The American Republic was and is a “Grand Experiment”. Before and after the Constitution was written and adopted, some of the Founding Fathers were overtly concerned about the rise of factions or political parties. One of the more famous quotes from John Adams ran “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” However, once electoral reality set in, many of the Founding Fathers became intimately involved in the formation of the primeval American party system.
I believe that political parties are an important ‘check and balance’ in the American Republic, and that the intellectual movement that advocates a system largely based on independent officeholders is idealistic – well meaning but misguided. Please note that when I refer to “independent candidates” I am referring to candidates without a political party, who are truly independent, not to candidates who run as part of some new or refurbished Independent Party with clear policy positions that all candidates in the party tend to share. There is a fundamental difference there.
To begin with, I think that most people would agree that there are aspects to the two party system (or a multi-party system for that matter) that are aggravating and inefficient. There is an argument that excess partisanship “stops us from getting things done”, or that hyper partisanship causes an unhealthy political culture. Maybe. I’d argue that the American Republic as a whole was intentionally in part set up as a bit of an aggravating system and that it intentionally made things hard to get done. I’m not really sure I want a federal or state government that can turn on a dime, in the heat of the moment. Do partisan politics make this system even slower and more agonizing at times? Probably. Do they inflame cultural fault lines that exist below the surface in America? Probably.
However, the political parties do offer several important tools that are actually of great benefit to the Republic and to the American public at large. In my mind these tools and benefits far outweigh the ditching of political parties for some sort of system that elects individuals without party affiliation.
First, the parties provide a basic framework of opposing national and state policy views that can be easily understood by large numbers of citizens. Of course, since political parties in America are made up of coalitions of voters, these policy views are not always completely coherent or rational, and as internal coalitions change the policies of the parties change. Overall though, the parties offer fairly distinct worldviews that are at odds with one another. Less talked about, they also generally share various policy goals, which by mutual consent become national or state policy without much noise.
At this point someone will argue that the current party alignments are unhealthy, that they have become more ideological and politics more nasty, usually referencing some Golden Age of Brotherly Love. Looking back at elections over the past couple hundred years I’m not sure I would really agree. Certainly the parties have changed over time – most recently moving towards more European styled conservative and liberal factions, and certainly there have been periods where the parties agreed on the a major issue of the day, but generally over time they have always had sharp contrasts. It’s market driven: there simply isn’t room for two parties who agree on most things, and if they did it wouldn’t last long since one of the main purposes of a minority party is to provide an alternative to the majority. In fact this ‘trial by combat of ideas’ system is vital to how the policy of the Republic changes when required by the events of the day. When I hear that politics are more nasty today I just roll my eyes. Take a few minutes and look back at some of the nastiness in presidential races alone since the beginning of the Republic and you’ll never make that argument again, drunk or sober.
Second, the parties provide a system of short hand for voters. Whether or not we like it, most voters do not spend a great deal of time going over each and every candidate for office. With the ‘long ballot’ in California and most other states these days this would be an extremely time consuming task – particularly without partisan affiliation. Instead, most voters look for ‘cues’ as to which candidates more or less represents their values or policy viewpoints. Political parties fill this void – giving voters an easy way to navigate the ballot in a reasonable amount of time. A system dominated by independent candidates would by nature require voters to either spend a great deal more time studying literally dozens of candidates and measures, which is unlikely, unrealistic, and unreasonable, or could lead to even greater ‘drop off’ (voters tend to vote heavily on the top of ticket races they are familiar with and less so downballot as they know less and less).
Connected to this short hand is a system of collective responsibility. Partisan affiliation allows voters to reward or punish the candidates or an entire political party fairly easily. While this can be a painful experience, for instance last November for the GOP, it’s an important tool that can cause dramatic and fairly immediate policy corrections in areas where a political party is out of sync with the electorate as a whole. Since independent candidates by their very nature would not inhabit a collective, nor share policy positions or goals, this tool would be removed from the table.
These two points aside, there may be an even more important argument for being wary of a system dominated by independent candidates: such a system doesn’t seem to have been successful anywhere or anytime in a modern nation state. I’m certainly no expert on the internal politics of every nation on earth, but there are certain trends that appear fairly obvious on their face. The most successful nations (measure it how you want) tend to share at least one common fact: their political systems are dominated by two more more stable long term political parties. In fact a sign of trouble in one of these nation states tends to be the rise and fall of political parties that have become disconnected with the electorate. Many other nations have political parties built around certain high level candidates – but these tend to be authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states, or at least unstable. There are are also a number of nations with a single dominant ‘party’ of course, again most of not all of which are authoritarian in nature.
Maybe a successful independent centered Republic exists… and if so point it out for further conversation. In the meantime though, I’m loath to trade what we have for an untested, unproven system that may in a perfect world offer some benefits but may also be a complete train wreck.
Frankly, and perhaps this is a controversial opinion and I certainly can’t prove it, I believe that political parties naturally evolve in modern Republics for a reason. Not only do they provide the tools and benefits mentioned above, but in some ways they may provide an even greater service. The institutions of political parties may, by linking elected officials, candidates, and voters together actually ‘water down’ individual politicians by encouraging team play and making the formation of broad internal alliances necessary to move up in the system. People in your party know you and know if you tend to be fundamentally good or fundamentally self serving: and most important because they are organized they can help a candidate advance or help stop his or her advancement. Why is this important? It may discourage ‘leader’ centered systems built around strong personalities that encourage demagoguery and threaten the integrity of the Republic itself. Of course there are clear cut examples of where this most important check has failed (see the rise of totalitarianism in Europe some decades ago), but overall I believe that at some level the political party system plays a role in helping check unhealthy ‘cults of personality’. I fear that in an independent based system there would be an even greater tendency towards cult of personality than we have experienced, and that such an experiment could prove unpleasant at best, dangerous at worst.