Are Political Parties Important and Necessary for American Democracy?

John Aldrich begins Why Parties? with a bold statement from E. E. Schattschneider which states that “political parties created democracy, and…democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties” (Aldrich 3).  He goes on to add that “it is necessary to have a party system, an ongoing competition between two or more durable parties” (Aldrich 12).   Throughout his first chapter, he illustrates several key concepts of democratic elections.  One important feature of democracy includes free and fair competition between actors seeking elected office.  Strong parties, Aldrich argues aids ambitious politicians and having two or more of them serve the public interest of preventing one faction controlling the government unchecked. (Aldrich 15-16).  But are these viewpoints actually reflected in the American political system?

As the author mentions, George Washington’s addresses the issue of parties in his farewell presidential address.  “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…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” (Washington).  It is a concern that troubled Madison as well when he wrote Federalist No. 10 nine years earlier.

Aldrich points out in his third chapter that although there was considerable instability in voting coalitions in the First Congress, the body operated without the assistance of a party system.  Along these same lines, in V.O. Key’s study of the South in the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the region was dominated by a single party, the Democratic Party.  “Two-party competition would have meant the destruction of southern solidarity in national politics-in presidential elections and in the halls of Congress” (Key 8-9).  In some southern states, such as Virginia, a political machine, in this case, the Byrd Organization, more or less dominated politics and thus elections were not a competitive affair nor, one could argue, democratic.  This idea conjures up the idea of party bosses gathering in smoke-filled rooms in order to determine who ran the state.  Elections were merely a formality, window-dressing presenting the façade of democracy.   However, other southern states were a different matter.  As Key illustrates in his chapter regarding Alabama, although the Democratic Party nominee for any office easily bested his opponent or opponents in the general election, Republican or otherwise, the race for the Democratic primary was often a lively affair.  He shows in Table 3 that 7 candidates sought the nomination for Alabama’s 8th Congressional District in 1946.  The state was divided not on the basis of party, but regionalism, with candidates typically receiving a high percentage of the vote in either their home counties, neighboring counties, and counties with which they or their campaign has some association (Key 38-43).  To quote Aldrich, “until recently being a Republican in the South provided a reputation, but one that made winning all but impossible” (Aldrich 49).

Returning to the beginning of Aldrich, he writes, “the political party as a collective enterprise…provides the only means for holding elected officials accountable” (Aldrich 3).  But is this statement necessarily true?  Consider the case of Representative Eric Cantor (VA-7).  Over time his district voters were growing dissatisfied with him. Normally re-elected with at least 63% of the vote in his previous elections, his vote percentage dropped to the high 50s in the 2010 and 2012 contests.  Nevertheless, the district was a safe Republican (Sabato) and, given his influence as the House Majority Leader, the party leadership had no incentive to replace him.  With Downs’ median voter theorem, parties will seek to converge toward the ideology of the largest segment of segment of the population (Downs) but Cook rated the 7th as Solid Republican (Ballotpedia) so it would be difficult for a Democratic candidate to position him or herself so far right on the ideological spectrum to mount a serious challenge, especially against a powerful incumbent like Cantor.  Therefore, citizens had little chance to hold him accountable in a general election given the makeup of the district due, in part, to gerrymandering by the Republican-controlled legislature.  In 2014, an unknown college professor named David Brat shocked the nation when he successfully defeated Cantor for the Republican nomination by challenging him as a more strident conservative.  With this Brat/Cantor illustration, it isn’t really the two-party system holding elected officials accountable, but rather an opportune candidate seizing the right moment within a single party.  Updating this example with recent data, in 2016 the courts ruled that Virginia’s 3rd district was unconstitutionally gerrymandered, therefore the surrounding districts, including the 7th, were redrawn making it more competitive.  Thus, what was a safe Republican district several years ago ended up switching to the Democratic Party by a narrow margin in the 2018 elections (New York Times).

Although Aldrich might decry it as undemocratic, I would argue that this sort of state and regionalism that Alabama experienced in the early 1900s was what the writers of the Constitution expected would happen in American politics…at least before the advent of national political parties.  After all, in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution the writers seek to safeguard against states simply voting for their favored sons for both president and vice president by stating, “The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.” (U.S. Constitution).  We see this Alabama situation play out in the presidential election of 1824 with four candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party each winning his respective home state. As no candidate received a majority of the Electoral College vote, the decision fell to the House of Representatives.  Rewinding to the previous election, known as the Era of Good Feelings, the collapse of the Federalist Party led James Monroe to an easy reelection with no serious opposition.  As Aldrich writes, “the birth of party politics in a form recognizable even today can be fairly be dated to 1828” (Aldrich 102).  Setting aside the issue that only a small fraction of the population was eligible to vote, despite the lack of a stable two-party system prior to 1828, I have not found much literature to suggest that the United States was not considered democratic from its founding to 1828 nor much support for the claim that political parties created democracy given that the United States government predates the party system.  As another example, in the city of Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, both city council and school board elections are nonpartisan affairs.  Even without the lack of party labels and cues, competitive elections are common in Staunton, and as far as I’ve found no one has declared that democracy is dead in the Queen City of the Shenandoah Valley.

