The Glory of Party

By Daniel Stratford

This past Sunday, Sept. 25, was a prominent day for the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDM), who held their annual fall kick-off meeting in the Campus Center of this illustrious University. Present were representatives of myriad College Democratic organizations that call Western Massachusetts their happy home, including delegations from Smith College, Williams College and our own esteemed University. It is events such as this that lend a special, almost familial sense of warmth to those acquainted with them. They confirm not just the participatory nature of American politics, but also the fact that politics is, in its essence, an enterprise that incorporates both community and the great arc of history under one proverbial roof.

The Western kick-off is, of course, not the only fall kick-off event that occurs within the realm of CDM. The Commonwealth is rather neatly divided into jurisdictional regions, each possessing a multitude of colleges and universities that host its own fall event. Part of the appeal of such gatherings for those of a Democratic persuasion is that something like it happens throughout every part of the state, with these events acting as harbingers for the objectives and aspirations of the year ahead. They reinforce the conviction of their participants that they are enjoined in a greater, almost transcendental political purpose and of the innumerable virtues of political participation therein.

In most countries with even the most nebulous forms of representative government, the most direct route to political participation is through the institution of political parties. Political parties get an admittedly bad rap; they are the subject of innumerable rants attributing to them everything from vaguely-defined “corruption” to election rigging. To be sure, nothing is perfect – urban and suburban political machines often manifest themselves around political parties to the effect of ethically dubious ends. One need only look to the former Tammany Hall machine in New York for historical inspiration.

However, the arc of history supersedes the ephemeral nature of human frailty, and by-and-large, political parties serve and have served as crucial institutions of representative government. Specifically, they serve as that most important intermediary between the government and the governed. This affection for the glory of party is not born out of romantic sentiment, but out of practical concerns for the organization of government. Political parties set the political agenda, provide organization and order to legislatures, bundle issues together for public consumption and provide access to the political process – all in ways that simply cannot be actuated by mere individuals.

There is preponderance of historical precedents for the preeminence of political parties. Alexis de Tocqueville, in “Democracy in America,” gave his scintillating analysis of the political structures of the early American Republic, noting that “The ambitious are bound to create [political] parties, for it is difficult to turn the man in power out simply for the reason that one would like to take his place.” If one looks past the veneer of cynicism that seems to grace the surface of de Toqueville’s assertion, there is an honest, undying truth to be found – political parties are, aside from mere masons laying the brickwork for legislative organization, amongst the most powerful sources of legitimate opposition in any government. The “Shadow Cabinet” positions held by the Opposition in the British Parliament, for example, are not merely designed to assuage bruised egos in the wake of an electoral downturn; instead, they are designed to let members of the Opposition critique the members of the genuine cabinet, and the governing party or coalition therein, in one of the most timeless and forthright displays of “loyal opposition” in the history of representative government.

This is evident in our own government, though in a much more acerbic manner, in the form of Republican intransigence with regards to issues of spending and taxation taken up by the Obama Administration. In lieu of a Shadow Cabinet, the American political landscape is populated with a plethora of think tanks and policy groups that propose alternative policy solutions to those being considered by the party in power. Many think tanks possess one ideological predisposition or another that are usually plainly obvious to the more erudite amongst us. Groups like the Heritage Foundation of a decidedly conservative tilt are locked in a mortal struggle for intellectual supremacy with groups like the left-leaning Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. As such, they are typically proxy battles in the eternal contest of cunning and stratagem between the major political parties.

So how does this vexing political quest through the tumults of history itself tie into that humble confederation known as CDM? The real question that must be asked is – how does this not tie into the CDM? As the pan-collegiate organ of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, it contributes not just a veritable army of canvassers during election season, but also serves to ingratiate our youth with the awesome responsibility and plentiful benefits of political involvement. CDM transforms a dauntingly complex political party into a lifestyle for politically-motivated, energetic college students, and by extension, pays down the debt it owes to the political “great chain of being” that has ensured the vibrancy of the Democratic Party for so long.

Of great political parties, Alexis de Tocqueville mused that they “generally have nobler features, more generous passions, more real convictions, and a bolder and more open outlook than others.” If that centuries-old observation is the case, then it goes without saying that the Massachusetts Democratic Party, by virtue of the numbers of the votes it garners and the candidates it fields, is a grand party indeed. It is the involvement of the youth – channeled through groups like CDM – however, that make it truly great.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]