With the Democratic and Republican party conventions convening, partisan hype has reached its peak for the election cycle. Considering that poll after poll shows that Americans are fed-up with party politics and the direction these parties have taken the country, this is a good time to reflect upon why we have political parties in the first place. What purpose do they serve? Are they a necessary part of democracy? To answer these questions we must look back to the framing of our Constitution.
When the Framers of our Constitution designed our system of representative democracy in the late 1780s, it was an experiment. There was no other country with a government like it, and there never had been. They designed it on the model of a 4th century B.C. Greek city-state, an 18th century English parliament elected by less than five percent of the population over age 20, and the work of philosophers, both contemporary and ancient.
There is no mention of political parties in our Constitution, yet the Framers wrote about them elsewhere, often referring to them as “factions.” In 1780, John Adams wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This in my opinion is to be dreaded as the greatest evil under our Constitution.” In the Federalist Papers, James Madison sought to convince readers that one of the main advantages of the Constitution, with its separation of powers, was “its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” In a letter to a friend in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” And in his Farewell Address, George Washington warned that political parties would be “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” The Framers considered factions “engines of corruption” that put the interests of selfish minorities ahead of the common good. Yet once the Constitution was ratified, political parties formed almost immediately.
Why did this happen?
The vast majority of people are by nature not inherently interested in what goes on in a government that is distant from their daily life. This is understandable, since they have busy lives with plenty of more interesting and pressing things to be concerned with. Most of what government deals with is boring and has little immediate impact on them. People are apathetic because, in a country of 312 million (4 million in 1790), each individual tends to feel disconnected, with little or no ability to affect what happens in government. The public is also by nature disorganized—too disorganized for any “will of the people” to spontaneously emerge. In order for a government that requires public participation to exist in this environment, something must bridge this gap and link the people with the government—something not specified in the Constitution.
When the Constitution was first enacted, those politicians who won national elections naturally had different ideas about what government should do and how to go about doing it. They were each backed by different organized (special interest) groups, each of which represented but a small minority of the population: urban bankers and businessmen from the northeast, yeoman farmers and slaveholders from the south, advocates of states’ rights, advocates of a strong national government, support for Britain, support for revolutionary France, etc. As a result, two competing coalitions of groups, or “political parties”—the Federalists and Republicans—formed to represent these different and often competing interests and sets of ideas. Over time, the parties built extensive organizations around the country in order to get out the vote in support of candidates who agreed with them.
Political parties emerged and have continued to exist because the people were and still are generally uninformed, apathetic, disorganized, and disconnected, and because parties bridge the gap between the people and the government. Political parties are successful because they serve the needs of three groups—special interest groups, ambitious politicians, and voters.
With organization, resources, and continuity over the long term, it is only natural that special interests would take the lead. Special interests contribute resources to parties and member politicians who will enact policies they care about so that they can influence voters to vote for them. Those who oppose these policies contribute to the opposing party and its member politicians. As described by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller in their book The Party Decides, “from the framing of the Constitution to the present, parties may be fruitfully understood as organized attempts by [coalitions of] intense policy demanders to get control of government.”
Politicians in this environment must be considered ambitious because they must be self-promoting, motivated enough to endure a long and arduous campaign, and willing to cooperate with special interest groups whom they may not agree with. Parties serve the needs of ambitious politicians, who are often unknown to the public, as an ongoing organization which voters are familiar with and that politicians can associate themselves with, so they can achieve their own political goals and maintain a long career in politics.
For voters, parties serve as a tool—a heuristic—to help them make sense of a political world that they are disconnected from and mostly uninformed about. Parties aid voters in making voting decisions about candidates whom they know little or nothing about.
Political parties are vehicles of promotion—marketing tools, brand names, teams complete with colors and mascots—that special interests and politicians encourage the public to rally around. They promote ideologies that are carefully framed to justify their actions and to influence (manipulate) members of the public to support them.
The issues that parties publicly represent are issues about which there is disagreement among groups within the public, and that candidates can promise to advocate for when in government. Their strategy is based on dividing the public into competing groups and then hyping the issues and fanning the flames of passion of supporters in an effort to motivate people to vote for them. If the public is in agreement on an issue, candidates can’t use it as a reason for people to vote for them, so there is no motivation or payoff for pursuing these issues. Once in office, elected officials propose and oppose policies advocated by their supporting groups, serving primarily the interests of those who helped them get elected rather than solving the problems that the general public cares about.