Even though most elections feature candidates nominated by one or more major political parties, to argue, as Schattschenider does, that “political parties created democracy, and…democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties” (Aldrich 3), does not appear have much supporting evidence in the history of the American political system.  After all, political parties didn’t begin to take shape until many years after the founding of the present government.  In addition, two-party competition was and is still absent in some regions and localities.  Nevertheless, spirited competition can still persist in its absence.  Democracies do not necessarily require a multitude of political parties or any parties at all, and, in the case of gerrymandering, strong parties can mute elections’ ability to reflect the peoples’ will through the redrawing district lines to make them safe or uncompetitive.

If parties are not necessary for democracy, are they still important?  Here scholars disagree as well.  Using data from ANES surveys, Aldrich displays a chart on page 265 which shows that as of late parties have become less important as apathy toward the parties has increased stating, “parties had become increasingly irrelevant but became at least as relevant to voters by 2008 as in the 1950s” (Aldrich 264).  He goes on to add that “voting thus became candidate centered and parties as mechanisms for understanding candidates, campaigns, and elections became less relevant” (Aldrich 268).   However, other scholars debate the theory of party decline.  Exploring data from NES surveys and DW-Nominate scores, Hetherington reaches a different conclusion stating, “Although parties in the 1990s are not as central to Americans as they were in the 1950s, they are far more important today than in the 1970s and 1980s.” (Hetherington 619).  Then, we have Krehbiel who looks at the partisan composition of Congress in committees and suggests, quoting David Broder, that “’the party’s over’ in the United States and perhaps winding down in Great Britain” (Kreibel 260).

Lastly, when considering their importance, how should one go about defining partisanship?  Is it simply the number of voters who register to vote under the banner of a particular party?  But what if these citizens don’t actually show up to vote?  If they have no level of civic engagement, should they still be counted as partisans?  And what about states which do not have registration by political party?  Should partisanship be measured, as Hetherington does, through respondent thermometer scores of the respective parties or through straight ticket voting?  However, then we run into the matter of whether feeling scores accurately reflect partisanship or could they simply be a lesser of two evils mentality?  What about environments, such as Key’s observations about the solid South, where a viable candidate from a party outside of the Democratic wasn’t viable?  Or how about the fact that some states offer their voters a straight ticket voting option at the very beginning of their ballots while others do not?  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a single universal answer to the question of how one ought to define partisanship and the answer one selects likely plays a heavy role in determining how important partisanship is in American politics.

Returning to the question posed in the title of this paper, are political parties important and necessary for American democracy, I would argue, for the reasons mentioned, that they are not a necessity.  Then are they important?  They are, but their exact value is difficult to measure.  Whether you love or hate them, parties provide a host of cues for voters who do not wish to expend the effort necessary to learn the details about each of the candidates running for office.  And, at the end of the day, candidates who seek to win or maintain office without the support of one of the two major parties usually fail.  But, as Aldrich claims in his 2nd chapter of Why Parties? political parties exist, not for the public interest, but primarily to serve the desires of ambitious politicians who seek to gain and maintain power for themselves.  It is interesting to speculate what would happen in American politics if parties were to disappear overnight.  If history provides an accurate guide, democracy would not be destroyed, and the causes of factions would still remain, of course, but, like the First Congress, it would be difficult to maintain two solid camps with an “us vs. them mentality”.  Who can say?  We might just see a more civil political environment as compared to our present state of hyperpolarization.

 

Resources

Aldrich, John H. 2011. Why Parties?: a Second Look. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: HarperCollins.

Hetherington, Marc J. 2001. “Resurgent Mass Partisanship: The Role of Elite Polarization.” American Political Science Review95(03): 619–31.

Key, V. O. [1949] 1984. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Krehbiel, Keith. 1993. “Where’s the Party?” British Journal of Political Science23(2): 235–66.

“Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” Larry J Sabato’s Crystal Ball RSS. http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/2014-house/ (November 5, 2018).

U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Sec.1

“Virginia’s 7th Congressional District Elections, 2014.” Ballotpediahttps://ballotpedia.org/Virginia’s_7th_Congressional_District_elections,_2014 (November 6, 2018).

“Virginia’s 7th House District Election Results: Dave Brat vs. Abigail Spanberger.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/virginia-house-district-7 (November 7, 2018).

Washington, George. Avalon Project – Washington’s Farewell Address 1796. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp (November 5, 2018).

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