In the comment thread of my broken primaries post Over There, Michael Drew said the following:

There’s a literature on the Basic Purpose – I think it’s among other things (obviously) coordination around shared goals, and then disseminating (political) information (basically telling people why they might assent to this or that ruler). The rise of the media age therefore put parties significantly on their back feet compared to earlier times (not pre-media per se, but pre-the notion that a working-class individual might independently gather information from nonpartisan sources, look at who might be a good person to be a ruler, and make that decision on that basis, rather than only based on what the dominant party in their area or for their Group says would be best for them). Parties still do solve the coordination problem – you need to move from a population of a million having, say, 10,000 people they support for Ruler, which is maybe as far as non-partisan information sources could get us on their own, to say 10 or 100. My intuition is that parties exist even prior to what that literature suggests, or at least that they have to exist logically because of that last reason – there has to be some intermediation to get from Many to Few potential Leaders.

That’s a really basic, almost logically necessary reason that parties have to exist. But it’s not some kind of general permission slip from The Sky do what they want. In fact, to me, that they are maybe ordained by logic is precisely a reason to less-credit this claim that Hey, we’re just private membership organizations; unless you’re a member, you have no claim on how we behave.

It may be simply a numbers game, or it may be due to a limitation in human nature, but my intuition strongly tells me that we are condemned to do our politics through parties if we are going to try to govern polities larger than the classical Polis. If they’re that fundamental a part of human society in the age of Nations, then to me there is no reason that it should follow that they should be immune to claims about the demands of democratic justice, merely because they claim to be private organizations. They are seeking to fill a necessary purpose that is necessary to achieve public ends – the coordination of the choice about who gets the power to make and enforce laws (if there are laws). If they don’t want the public accountability that comes (should come, anyway) with that, then they can choose some other aims for their organization. If they’re doing things wrong, including not being accountable to the public (not just membership), then just by being a person trying to live in the society whose public life they seek to influence through coercive government, you have a claim against the ways they are doing wrong procedurally or substantively.

I wanted to unpack this a bit.

There is a natural question on what we mean by “parties,” and the distinctions are different when we talk about how much freedom to give, or not to give them. Parties can be informal alliances between factions in pursuit of a series of mutually-beneficial goals, or it can be a very formal arrangement of organization. The degree of formality given to the parties is quite relevant to the degree of freedom that we give them. Orientationally, the more formal the recognition a political party, the more rules that can be imposed.

In the United States, we have two competitive parties. We have a system that favors not only the number two, but that they be Republican and Democratic. This wasn’t always the case, but there is a reason that the Federalist gave way to the Whigs gave way to the Republicans and yet we’ve had the Republicans for 150 years. The parties adapt over time rather than become displaced, because the barriers to displacement have gone up considerably due to formal changes, such as public finances and party-listed ballots, and circumstantial change such as the nationalization of politics and media.

This may be desirable, or it may not be desirable. It is not, however, immutable. Parties may have existed for some time, as Drew says, but the formalization of politics was indeed a choice. There are a number of things we could do to loosen the grip of the Republican and Democratic Parties. I favor some (IRV) and oppose others (multimember districts), but they are options on the table. These are things that would create more options for parties, and give the existing two less leeway.

Alternately, we can devalue the notion of political parties. We couldn’t eliminate them even if we wanted to, but parties are given quite a bit in the way of privileges. States often pick up the tab for primaries, for example. They also put party affiliation on the ballot, which they don’t have to do (and in some city elections, as well as in Nebraska, they don’t). That’s not even getting into guaranteed ballot access, public financing, and other deferential behavior. All of which may be advantageous to the public at large, but none of it is necessary. Pulling the rug out of those benefits would be extremely disadvantageous for the parties, who would have to foot the bill to communicate to voters who their members are, and would have less leverage over the candidates and office-holders generally.

