What is a political party, anyway?


We take the existence of political parties as a given.  Even dictatorships usually have one party, which is strange if you think about it–a bit like having a sports league with only one team.  Why do you need a party if it doesn’t have to compete with any other party?

Nevertheless, political parties are everywhere.  They are clearly very popular. And yet, when you think about it, there is no obvious need for parties in a functioning democracy.

To run for office, you just need to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in relevant districts.  After that, you need to get your message out somehow–usually through press interviews, ads, campaign rallies and speeches.  And you don’t need a party to do any of that.

Once you are in office, you have even less need for a party because, well… you are in office.  Now you just need to use the office to accomplish your goals.  Periodically, you need to campaign for re-election, but as we just saw, that can be accomplished without a party.

The obvious point is that you need money in order to run for office, and parties are a convenient way of raising money and in general providing the infrastructure for a successful campaign.

But there are other ways of raising money. If you’re a really effective and charismatic speaker–a major asset in politics–that in itself can be a fundraising mechanism. And if you are already wealthy, you may be able to self-finance campaigns for some offices. The super-rich want to control politics anyway; why don’t they just cut out the middleman and do it themselves?

Also, the rise of mass media means that it’s cheaper to get the word out than it used to be. Donald Trump famously got billions of dollars worth of “free advertising” for his campaign by dominating both mainstream press and social media headlines.

So, what are political parties for?

One thing they obviously do is provide a way of associating oneself with certain goals, policies and philosophies.  If someone is a Democrat, you can generally guess where they stand on most issues. That can save a candidate a lot of time–you know you’re guaranteed a certain number votes just from your party affiliation. More on that later…

Parties also provide a framework for running campaigns.  This is also a time-saving function.  Everyone knows the Republicans and Democrats are both going to field some candidate in the race for state governor, for example.  So they have some campaign infrastructure already in place–they just need to sort out who the candidate will be.

In this respect, political parties have surreptitiously taken over the political process simply by virtue of providing candidates with credibility.

It works like this: the press knows that either the Republican or the Democrat is going to win, and so they focus their coverage on them.  Similarly, donors know the same fact, and so donate primarily to one of the two candidates.

Thus, while it’s not apparent why you need a party apparatus, it is clear that once you have one, it’s hard to get rid of it.

Politicians have tried to challenge various parties over the years, and some have succeeded in radically changing what a given party’s platform is, or even in creating an entirely new party. But to my knowledge, nobody has ever challenged the party infrastructure itself.

H. Ross Perot challenged the Republicans and the Democrats in the 1990s.  His signature issue was the national debt and deficit. To some extent, he made his point–after he gained a sizeable share of the vote, the parties cooperated to balance the budget in order to placate the Perot voters. (It didn’t last long, but still.)

Even Trump, much as he tried to play the role of Outsider Underdog taking on the Establishment Machine, didn’t truly challenge that parties from outside.  Instead, he played divide and conquer, first taking over the Republicans and turning their infrastructure to serve him in defeating the Democrats.

The core Republican party system remained (and remains) in place; Trump just took charge of it and directed how it should be used.

If you define a party–as I suggested above–as a team of people interested in accomplishing some set of goals, it makes it hard to understand how this type of takeover is possible. There was a sizeable anti-Trump faction in the party, but most of them ended up supporting Trump anyway. You would expect that parties would be more fluid if they were truly about political philosophies.

Parties are much more tribal things–akin to supporting a sports team. Being a member of a given party is more a matter of one’s cultural values and upbringing than it is any specific political agenda.  Just as someone will cheer for their team even if the players and coaches are bad, they will support their party even if the candidate is bad.

People wonder why politicians are, in general, so ineffective.  There are a couple reasons for this, but I suspect one is that they are tremendously insulated from constituent pressure thanks to the power of the party system.  Once you have support of the party machinery, the job gets a lot easier because a certain number of people will support you just because you are from their party.

People always try to fix this problem by mounting primary challenges. Which is great, except that it has only two possible outcomes:

  • The challenger loses. This is usually what happens; it’s called the incumbent advantage.
  • The challenger wins, and then enjoys all the same benefits of the party machinery that his or her predecessor did, thus turning them into another cog in the machine.

The only office that doesn’t work like this is President, because the President has more power to shape the party’s agenda.

This is yet another cause of the weakening of the Legislative branch relative to the Executive. Over the decades, the party system produces weaker and weaker legislators, until finally Congress is populated by people who are totally beholden to their party, and thus, to their party’s leader.

And this puts us hot on the trail of figuring out what a political party actually is: it is a means of simplifying the complex business of government into a more understandable form. Namely, it turns a complicated system of numerous offices into a very simple hierarchy with one ultimate executive.

This explains what a political party is and, incidentally, explains why they have them even in dictatorships.  Political parties are what produce dictators.

That sounds like a pretty wild idea, doesn’t it?  It does to me.  I was surprised when I realized it as I was thinking about this. However, some other people in history have come to the same conclusion regarding political parties. For example:

“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities… serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests…

[…]I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

George Washington’s Farewell Address. (1796)

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