The Political Party As Thinking Engine

In California, Democratic Governance, History and Politics, Liberalism, New Deal, Political Ideology, Political Parties, Politics, Politics of Policy, Progressivism, Social Democracy on June 17, 2010 at 10:25 pm


The passage of Proposition 14 in California, establishing a top-two “blanket” or “jungle” primary, is further proof that anti-political reform politics is both popular and futile. Prop 14 isn’t going to end partisanship, anymore than Prop 11 will end partisanship – and neither is going to fix the dysfunctionality in our state legislature. In the case of Prop 14, this is made all the more obvious by the fact that California operated under a “blanket primary” between 1996 (after the last time we tried this with Prop 198) and 2000 (when the Supreme Court struck down Prop 198 as a violation of the 1st Amendment right to association of political parties). Politics didn’t become less partisan in those four years, and the budget process didn’t get any easier.

However, there is a larger point that has yet to be addressed openly, and which we have to discuss – even if it was possible, trying to make politics nonpartisan is a bad idea. As James Madison and many other before and after have discovered, political parties are natural, inevitable, and beneficial.

If anything, we should be trying to reform the political process to strengthen our political parties, not weaken them.

What Does Democracy Look Like?

One of America’s shortcomings as a polity is that we have this tendency to elide the differences between liberalism and democracy and to assume they are the same thing. This is not the case, and it’s absolutely the case that you can have one without the other; hence our recent discourse over “illiberal democracy” and the emergence of classic liberalism in Enlightenment Europe, hardly a bastion of democracy in the 18th century.

Democracy emerged in Athens and the Republic in Rome long before the advent of liberalism- and in both cases, the central theme of their system of government was the idea of the sovereign people, not the sovereign individual. And that’s the point – democracy (or republicanism) is a fundamentally collective enterprise. It should be neither surprising nor dispiriting that “no one vote ever counted;” the object in a democratic or republican government isn’t for the individual to exercise their will over the government (for a system based on individual government, see monarchy, absolute), but rather for individuals to collect into groups to exercise their joint will.

But because we do make this mistake quite often, Americans have developed an expectation that the democratic process should be individual and private, and a mistrust of institutions and practices that interfere with this individualism  people can get quite offended when they are asked ahead of time who they intend to vote for, either by campaign volunteers or professional pollsters; we sneer at campaign commercials that seek to sway our vote; and for some strange reason, people seem to take it as a badge of pride that they are “a registered independent.”

As my colleague Daraka Larimore-Hall notes, Americans don’t trust political parties, and our anti-partisanship goes back a long way – from the current crop of Decline To State voters to the Progressives at the turn of the century who crusaded against urban machines, to the 19th century “mugwumps” and “locofocos” who took a stand against party loyalty (not many people know this, but the origin of the political label “liberal” dates back to post-Civil War middle-class Republicans who voted against Grant in 1872 because of their distaste for political patronage and spoilsmanship), to the Founding Fathers who feared “factions” as a threat to their fledgling Republic.

Parties As Constitutive Agencies of Democratic Action:

The reality is that, without parties, democratic politics breaks down both at the top and at the bottom.

At the top, as I’ve discussed before, you need parties to:

“form a majority of the legislature that has a common agenda, so that legislation can be considered and passed by the assembly in a continuous fashion. Otherwise, the chamber dissolves into a chaotic battle of all against all, as individual politicians jostle to push their ideas to the floor ahead of everyone else while fighting any measure that might steal attention from theirs, and bills collapse under the weight of thousands of amendments attached by legislators who have no commitment to the success of the underlying measure.

When a majority of the chamber can agree on a common agenda, it creates a structure for the legislative process: everyone knows which bills will be voted on and roughly in which order, members of the majority at least know that while not everyone will agree on the details of proposed bills that there is a common commitment to pushing them through the legislative process and negotiating differences rather than trying to scuttle the whole effort, and there is a sense of loyalty that forms between legislators that creates the trust necessary for collaboration to occur.

