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In the recent elections in India, voters faced a dizzying choice between candidates and political parties.

Around the world, voters appear to be turning away from traditional political organisations, but can democracy survive without them?

From Knowable Magazine

In 1796, President George Washington lambasted political parties for allowing “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” to “subvert the power of the people”.

His indictment seems brutally timely today, just a few months after 147 Republican US congress members publicly challenged results of the most recent US presidential election. But even long before then, many Americans shared Washington’s concern.

The popularity of parties is at a nadir, with both the Democratic and Republican parties in the US widely condemned as not only unrepresentative but also hijacked by elites. Indeed, a steadily increasing share of US voters – 38% in 2018 – identify as unaffiliated with either party. That proportion is now larger than the share of voters identifying with either Republicans or Democrats.

It seems to be an international phenomenon. In Europe, for example, traditionally powerful centre-left parties are being accused of ignoring their voters, potentially contributing to a backlash that helped push the United Kingdom into Brexit.

The mounting animosity toward the parties has inspired debate among political scientists. Defenders of the traditional party system contend that democracy depends on strong, organised and trustworthy political factions. People in politics often try to go around parties, to go directly to the people. But without the parties, we’d have chaos,” says Harvard University political scientist Nancy Rosenblum, who explores the challenges facing political parties today.

Yet a small group of scholars, many of them young, say it’s time to start visualising a more open and direct democracy, with less mediation by parties and professional politicians. Such proposals were seen as “completely fringe” until a decade ago, says Hélène Landemore, a political scientist at Yale University. But events including the 2008 economic crisis and Donald Trump’s 2016 election as president, she says, have enlarged the scope of debate.

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The choice between candidates and the political parties they represent has become a defining feature of most democratic elections (Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

The choice between candidates and the political parties they represent has become a defining feature of most democratic elections (Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Several trends have sped the declining popularity and power of the parties in the United States. Party-run patronage schemes that rewarded supporters with government jobs have long given way to more meritocratic systems. The rise of independent political action committees has given candidates a source of campaign funding — around $4.5bn (£3.17bn) in the last decade – outside the party channels that once dominated access to campaign money. This has made many candidates more entrepreneurial and less beholden to the party bureaucracy.

Thirdly, parties now determine their candidates through primary elections instead of with meetings of party insiders. Just 17 primaries were held in 1968 – today every state has a primary or caucus. This switch to universal primaries has shifted influence from party veterans to more extreme activists, who are more likely than average voters to vote in primaries, says Ian Shapiro, a political scientist at Yale. In 2018, the Democratic National Committee even cut back on the influence of superdelegates, the hundreds of party VIPs who also had votes in selecting candidates. This was to reassure voters that party officials were listening to them, the DNC’s vice-chair said at the time.

In many parts of the United States, partisan gerrymandering has contributed to making candidates less representative of their constituents by creating “safe seats” for both parties. That means that the winners are, in effect, decided in the primaries that pit Democrats against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans. This phenomenon helps explain the 2018 election of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, then a 28-year-old democratic socialist who had never before held elected office, says Shapiro. Ocasio-Cortez beat an establishment Democrat in a primary in which less than 12% of voters turned out.

Not everyone agrees that political parties are weaker today than they once were. Today’s extreme polarisation means that much of the public is more strongly attached to their own party, says Rosenblum, and party-led voter suppression or voter mobilisation efforts in fact make party leaders more powerful than ever.

Parties serve many other important roles, including facilitating compromise, says Russell Muirhead, a political scientist at Dartmouth University

Still, Shapiro and many other experts believe political parties have suffered a major loss in clout, which in turn has been a loss for democracy in general.

“Political parties are the core institution of democratic accountability because parties, not the individuals who support or comprise them, can offer competing visions of the public good,” write Shapiro and his Yale colleague, Frances Rosenbluth, in a 2018 opinion piece. Voters, they argue, have neither the time nor the background to research costs and benefits of policies and weigh their personal interests against what’s best for the majority in the long run.

