Power to the Parties

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic debate in Durham, N.C., February 2016 (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
The DNC, in consolidating support for Clinton, was only doing what parties are supposed to do.

When word came this week from Donna Brazile that the Democratic National Committee was in alliance with Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders in 2016, many commentators were shocked. A telling column from Salon, “Demo-Catastrophe,” decried this as “corruption.”

Give me a break.

The hyperbolic reaction to the Clinton-Sanders-DNC news does not suggest anything pernicious about the Democratic party, so much as it reveals how Americans in 2017 have forgotten the purpose that political parties were originally intended to serve.

British philosopher and politician Edmund Burke, the first great advocate for political parties, reckoned that they are essential to free government. “Party,” he wrote in Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents (1770), “is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”

The American revolutionaries tended not to hold this view, instead thinking of parties as factions whose interests naturally ran contrary to the general welfare. But the revolutionaries’ skepticism about parties began to shift in the early years of the Constitution, when James Madison and Thomas Jefferson came to believe that Alexander Hamilton and his allies were looking to create a permanent interest in the federal government, built upon the public credit. The Republican party (not the modern GOP, but what many historians refer to as the Democratic-Republican party) was the vehicle they created to stop the Hamiltonians and return power to the people at large (hence the name, “Republican”).

Even this earliest incarnation of a political party served regulating, gatekeeping, and pedagogical roles in the body politic. It was a regulating force in government, especially the House of Representatives, where Madison became, for all intents and purposes, the first party leader of the opposition. It was a gatekeeping force through the nomination process, by which party leaders endorsed candidates they believed would pursue party principles once in office. And it became a pedagogical force through newspapers and circulating letters, which informed the broader electorate about political events, with an eye to encouraging support of the party program.

The Republicans fancied their party an ad hoc creation intended to drive the Hamiltonians from government. They succeeded doing that, after which Republican organization began to wane. However, Martin Van Buren employed it to great effect in New York in the 1820s, and when he came to Washington, D.C., as a senator, he intended to restore party discipline nationwide. His belief was that, absent strong parties, personal or regional factions would reorganize politics, to the detriment of Jeffersonian principles like limited government, low taxes, and popular sovereignty. This was the first stirrings of what would later become known as “Jacksonian democracy,” wherein the parties would also serve a mobilizing function, ensuring that voters stayed engaged in the political process. Parties also became increasingly democratized, as decision-making was transferred from congressional caucuses to state and local organizations.

The United States really invented modern party organization before it developed anything approaching a modern state. At their best, the parties — by organizing politics from top to bottom — enlivened republican government. By focusing voters on the issues, ensuring that candidates held views consistent with the parties’ platforms, and regulating the behavior of officeholders in government, the parties helped ensure that election victories led to corresponding policy changes.

But the parties often fell far short of this ideal. Patronage — or the distribution of government jobs, contracts, and other emoluments to supporters — was used by parties to finance their operations. To some degree, this is inevitable and tolerable. But by the 1870s, it seemed to have become the whole point of politics, rather than the means toward a public-spirited end. Even after federal patronage was greatly reduced, the parties (especially the Lincolnian GOP) became too cozy with business interests, which financed politics and in turn expected to receive policy benefits.

By the time of the progressive movement, then, the parties were undoubtedly part of the problem. And thus began a century-long process of disempowering them. Party newspapers disappeared, replaced by “objective” journalism. Party nominating conventions became nugatory bodies, whose only purpose was to ratify the results of primary contests. The parties’ mobilization and pedagogical efforts were usurped by candidates and interest groups. Just about the only function at which the party is still strong is the regulation of behavior in the United States Congress, especially the House.

And so it is that people are aghast that the Democratic National Convention would put its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton. But 125 years ago, this is exactly what was expected of a party organization. Now, it is scandalous, corrupt, antidemocratic. This, despite the fact that the candidate the DNC disfavored was Bernie Sanders, who, though no doubt a progressive, does not consider himself a Democrat.

Personally, I think 19th-century Americans often understood how republican politics should work much better than we do today. Unlike us, they appreciated the utility of parties to good governance.

Only the parties can possibly hope to rope in a broad swath of factions in society, channel their diverse interests into clear policy choices, then hold elected officials to account.

After all, the functions that parties used to serve still need to be served. And without parties filling these roles, who is doing the heavy lifting? Answer: self-interested candidates, high-profile donors and well-heeled interest groups, cable-news talking heads, all-or-nothing single-interest groups, and shadowy super PACs. These are the factions that educate, mobilize, finance, and keep the gates of politics. Yet none of these groups has the depth or breadth of perspective that a political party can possess. Only the parties have a history that goes back for generations and can see a future that goes on for generations. Only the parties can possibly hope to rope in a broad swath of factions in society, channel their diverse interests into clear policy choices, then hold elected officials to account.

Granted, parties behaved very badly during the Gilded Age. Unfortunately, the progressives, rather than trying to reform them, began to denude them. Post-war reformers more or less finished the job by the 1970s. All that is left are well-developed congressional parties, which unfortunately have precious little organization with the mass public. What is left, then, is a national electorate that is less able to exert its influence over politics than the original founders of our parties had hoped.

Robust, all-encompassing, responsible parties are useful for republican politics, and by extension good government. Far from being aghast that the DNC favored Clinton over Sanders, I would like to see a reinvigoration of parties so that they are able to exert this kind of power more often.


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Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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