By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
When we talk about political parties, we’re usually thinking about organizations that compete for power in the context of a stable democracy: in elections and campaigns, and in the houses and halls of legislative assemblies. But then, what exactly is their role in a modern democracy? What possible effect can political parties and knee-jerk partisanship have?
What Representatives Stand For
When we talk about the role that political parties play in a modern democracy, the first one would be that they help the electorate make informed decisions. The fact is that, we’re all busy. And sometimes we don’t have time to follow politics as closely as we might otherwise want.
It is in this context that political parties help us make accurate political decisions—decisions that actually represent our views. And they do this by acting as a kind of shorthand or abbreviation for what our representatives stand for.
For example, when we vote for a minor political office, we might not know a lot about John Doe’s particular views on a political issue. But next to John Doe’s name on the ballot, we’ll often see an R or a D, signifying that he’s a Republican or a Democrat. And this helps us know if we are likely to share John Doe’s views, even if we don’t know much about him as an individual.
Voting along Party Lines
And yet this representation is not 100%. Like any abbreviation, we lose a little information when we vote strictly along party lines. But it’s a lot better than a random guess. Thus, for down-ballot races, that little R or D can be a helpful piece of information.
Political parties often help people coordinate their efforts with other people who have similar political views. This is important because sometimes what we do is dependent not just on what we ourselves want, but on what we think other people are likely to do.
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Picking a Single Nominee
Let’s say that at the start of a presidential election, we had one right-wing candidate and dozens of left-wing candidates. If we don’t have political parties—if each of those left-wing candidates ran as an individual—they’d be competing with each other for votes on the ballot from the liberal end of the spectrum. And doing that might unintentionally hand victory over to the other side.
In that case, the right-wing candidate would win, not because he or she had the most support, but because the left-wing candidates couldn’t coordinate their actions and decide which one of them should run.
That’s why it’s usually advantageous for people on the same side of the political spectrum to form an organization—a political party that, broadly speaking, represents the views that they have in common, and which has certain procedures for deciding who among them is going to run. That way, the candidates can compete with one another before the general election, but then pick a single nominee, and everybody else can get behind that nominee and give that person a real chance of beating the other side.
A Party Primary
In the United States, this preliminary process is called a party primary, and it’s a very public process—one that gives ordinary citizens a lot of say in each party’s eventual nominee. But in many other democracies, the process is more closed, and the selection of a party’s nominee is really done by the card-carrying members of that political party, often at a party convention or meeting.
This difference has received a lot of attention in recent years. The closed nature of most other countries’ nominee selection process gives establishment candidates there a real advantage. But because it’s much more open and public, party primaries in the United States sometimes allow outsiders and relative newcomers to appeal directly to the electorate—bypassing the establishment figures who have more clout within the party bureaucracy.
Now, whether one thinks this is a good thing or a bad thing is up to them. But it’s fair to say that if the US used a less public method of selecting nominees, an outsider like Donald Trump would have been very unlikely to secure the Republican Party nomination in 2016.
The larger point to keep in mind is that political parties serve an important function: By providing a process for people to pick a common nominee (or set of nominees), people with similar political views can avoid competing with one another, and thereby increase the chances that their views will win representation.
Once in office, political parties also promote stability and open up possibilities for compromise. If a legislature consisted of 100 individuals rather than just a handful of political parties, it’s hard to see where the process of negotiation would even begin. It’d be a complete free-for-all.
But political parties allow the members of a legislature—and thus, the political factions in society—to negotiate, form coalitions, and make deals as a smaller number of voting blocs.
As chaotic as democracy sometimes is, imagine how much worse it would be if the debate wasn’t among a handful of political parties but a free-for-all among hundreds of individuals in an assembly!
Having stable political parties can be very good—and even a sign of democratic health—for a country, with coherent policy platforms and a process for picking nominees. Although it is a tough argument to make at a time when political parties and knee-jerk partisanship seem to be tearing countries apart.
But just as too much partisanship can lead to tribalism, too little partisanship can make the electoral process—and even the governing process—a complete mess. That’s why partisanship, taken in moderation, can be a sign of political health. Democracy is about competition, and so too are political parties.
Common Questions about Political Parties
This is important because sometimes what we do is dependent not just on what we ourselves want, but on what we think other people are likely to do.
Because it’s much more open and public, party primaries in the United States sometimes allow outsiders and relative newcomers to appeal directly to the electorate—bypassing the establishment figures.
Too much partisanship can lead to tribalism, too little partisanship can make the electoral process—and even the governing process—a complete mess.