Political parties are some of the most reviled entities to take place in the political arena of American society. Time and time again, we are inundated with commandments to “vote people, not parties.” Continuing down this doleful path, the joint values of being a so-called “independent,” and adhering to some semblance of an ideological “center,” are held sacrosanct by many of our countrymen. Even corporate lobbyists are often seen in a more redeeming light than those sporting donkey or elephant lapel pins. However, political parties are not organizations that should be held in contempt or viewed as intrinsically evil. They are both touchstones and essential building blocks of our republican system and merit reverence for the political cohesiveness they provide.
Politics is unquestionably a communal enterprise, with various people, organizations, and other entities jostling for positions of power and influence. Though the value of the individual in terms of legal rights and freedoms should never be discounted or underestimated, politics and communal participation therein are inseparable concepts. Just as Andrew Carnegie noted in his “Gospel of Wealth” essays that, in business, “capital is created together,” so too in politics are elections won, bills passed and court cases decided in conjunction with one another. As such, in a society such as the United States – where politics touches every aspect of our lives, and where political participation is greatly valued – people cannot exist outside of politics just as they cannot exist outside of society.
This reality of politics in a republic – as a great communal enterprise that holds sacrosanct stability and peaceful transfers of power – would in itself justify the existence of countervailing groups of the politically-inclined to ensure a dynamic public discourse. Groups that are in opposition in a legislature, after all, typically serve as diligent interlocutors to those in the majority. However, the necessity of political parties is a thesis with far greater depth than the mere vacillation of election cycles.
Political parties serve as vital intermediaries between the government and the governed. For example, they bundle issues held dear by their membership into coherent, palatable platforms that voters – most of whom have not had the time to pursue a B.A. They help to aggregate and advance an agenda which, if in the majority, informs policy-making, and, if in the opposition, serves as the basis for the criticism of the majority party.
They provide an avenue for “common people” of modest means to involve themselves in politics, and aggregate and distribute funds for that purpose, affording a great plurality of the population a chance to run for office without having to self-finance their campaigns. Continuing down this transformational path, political parties afford young people the experience needed to cut their political teeth and build their resumes, allowing them to work their way up into higher places and run for office outright. This typically ensures that those who hold elected office possess some experience in not just the minutia of policy, but also in the fine art of political maneuvering and coalition-building. In this sense, political parties validate the centuries-old observation of Edmund Burke, Member of Parliament and himself a component of the Rockingham Whigs, who asserted that political parties are in a way “[bodies] of men united for promoting the national interest upon some particular principle upon which they are agreed.”
Furthermore, in most legislatures around the world, the balance of party power determines who gets to be chairman of what committee, and who gets to assume a higher leadership position such as speaker or its equivalent. Parties also serve as both a guarantor of voting discipline and a reliable predictor of the behavior of a given legislature at a given time. This is actuated through those occupying the positions of majority/minority leaders, majority/minority whips, and other lesser party officials in a legislature. If parties, or factions of some sort, were not at all present in a legislature, not only would there be no modicum of predictability as to voting patterns, but stability itself could be threatened due to a profound lack of cohesion and experience.
Despite all of these functions performed by political parties, there are those who critique their very existence as a testament to some form of phantom tyranny. There is a widespread perception that political parties are responsible for varying degrees of corruption, cronyism, censorship, inefficacy and almost every other evil to befall humanity since time’s inception. There is an equally virulent idea that only through the predominance of so-called “independents” will the salvation of the political culture of the United States be achieved. To make it abundantly clear, “corruption” and “inefficacy” exist everywhere, in any institution where more than a small group of people interact on a daily basis. However, the claim that political parties actively conspire to stifle debate is naive. Without political parties, many great ideas for the betterment of the nation could not be articulated and marketed on the scale needed to render them politically viable.
The vast mobilization of people that is essential for the existence of political parties. Lone-wolf independents realistically cannot successfully broadcast a winnable agenda. Instead, one must simply concede the awe-inspiring scale of representative politics in general, and recognize the fact that the individual may not have the means, financial or organizational, to do it alone.
Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.