You can look at cities and heavily-tilted states to have an idea of what informal parties might look like. Back in Colosse, partisanship exists but city elections are non-partisan. No non-Democrat has been elected mayor in recent history, but at any given time there are some on the city council. But where the real partisanship occurs tends to be on the informal level. There is almost always a liberal faction and a moderate/conservative faction. People who follow politics tend to know who is on whose teams, though because it’s not a part of the election process there is more flexibility. A moderate Democrat, for example, knows that when she is up for re-election, she can pick up conservative endorsements and votes to make up for ones lost. There is still a natural pull away from the center because term limits force them to look at running in partisan elections later, but it’s none-the-less a functioning system.

Is an ideal system? That’s a judgment call. But either way, there are options available. What does seem clear to me, though, is that the more privilege we give parties, the more we can ask of them. There are, however, limits to this.

While I believe that there are various levers to be pulled, I believe there is a Permission Slip From The Sky of sorts, in the form of Freedom of Association. We can force parties to make the difficult decision between financing their own primaries or losing ballot designation and having their own nomination mechanisms, but we ultimately can’t make the decision for them. And we can’t say “We want the formal parties, and we want to impose these obligations on you so that we can have them precisely the way we want them.”

All of this is something of a moot point, though, because parties are the government, and the government are parties. Except in states with a referendum process, the parties themselves are gatekeepers of policy. I would like to see some reforms that would open the system up a bit and allow parties to be more easily displaced, but you know who has not only the motivation but the power to prevent that from happening? The existing parties. So even in systems with more flexible party structures, such as Canada, reform is difficult. Almost any substantive reform would hurt one party or the other at least, and would leave both more vulnerable in the long run. And with party leadership threatened to a degree it hasn’t been before, it seems more likely than not that both parties are more likely to want to tighten, not loosen, their hold on the democratic process.

Photo by DonkeyHotey


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3 Responses to The Permission Slip From The Sky

  1. Michael Drew says:

    As I said over there, I was really just noodling around here. I don’t really stand by the argumentation per se. But that does still broadly express my basic stance.

    So I guess the on;y clarification I would offer is that I’m not proposing any laws to force parties to act how I want, so I’m not sure Freedom of Association comes into play, unless you mean an ethical Freedom To Act How We Want No Matter How You As A Citizen Feel About It, Unless You Agree To Become a Member, In Which Case Maybe We’ll Listen To What You Have To Say. Which, yeah, I don’t believe in that.

    What I’m talking about is what kind of normative purchase (moral standing?) the individual in society has to make claims on parties about how he’d like to see them act/be run. Does an independent individual have any standing to say to parties, “Do it this way, because of these reasons”? Is it only as much as he has to say that to the Elks Club or the Arizona Diamondbacks? My view is that he has much more standing to say that to political parties that hold 45+% of the partisan political offices in the country (and especially when there are two such parties) than he does to say it to the Elks Club (though we could discuss how much he has to say it to the Elks Club).

    Yes, parties are protected by the constitution from too much government meddling in their decisions, but they’re not morally protected from meritorious normative claims on their behavior by individuals whose governments they want to run – whether or not those claims ever have any practical force (i.e. whether or not the parties are in a position to ignore such claims).

    • trumwill says:

      The post was, as much as anything, an attempt to use it as a springboard to the public/private nature of political parties. I wasn’t sure exactly what your position was with regard to laws. I did think you were interested in passing some laws, if need-be, but I did think they were more “using levers” laws rather than brute force laws.

      In any event, it wasn’t my intent to micharacterize your position.

      As far as social approval and such goes, I tend to agree there, too. One of the costs of either party doing away with primaries is that, you know, people wouldn’t like it. And one of the reasons they started having them was because voters like it. Which, with the system we have I wouldn’t either which is why I would start wanting to try to pull some of the levers if they did do away with them.

      Though, ahem, if one party were to make some very undemocratic reforms right now as a transient measure I wouldn’t mind too much. And, as long as party registration is easy, I don’t have a problem with closed primaries. Caucuses are trickier. I’d prefer hybrid systems to straight caucuses, for the most part.

      • Michael Drew says:

        I didn’t feel mischaracterized at all – just clarifying. But no, in all of this I was never thinking much in terms of laws. Just what I’d like to see the parties choose to do out of civic obligation, voluntarily met.

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