What is an American “political party”?

On this Election Day, I find myself puzzled as to what the American political parties actually are. They clearly aren’t classical parliamentary parties. There’s too much entrepreneurialism among politicians (who can freely choose which party to identify with), and strict party discipline is viewed as an unfortunate aberration by most observers.

Nor are they coherent organs of any particular class or ideological interest. Most vividly, the Democrats used to be the party of racist Southerners and have in recent decades become the party of African-Americans. Only in recent times have the two parties sorted out neatly according to a left-right axis (so that every Republican is to the right of every Democrat), but that has apparently been more by default — as the Republicans have become more hard-core right-wing, the Democrats have absorbed everyone else, so that the incoherence of the Democratic coalition is directly proportional to the coherence of the Republicans.

Obviously the idiosyncracy of U.S. constitutional arrangements is a huge factor here. Staggered elections and procedural quirks conspire to force the parties to cooperate to get anything done, militating against ideological coherence.

In a very real sense, we could say that this reflects the much-vaunted “wisdom” of the Founders, who designed the republic with an eye toward avoiding the dangers of factions. We really don’t have “parties” like those found in other parliamentary democracies — their design was successful!

But what we have instead is something even worse: two totally nihilistic and opportunistic apparatuses that compete for power as such. The “parties” don’t seek power so that they can implement their programs or serve their constituencies — they advocate policies and court constituencies so that they can gain power. (If we doubt this, we can simply look to Mitt Romney’s career trajectory.)

6 thoughts on “What is an American “political party”?

  1. We tend to view the Republicans’ awesome discipline and ideological conformity as the source of their strength, but in this election cycle it’s clearly producing perverse effects (viz., constant rape comments by Senate candidates). A real party wouldn’t have to deal with that kind of bullshit, because they wouldn’t let candidates be selected by the random body of self-identified members (or sometimes non-members, too!) who decided to show up.

  2. I also find interesting that the function of third parties, who are advertised in the two-party system as having an important role for extremists to go and to keep the ‘mainstream’ parties focused upon centrist issues, fail to do anything substantive beyond sometimes being a place for extremists and themselves believe that they can only be successful if they behave like the mainstream parties. The Libertarians, for example, aren’t really running a libertarian for President.

  3. American political parties are broad groupings of politicians joined together by some combination of ideological common ground and electoral necessity, supported by voters who incorporate their party identification into their identity and, apart from the most tedious among them, vote strictly accordingly, and created by Duverger’s law.

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