To construct and defend this agenda from the opposition, a majority must create structures and rules to enforce members’ prior agreement. Normally, this includes an elected leadership who have some form of authority over members, a platform that’s voted on by all the members of the majority, party whips who inform members that their votes will be required on agenda items and positions decided by the leadership, and some form of reward and punishment for members who violate agreed-upon rules.”

In other words, parties flow from the natural requirements of legislative action. A majority must be assembled, an agenda is required to unite the majority, and the agenda and those responsible for enforcing it have to be ratified by the group as a whole.Without some guiding force, legislative assemblies break apart at the seams.

Anti-partisan advocates, when they are pressed on this point, argue that with less partisanship comes more compromise and conciliation – rather than ramming legislation through the assembly by brute force, consensus is developed either by pragmatic empirical reasoning or by divining the “common good” (depending on whether we are dealing with the pragmatic or idealistic variation). This argument is fatally flawed, however.

The first point where anti-partisan arguments break down is that it is just as likely that conflict and gridlock emerge out of purely pragmatic considerations as they might from partisan ideological ones – public funds are a limited resource and different politicians, responsible to different electorates, will compete over them. Without the bonds of party to create a sense of common identity and interest that brings a majority to support funds for one area even if it doesn’t benefit every area, the only alternative is to split funds across every district.

The second point where these arguments break down is that there simply is no way that one can actually come to a consensus either through pragmatic or ideological means. Pragmatic reasoning does not prevail when political considerations must take into account priorities and values that are not empirical in nature; even the most efficient means of spending a certain amount on public funds on say, education, could be scientifically determined, there isn’t an empirical way to settle disputes between people who believe that the state shouldn’t provide education as a matter of principle or that the environment is a higher priority than education. It’s just as impossible to come to a consensual understanding of the “common good” through some sort of ideological process – differences in region, class, gender, race, personality, and interest will lead individuals to have divergent, and equally valid, conceptions of what the common good should mean.

At a certain point, an institution is needed to rank values in a hierarchy that allows a set of priorities to be established, and some process is needed to distribute a limited set of public goods across the population without permanently embittering the losers – and the only mechanism for doing this is a political party. Political parties accept disagreements over what constitutes “pragmatic” outcomes and what constitutes the “common good” and find the larger possible grouping – the majority of the majority is less transcendent than universal comity, but it no less represents the will of the people and the common good.

Seen from below, the same institutional imperatives apply to the electorate as a whole. Without political parties, individual voters lack any mechanism for exerting influence over political outcomes or (in representative systems) in holding elected officials accountable for their actions. One voters simply does not have the time or the resources to contact enough voters to persuade them of a given course of action in all but the smallest of electorates; likewise, elected officials can safely ignore individual voter discontent, because for virtually any political decision that loses one voter’s support, there is another voter out there for whom the same decision gains their support.

Anti-partisan “reformers” will argue in opposition to this theory that the individual voter can and must ascertain the individual strengths and weaknesses of every candidate, above and beyond their party label. Individual character and ability should matter more than tribal loyalty. The problem with this argument is that it’s almost impossible for a single individual to do this for every candidate in every election without in some sense doing this for a living, or by relying on others to help them do it – there simply isn’t enough time in most peoples’ days to read through every policy paper and press release, nor do most people have the training and experience necessary to translate public rhetoric into likely consequences. As for individual character and ability, there is nothing easier for a candidate to fake than individual character – even William Shakespeare, a decidedly pre-democratic thinker, had the sense to have his Richard III publicly parade through the streets carrying a Bible to his chest after having his nephews assassinated to show the people how moral and upright he was. More contemporaneously,  look at the number of successfully elected officials who ran on platforms of morality, “family values,” and religious faith who’ve proven to be lying, hypocritical adulterers. How is a voter supposed to divine the inward nature of the soul?

As for ability, the truth is that public office is a unique enterprise; as John F. Kennedy put it, there’s no training course for presidents. Past experience has, at best, a tangential relationship to the job; being a businessman certainly doesn’t make one a better politician – we’ve learned that lesson once too often. It’s very difficult to ascertain how a novice candidate will perform if elected, and because elective office is as much a collective process as elections, it’s not easy to determine how much of the outcome is due to the individual.

