Since the founding of American democracy, scholars and pundits have noted the necessity of political parties for democracy. James Madison famously both warned against their dangers by noting the “mischiefs of faction” and observed their inevitability in a free political society.
There has been a lot of talk lately, from all political corners, about threats to democracy. Arguably chief among these is the growing hostility between Republicans and Democrats. Parties serve vital functions in our government and politics, and the lack of competition between parties, in part due to antagonistic perceptions between partisans, disrupts parties’ ability to function.
Parties are important
Parties are important for a healthy democracy because they help solve problems for voters, candidates, and elected officials that these groups are unable to solve on their own. Parties are useful to voters as cues or signals about which candidates are closest to their personal policy preferences. Candidates need parties to help them raise money and attention for elections. Parties also help organize coalitions in legislative bodies so that government can function and pass legislation.
Ultimately, parties are coalitions. These coalitions often include conflicting interests. People join the coalition for different reasons and may have competing priorities, but they usually share some common goal.
In American history, our parties have proven to be both remarkably robust and fragile. They’re robust in the sense that we’ve organized our politics around two political parties called Republicans and Democrats since before the Civil War, even though the ideas associated with each party label have changed over the years. And this is how they are fragile.
This fragility might be better described as adaptability or malleability, which can be a strength — sometimes. Party coalitions are so large and diverse (because we basically only have two for the whole country) that their binding is tenuous. When a party coalition includes members who have different goals, motivations, and priorities, it can be difficult to build consensus around anything. This fragility makes it likely for factions to form, or even break off from the main component of the party.
Party fragility is a good thing
Recently in American politics, we have observed this robustness and fragility, particularly in the Republican Party. The Republican Party’s dominance right now may be another sign of its robustness. Its members have a majority in at least two branches of federal government (it’s hard to measure partisanship in the judicial branch), and the party controls 68 of 99 state legislatures and 33 of 50 governorships. These are the numbers of a party with some robustness.
But we’ve also seen the fragility of this coalition in its fumbling of a major policy priority to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, its rollout of changes to immigration policy, and the general sense of drama and chaos that has characterized the new presidential administration. Governing is considerably more challenging than campaigning, and Republicans are struggling to hold their diverse coalition together to accomplish policy goals.
Importantly, there is competition between our parties. This competition creates incentives for parties to build large and winning coalitions and to try to win over factions from the other party. Competition between parties to build a majority coalition over ideas or policies means a party can win new supporters by adopting the ideas of the other party.
We saw some of this fluidity in 2016. Arguably, part of the explanation for Trump’s victory last fall is that some white working-class voters who had previously voted Democrat were persuaded to vote for Trump. The evidence suggests that Republicans were more effective in converting voters who had previously voted Democrat than Democrats were in turning out voters who had previously voted Republican. Such voters, it appears, did not hold antipathy toward the parties. Trump’s victory is perhaps an ironic example of healthy competition between parties.
In this sense, the fragility of party coalitions is important. As voters select the party that best represents their preferences, parties are forced to compete. As parties compete with one another to turn out their own voters, and to try to win over some from the other side, all Americans benefit. Like a market with products competing for consumer attention, parties compete for voters’ attention, and this competition, in theory, can produce better candidates, better policy proposals, and higher-quality government.
Particularly with respect to the modern Republican Party, the fragility of the coalition is clear. This fragility contributed to the party’s success in the 2016 election, but is working against the party as it seeks to govern. Fragility may help party competition and work toward growing a party coalition, but it works against the party when it comes to building a sticky coalition that will work together to pass policy. This observation is consistent with the idea that our politics is now characterized by a bad combination of strong partisanship and weak parties, as explain by Julia Azari.
However, the natural competition between parties is breaking down in America in two ways.
Partisan animosity disrupts party competition
First, we have entered a period of demonization between the parties where loyalists of each side show disdain for the opposition. According to the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats have “very unfavorable views” of the other party. These numbers have risen considerably in a short time period. As recently as 2008, 32 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats held “very unfavorable” views of the other party. A 20-point jump in unfavorability in eight years is previously unheard of in American politics (although admittedly, we haven’t been measuring this type of partisan antipathy for very long).
Under such a system, there can be no fragility of parties' coalitions because a candidate or voter switching to the other side becomes anathema. Pew reports that “an overwhelming share of those who hold highly negative views of the opposing party say that its policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’” When both sides believe the other to be so wrongheaded that it poses a danger to the country, the divisions become entrenched and the possibility that parties can engage in healthy competition for voters’ affection is reduced or eliminated. Under such circumstances, parties no longer function as institutions that help us coordinate candidates, policies, and voters. They become institutions that reinforce negative projections. Party coalitions of this type are an obstacle to democracy because parties cannot fulfill their appropriate function.
Second, parties in the US are increasingly influenced by organizations whose goals conflict with that of the party organization. Back when party leaders and bosses controlled party agendas, candidate selection, and the ideas the party put out, it was easy for candidates and voters to ascertain what the party stood for. Candidates in particular were beholden to parties because they relied on them for the financial support required to win elections.
In the modern era, candidates are less reliant upon parties for winning elections. We can see this most easily by comparing the amount of money spent by outside groups versus that spent by parties and candidates. Looking only at the presidential elections in 2012 and 2016, the ratio of outside to inside spending went from roughly 1-4 in 2012 to roughly 2-5 in 2016.
However, it may be inappropriate to think of this money as “insider” and “outsider.” Functionally, the interest groups and outside organizations that work to elect candidates are part of the political parties. As actors, they share a common purpose: to elect candidates. As organizations, they have somewhat separate ends, where parties seek to win the most seats and groups seek to elect particular people or achieve particular policy goals.
But as candidates become increasingly reliant on non-party filtered money, candidates have a greater incentive to promote groups’ policy priorities rather than those moderated through the party organization and leadership. Where the party is theoretically working to craft agendas that compete with the other party, this competition has a moderating effect on the ideas parties promote (as Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner show, and I review here). Groups and businesses (as Lee Drutman shows) have no such moderating incentives.
The party dysfunction America is now experiencing is a result of these two phenomena. First, there is less fluidity among voters between the party coalitions, in part due to the demonization between the parties. Many Americans say they support one party over the other not because of what that party can do for them, but because they hold disdain, distrust, and disrespect for the other party. This creates an environment where it is very difficult for parties to appeal to moderate voters and try to expand their coalition through the typical process of promoting attractive policies and ideas.
Second, parties do not have the financial tools to shape the priorities and ideas to build winning coalitions. The new landscape of campaign finance disempowers parties, and empowers candidates and those who seek to fund candidates. We’ve traded off the moderating organizing instincts of parties — the very institutions established to help us solve difficult political problems — in favor of free speech. But both of these are important values for democracy, and when the regulatory infrastructure swings too hard toward one end of this trade-off, democracy suffers because parties are hampered.
The deepening animosity between partisans is therefore detrimental to all Americans and the healthy functioning of democracy. Working to reduce this animosity through mutual open-mindedness, tolerance, and respect will be challenging. Many conservatives see liberals as closed-minded, judgmental, and immoral. Many liberals see conservatives as closed-minded, unintelligent, and holding racist and misogynistic views.
It’s not immediately clear how to overcome these barriers. Psychologists suggest we attempt to frame arguments in terms of values that “the other side” prioritizes. This means liberals should make arguments to conservatives by appealing to patriotism and loyalty, while conservatives should make arguments to liberals by appealing to equality and empathy. This strategy can’t hurt, but history suggests we’ll need to adjust our institutions of law and governance to help us achieve more cooperative partisan politics.
I thank Julia Azari and Seth Masket for providing feedback and comments on this post.