The Permission Slip From The Sky

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 my home city, 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.


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22 thoughts on “The Permission Slip From The Sky

  1. Alberta has long been known for its regional parties, and I think it works well.
    I would like to see something of the sort here.

    I’ve done a lot of reading on the Whigs lately, and it’s easy to see how the modern Republican Party evolved from there (although the present Republican factions are a good piece away from their Whig roots).
    There were basically three factions: The Wilmot Proviso Whigs, the abolitionist Whigs, and the Cotton Whigs; with the Wilmot Whigs winning key leadership posts within the party (led by Roger Thornton, who, it is said, “would bid a friend goodnight, then call him aside to ask him to speak nothing of it.”).

    That said, digital media has changed things substantially from traditional mass media, and the parties, like the rest of our social institutions, are still struggling with this.

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    • I think two factors work strongly against regional parties in the American federal system.

      1. Independant and strong presidency means a regional party is putting itself out of the running for any control of the executive.

      2. Party control of elected representatives is much weaker in America than most parliamentary systems. If a regional bloc wants to act independantly of the national party (southern Democrats post civil rights act being a famous example) they can do that.

      Canada historically splits of regional parties (usually from the interior West and Quebec) for two reasons
      – the ability to discipline a national faction for insufficient loyalty to their desires.
      – the potential ability to play kingmaker to a minority government can potentially give a powerful regional party real influence over not just legislation but the executive government as well.

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      • I agree with both of these. It’s also worth noting that #2 is a result of the existence of a relatively open primary system.

        That said, with some relatively small adjustments, I could see *some* variation occurring in non-competitive states like California or Texas, with basically two Democratic Parties or two Republican ones. Basically inside-outside cases like Bernie Sanders and the like, except actually waving different banners.

        However, the adjustments are not in the interest of either party, so I’m not expecting them to come any time soon.

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    • I think there is still a lot of regionalism in parties but maybe not as much as they used to be because as you said, mass media and better transportation has flattened the world/United States, regions are not as isolated as they used to be.

      Yet different locations have different problems and issues that they care deeply about. NYC and SF are strongly Democratic but SF probably cares much more about environmentalism than NYC over all. I don’t see mandatory composting or advanced recycling coming to NYC any time soon. SF is still more socially liberal than NYC.

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  2. Just FTR, that was totally dashed off and I don’t stand behind it at all. It does still reflect my basic feelings about parties, but the argumentation is basically dormroom BSing, especially the speculation about the origin of political parties.

    But/so I very much appreciate Will giving it the serious thought he did here.

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