But by establishing a common agenda and rewarding or punishing elected officials for their success or failure in enacting that agenda, political parties create a concrete and reliable mechanism for groups of individuals to influence the political process and hold politicians accountable for their actions. In this, they provide an invaluable tool for voters: the individual voter might not be able to divine the moral virtues of a candidate or assess a hypothetical level of competency, but they can know ahead of time that a Democrat will support X, Y, and Z but not A, B, and C and vote accordingly.

Parties As Thinking Engines:

Beyond the immediate practical role that parties play, the focus of this post is the fact that political parties are really the only kind of institutions that can do the kind of long-term deep thinking necessary for successful democratic politics. At a basic level, some institution needs to do the thinking about what is the “common good” and what is the best way for the state to achieve it – while individual thinkers  may have some influence on this (think a Thomas Jefferson or a Karl Marx or the Webbs), they ultimately need a political party to develop their ideas over the generations, to popularize them and mass-distribute them, but most importantly to do the thinking about how to translate principle into policy, ideology into action.

And that is why political parties are, in the most sense, thinking engines. They translate the world of ideas into the world of politics, and craft the kind of frameworks for thinking and doing that allow democratic governments to plan, to imagine, to design beyond the need to react to momentary crises. In the U.S, historians often hold up Jefferson and Hamilton as inventors of political worldviews that profoundly shaped this nation for over a hundred years – but without the Democratic-Republican Party to think through the implications of Jeffersonian ideology in an era of universal white male suffrage, without a Whig Party or a Republican Party to carry the legacy of Hamiltonian thinking and to apply it to an America transformed by commerce, by transportation, and by industry, their ideas would have fallen into dusty disrepair.

If we look beyond our tendency to think in terms of “The Great Thinker,” political thinking is often done in the long-term by groups. The Progressive Era is often talked about in terms of Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt, but it has as much to do with the way that the Democratic Party absorbed ideas from the Populist Party – fiat currency, the income tax, central banking for the people, and so forth – or the way that the “Social Science Platform” of 1912 brought together reformers like Jane Addams, Thomas Kellor, Henry Moskowitz, Lilian Wald, E.R.A Seligman, et al. who took ideas  that had been percolating within reform circles for twenty years about social insurance, industrial regulation, and economic planning and forced them onto the national agenda through the Progressive Party. Even the New Deal, which is so closely associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, owes as much to the development within the Democratic Party of figures like Robert Wagner, the chief mover of Social Security and the National Labor Relations Bureau, and Carter Glass, the architect of the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the eponymous Glass-Steagall Act.

Thus, over the course of many Congresses and many Administrations, political parties can define the major “national problems” that must be dealt with, the various options for grappling with them and the criteria for judging between them – in other words, parties “think.” And just as a scientific community engages in collective experimentation, verification, and refinement through discourse that produces results that no solitary researcher can provide, a political party gathers policy intellectuals together to produce what they couldn’t individually. The needs of political parties for a platform that covers all aspects of public policy drives policy intellectuals to think comprehensively rather than narrowly, and the need of political parties to offer credible solutions likewise creates an incentive to “think big.”

But in politics, thought without action is meaningless, and the key virtue of political parties is that they are thinking engines that link ideas to power. On its own, the Brains Trust was a social club for the Columbia University Econ Department, but in conjunction with Franklin D. Roosevelt, it had the power to shape the country. Leon Keyserling on his own could only publish books, articles, and op-eds about what he thought the country should do – but when he went to work for Senator Robert Wagner, he shaped some of the most important legislation in American history. Parties do this on an infinitely larger scale, harnessing the theoretical to the practical.


In the end, we need political parties to power our democracy. If you weaken them, you weaken the laboratories of innovation and belief. Even if you were successful, you would end up with a politics of technocrats and the careerist pursuit of office for office’s sake. But the far more likely outcome is that you will fail.

I believe that reform is necessary, but reform needs to focus on rebuilding our parties, on making them stronger, vibrant, open, thinking institutions that are powerful enough to discipline the ambition of politicians in the direction of success through results and to ensure that the voice of political groups is based on their weight in votes, rather than dollars.

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