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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

With or Without Parties?

The Mischiefs of Faction blog started ten years ago with this post which argued that, on balance, a nation is better off with parties than without them:

Parties help to organize debate, to generate policy ideas, to provide critiques of the ruling administration, to encourage voter turnout, and to give elections meaning. Parties and other factions do make their mischief, but a democracy without them would be impoverished in fundamental ways.

As we celebrate our tin anniversary, it seems a good time to ask whether this core premise is still true.

The past decade has taught us a lot about the dark side of parties. Yes, people have been complaining about parties pretty much since they were invented, and polarization really isn't anything new. But what we've seen over the past decade is fairly novel, at least from the American perspective.

Specifically, we've seen one wealthy and charismatic individual take over a major American political party. And while he didn't conjure the anti-democratic strain within its ranks, he massively amplified its voice, to the point where the party itself is now calling into question any election in which it loses.

For me and many of my co-bloggers here, Donald Trump's 2016 nomination was simply outside the range of things that could happen. He seemed both dangerous to democracy and uncommitted on many of the policies that Republicans had claimed to care about for decades. And yet the party could not effectively organize to prevent his nomination, and once he clinched it, they quickly fell in line behind him. A few prominent Republicans have challenged Trump at various points, but most have left politics rather than lose a primary. With Liz Cheney now a lame duck, Mitt Romney remains one of very few Republicans to push back publicly against Trump and to live to tell about it. Even after Trump has given his party two impeachments, a presidential election loss, an organized violent coup, and possibly the loss of the US Senate in the runoffs of early 2021, he remains basically untouchable within his party, and his fellow partisans go out of their way to appear publicly supportive of virtually any of his utterances.

This series of events obviously taught us a great deal about American parties. First, it is notable that someone with Trump's fame and wealth chose to run for president as the nominee of a party. He certainly could have mounted a credible (if ultimately unsuccessful) independent run in 2016, but he decided that the best way to do it was as a party's nominee. In other words, for all their weaknesses, parties are still the key to office.

But he also showed us just how porous those parties are. It may be that American parties could at one point dissuade would-be authoritarians like Huey Long and Charles Lindbergh from presidential runs. But the rise of primary elections and a general belief that any leadership by party leaders is inherently corrupt gives a space for someone like Trump to win a nomination, and polarization means that party members can rationalize anything their nominee says or does with the idea that it's still better than the other party winning.

Parties are a tool. They can be used to translate citizens' ideas or fears or hopes or angers into votes, and those votes into policies. Like any tool, they can be used for positive purposes or negative ones. Just recently, President Biden signed a rather large set of environmental initiatives into law that will help mitigate climate change. Whether you see that as a positive or a negative, it likely wouldn't have come about without parties. There's little reason for Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to agree to the same bill that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders agreed to unless they were part of some larger organization. But parties can also inflame political violence and undermine American democracy depending on whom they nominate.

Now, when we say that democracies are better off with parties than without them, that sets up a rather difficult counter-factual: What would the US look like today if parties have never formed?

That's pretty hard to answer. But it seems likely we would have ended up with a Trump-style situation earlier with a President Astor or Vanderbilt or Hearst. Trump is an unusual character, but he's hardly the first wealthy and powerful person to seek a political role. The parties' gatekeeping function has been useful over the centuries in limiting that.

What we've learned over the years, and been reminded of recently, is that control of nominations is absolutely vital to parties' powers, and that primary elections pose a serious weakness for parties' ability to control that power. We got a taste of that in the 1970s when the Democrats made some unusual presidential nominations thanks to the rise of primaries, but party elites kept those outcomes in check in subsequent decades. We're seeing a lot more of that today. Even if democracies are, on balance, better off with parties than without, parties in the wrong hands can do real damage, and primaries make it easier for that to happen.

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