondemocratic governments,” Dr. Hollander said. “Cuba, Venezuela, China, Nazi Germany, and the former Soviet Union—these were all party dictatorships, or one-party states. In places like this, political parties often become recruiting, training, and propaganda organs of the dictatorship itself.”
Democracy and Its Alternatives is now available to stream on Wondrium.