Why We Need Political Parties, and More of Them

The number of political independents has certainly ballooned. Indeed, the dissatisfaction with political parties has reached unprecedented levels, and it is not uncommon to read jeremiads decrying the abuses of political parties or to come across comments that question their necessity altogether.

Despite the understandable level of frustration with today’s partisan wrangling, political parties do serve a necessary function in politics. Instead of perpetually cataloging their misdeeds and venting our anger about partisanship onto liquid-crystal screens, our long-term strategy should be to make sure that political parties proliferate so as to appeal to all voters; especially, those who disavow the Democratic and Republican options.

First, it is important to emphasize that political parties are indeed necessary. While America’s founders warned against “factions” in theory, they immediately found them necessary for political organization and mobilization.

This is because political parties are the embodiment of shared principles, goals, and policy positions among a certain subset of citizens. Already in the late 1700s, figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison supported a proto-platform known as the “Principles of ’98,” which espoused states’ rights and a theory of limited government in contrast to the “nationalism” endorsed by figures like Alexander Hamilton.

Quite predictably, political parties formed along these ideological lines, with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans on one side and Hamilton’s Federalists on the other. The Federalists disagreed on a number of fundamental issues, including federalism, monetary policy, and foreign relations.

In a democracy, wherever there are ideological differences, political parties will inevitability arise. Indeed, there is no advanced democracy of any significant size that lacks political parties.

Israel, for instance, has a population just north of eight million. Following the legislative election of March 17, 2015 (which one LA Times pundit enviously applauded for its inclusiveness and vibrancy), the 120-seat Knesset will host 10 parties.

In Luxembourg, a tiny European nation of just 500,000 people, there are 6 parties in its 60-seat unicameral legislature, the Chamber of Deputies.

It is not insignificant that these countries employ proportional representation. In fact, it is central to my argument.

I contend that our animus toward political parties is not so much a result of partisanship per se, but of our dissatisfaction with our two-party system in particular, and the electoral design that incentivizes it. In other words, our problem is that we have too few parties rather than too many.

One critique of political parties that appeals to many independents is that, in our system, many feel that in order to participate in the political process, they must “join a party” (in the recent words of a New Jersey judge who dismissed a lawsuit against the state’s closed primary system). However, there are two flaws with this argument, and the replies underline the need for proportional representation.

First, the judge has a point. He did not mean that independents must join the Republican or Democratic party. There are dozens of active parties across the country that cater to a variety of ideological positions – from paleoconservative to libertarian to centrist to socialist to revolutionary, and others appeal to voters with particular niche concerns, such as prohibition and marijuana legalization (and whatever it is the Pirate Party stands for). Also, citizens who feel that no party represents their interests and ideals can form their own party that is as ideologically rigid and uncompromising – or as ideologically vague and ecumenical – as they like.

Second, while it is true that many states hold closed primaries (which are unjustly paid for not only by partisans but by all taxpayers) that keep independents locked out of primary elections, this hardly deserves the name “disenfranchisement.”

Independents can still cast a vote for whomever they want when it counts the most: in the general election (unless, of course, they live in California, which under the top-two system bars write-in votes). Not voting in a primary is like not selecting a “menu option” when calling a customer service hotline and instead waiting to speak to a representative: you still get to say what you want – all you have done is skipped a step.

But few independents, I suspect, find comfort in either of these options — joining (or forming) a party or being content to write-in their votes in the general election.

Why? Because they know they are operating in a two-party environment and thus feel pressured by the prevailing incentives to vote for the “lesser evil” so as not to waste their vote with a minor party or independent candidate. Others, frustrated by the lack of options, simply choose not to vote at all.

Here is where the appeal of proportional representation comes in: it shapes the background incentives that affect how citizens vote.

Under our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, voters betray their true preferences and vote for a major party candidate rather than their top choices, whoever it may be (perpetuating the unpopular two-party system), whereas under proportional representation, voters can vote for their top choices without the fear of a wasted vote (except in the case of highly unpopular, extremist, or anti-democratic parties that may not meet the minimum threshold of say, 2, 5, or 15 percent of the total vote needed for representation).

In addition to producing more representative government, proportional representation offers other benefits. It increases voter turnout rates because citizens know that their votes count. It also encourages coalition-building and political dynamism (as opposed to two-party gridlock) because parties form temporary legislative alliances to enact issue-specific legislation (think Rand Paul and Ron Wyden locking arms over civil liberties), and it relatedly invigorates political discourse, as campaigns must appeal to voters on the basis of ideas rather than personality or through “image management” (which is the case in candidate-centric elections).

Likewise, with more than two parties, empty binary rhetoric about the need for mere “change” does not work, forcing politicians to talk specifically about their policy positions.

In short, political parties are necessary for political mobilization, and partisan primaries allow like-minded voters (who are allowed to join or leave any party at any time) to vet candidates for office. Also, political parties are constitutionally protected, and they are an inevitable feature of large, advanced, and stable democracies (or, for more pedantic readers, republics).

The question is not whether we should have political parties, but how we should manage them. We can either endure a FPTP electoral model that produces an unrepresentative and unpopular political duopoly, or we can advocate a proportional representation model that allows political parties to proliferate so as to reflect the ideological diversity of our country and give each citizen the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote without having to betray his or her preferences – all while energizing political activity and dialogue.

We must accept that we need political parties, but we need more of them, too.

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