Most fundamentally, parties organize and orient the public by focusing people on issues and motivating them to vote. They provide structure to what would otherwise be a disorganized and chaotic process. For this reason, many people reason that there can be no democracy without political parties. It just so happens that parties work in a way that maximizes the power of special interests and ambitious politicians and minimizes the power of citizens. This makes sense, since political parties were created by special interests and ambitious politicians to serve their own needs rather than the needs of the public.
The effect of political parties is that they undermine the central premise of democracy, which is that the people will rule—the people are sovereign and government must work to serve the interest of the people. Coalitions of minority groups with a “special interest” are not the same as the public interest. These minority groups typically have an agenda that is contrary to the public interest, which is why they must resort to such tactics. Political parties divide the public into warring groups, turning the people against one another and making it impossible for the people to rule. The effect is a classic divide-and-conquer situation that distracts the people from any sense of a common good, or public interest.
We should view political parties as a symptom of an underlying problem—a disorganized, apathetic, uninformed, and disconnected public—and as a “solution” that conflicts with the core value of democracy—that the people shall govern themselves. Government by political parties is government by minority groups, which is contrary to the intentions of the Framers of our Constitution and contrary to the central premise of democracy.
It is important to recognize this so that we can place blame where it is due. The problem is not people who favor the other party—studies have shown that most people tend to agree on most issues, with only slight variations. The billions of dollars spent on political campaigns are used to exploit what few, minor differences we have and to create new differences we would not otherwise have had. We have far more in common than we have differences.
The problem is a political system that unrealistically expects each citizen to be interested in and informed about a government that is too distant and too complex for them to comprehend. This unrealistic expectation effectively leaves average people powerless. There is nothing in human nature that should lead us to believe people can do such a thing. Indeed, one of the most firmly established findings in political science is that citizens are dismally uninformed about politics.
In order to do away with the parties and have a government that is of, by, and for the people, democracy must be designed in such a way that allows people to realistically engage in it.
Is this possible?
Walmart has about 9,000 locations, sells more than a million products, and has 2.2 million employees—it is an enormously complex organization. CEO Mike Duke doesn’t try to manage the entire company alone—that would be impractical. Rather, he has a hierarchy of managers who report to him. Everyone in the organization is accountable to his boss, and ultimately to Mr. Duke. Mr. Duke is able to manage the company and successfully achieve business goals because management responsibility is broken down into chunks that people can realistically deal with. He is connected to every employee via a hierarchy of connected managers.
This is in stark contrast to our democracy, where each citizen is expected to stay informed about an enormously complex government, hire a wide range of government representatives, and somehow compel them to act in their interest on a wide array of issues. It is an impossible expectation. It makes sense that in order for the people to control the government, democracy must work like an organization.
How might this work?
Businesses understand the importance of having a single point of contact for customers who deal with them on a regular basis. Citizens should likewise have a single government representative who they can deal with on all government issues. This would allow citizens to get to know their representative personally, convey their needs and concerns directly, and hold that representative accountable for addressing those needs and concerns. This would require all citizens to be part of a small election district, which we might call a community. Each community would elect a community representative to whom all political responsibility would be delegated.
Citizens would participate in democracy by participating in their community. Politics would not be so much about the actions of a distant government as about things people actually cared about. If someone had an issue he was concerned about, he would discuss it with other community members and, if they supported his issue, it could be presented to the community as a whole. If the community supported it, the community representative would be responsible for advocating for it at the next level.
So that these community representatives would also be connected and able to communicate directly with higher-level representatives, they would likewise be part of a relatively small group. Representatives would be arranged in a hierarchy with each level electing, setting the agenda of, and holding accountable the next higher-level representatives. This is the arrangement that allows CEOs to manage businesses, and it would likewise allow citizens to manage the government. Communication could flow up and down the hierarchy with ease. Issues that are supported at each level would rise to the top and become policy, while those that are not would stall.
Such a system would reduce the complexity people are faced with and allow them to manage the government. It would empower people and make them realize that they have the ability to create real change themselves. The people would be the government. Community-based government would bring people together and engage them in a process that is not politics as we know it—but life. Democracy would be a wholly natural act of people meeting with their neighbors, working out their differences, working towards common goals, and engaging in their community. There would be no need for political parties, so they would disappear.
We call this system of democracy Local Electors, which is also the name we’ve given to the community representatives. You can learn more about it at www.localelectors.org.
America is experiencing a trend of more and more special interests gaining increasing amounts of power in government. Citizens are becoming increasingly disconnected and government is becoming less and less of, by, and for the people. Where is this trend leading us?
The never-ending partisan bickering we hear is noise that distracts us from the real problem—a public that can’t realistically participate in democracy. Only by focusing on this root problem can we truly address the problems that face us. We believe this is a good solution.
We hope you will join us.