By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
The government doesn’t create political parties; people do. They’re essentially private clubs. In most democratic constitutions, political parties aren’t even mentioned. And yet how have they become an integral part of nearly every functioning democracy? How do they function in dysfunctional states? Read on to find out.
Political Parties: Not Everyone Likes Them
Frustration with political parties is nothing new. The American Founding Fathers absolutely hated political parties. In his farewell address, George Washington, the first president of the United States, famously warned the young country that political parties would enable: “Cunning, ambitious, unprincipled men … to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government”.
John Adams, the second president, said that the division of society into political parties should be “dreaded as the greatest political evil”.
Despite warnings like these, political parties have become important, unavoidable features of democratic government.
What Are Political Parties?
Yet, as frustrating as they can be, political parties are essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy. But first, what are political parties? And what do these strange institutions do that make them so reviled and yet such important features of the political landscape?
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.
One should use the word ‘usually’ because campaigning for office and winning elections is 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. And political parties play an important role in places like that, too.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Hamas and Palestinian Sovereignty
Take, for example, Hamas, a political party, operating in the Palestinian territories. Hamas advocates for Palestinian sovereignty, and also for the Palestinian authority to adopt stricter Islamist political policies.
But Hamas also has a military wing. If elections don’t go one’s way, or if they want to make sure that they do go their way, it’s helpful to have an armed militia—that way, they can provide security for their members, intimidate opponents, or carry out actions on behalf of their supporters.
In fact, in places with weak or dysfunctional governments (like the Palestinian territories), political parties often step in and perform the functions that a government normally would. They build schools and hospitals, and they provide security, and even collect the trash—they basically do the things that the real government either can’t or won’t do.
Associating with Security Forces
And they do this (at least in part) with the resources they collect, either in the form of taxes or extortion. Interestingly it turns out, that, the difference between extortion and taxation is similar to the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters. From the outside, the activities look the same. The difference is a matter of perspective.
And so, especially in places where democratic institutions are weak or nonexistent, political parties often have associated—or at least closely allied—security forces. The Nazis had the Brownshirts; the African National Congress in South Africa had a group called The Spear of the Nation; and in Northern Ireland, the nationalist movement known as Sinn Fein had the Provisional IRA (the Irish Republican Army). And to steal a phrase from Sinn Fein’s strategy book, these organizations aim to represent their supporters with “a ballot-paper in one hand, and [a machine gun] in the other”.
Role of Political Parties in Authoritarian Regimes
Political parties also play an important role in authoritarian regimes—that is to say, in countries that have functional but nondemocratic governments.
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. To conclude, it is worth noting that the same tools that political parties use to win elections—advertising, persuading, even ‘educating’ the public—well, those same tools are also important things for dictators to use once they’ve attained political power.
Common Questions about the Role of Political Parties in Dysfunctional States
John Adams, the second president of America, said that the division of society into political parties should be “dreaded as the greatest political evil”.
Hamas is a political party that operates in the Palestinian territories. Hamas advocates for Palestinian sovereignty, and also for the Palestinian authority to adopt stricter Islamist political policies.
In places with weak or dysfunctional governments (like the Palestinian territories), political parties often step in and perform the functions that a government normally would. They build schools and hospitals, and they provide security