To show what can go wrong with single-issue voting that lacks party guidance, Shapiro and Rosenbluth point to California’s notorious Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot initiative that sharply restricted increases in property taxes. At first, the measure seemed like a win to many voters. Yet over the years, the new rule also decimated local budgets to the point where California’s per-pupil school spending now ranks near the bottom of a list of the 50 states.

Parties serve many other important roles, including facilitating compromise, says Russell Muirhead, a political scientist at Dartmouth University and Rosenblum’s co-author. As an example, Muirhead points to the US Farm Bill, which the two parties renegotiate roughly every five years. Each time they sit down, “the Democrats want food support for urban people and Republicans want support for farmers, and somehow, they always come to an agreement,” Muirhead says. “The alternative is favouring one side or simply passing nothing at all.”

Perhaps most important, the US’s two main parties have traditionally cooperated in acknowledging their opponents’ legitimacy, as Rosenblum and Muirhead write. Other nations, such as Thailand, Turkey and Germany, have banned political parties that their governments have seen as too destabilising to democracy. American parties’ cooperation has helped keep the peace by reassuring US voters that even if they lose today, they may well win tomorrow. Now, however, this fundamental rule is being broken, say Rosenblum, Muirhead and others, with some party leaders even accusing their opponents of treason.

Despite the tense and often combative party politics in many countries, political parties also find room for compromise and work together (Credit: Bill Greenblatt/Getty Images)

Despite the tense and often combative party politics in many countries, political parties also find room for compromise and work together (Credit: Bill Greenblatt/Getty Images)

“The key thing going on now is that we have an explicit argument that the opposition party is illegitimate,” says Rosenblum. “Trump has been calling the Democrats the enemy of the people and illegitimate, and saying the election is fraudulent. This is the path to violence, as there’s no way to correct this with another election.”

Political parties throughout the world have lost considerable goodwill and influence, says Shapiro, yet he suggests that rather than ban them or further sap their power we must strengthen them and make them more reliable. He and his colleagues advocate reforming campaign financing, to eliminate the currently chaotic bidding wars for candidates’ loyalties, although that goal continues to be elusive. To combat the rise in extremism, they also urge that the job of redistricting go to nonpartisan commissions instead of gerrymandering.

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To further reduce the risk of primaries increasing polarisation, Shapiro proposes that party leaders be allowed to choose candidates if the turnout in a primary election has fallen below 75% of the turnout in the previous general election.

Landemore and her faction contend these ideas don’t match the urgency of the current dilemma. She invites people to imagine how democracy might function with less or even zero reliance on political parties and particularly without costly and potentially corrupting political campaigns. One possibility, she says, would be to randomly appoint groups of citizens, chosen much as today’s juries are, to lead government, while rotating in fixed terms through a permanent “House of the People”. These citizens’ assemblies would be more representative than the current US Congress, wrote Rutgers University philosopher Alexander Guerrero in a 2019 opinion piece, in which he advocated choosing representatives by lottery.

Several European nations have already tried alternatives to party-driven democracy

“In the United States, 140 of the 535 people serving in Congress have a net worth over $2m (£1.4m), 78% are male, 83% are white, and more than 50% were previously lawyers or businesspeople,” he wrote.

Several European nations have already tried alternatives to party-driven democracy. In 2019-20, France held a Citizens’ Convention on Climate, calling on 150 randomly chosen citizens to help devise socially just ways to reduce greenhouse gases. In December 2020, the French President agreed to hold a referendum on one of the convention’s suggestions, the inclusion of climate protection in the national constitution.

And in 2016, the Irish Parliament assembled 99 citizens to deliberate on stubborn issues, including a constitutional ban on abortion. A majority of the assembly proposed that the ban be struck down, after which a national referendum confirmed the result and changed the law – all accomplished without involvement of established political parties.

Despite the limited impact of these efforts to date, Landemore says the tide of public opinion is turning. Just five years ago, colleagues mocked the notion of an “open democracy” at a political science conference, she says, adding: “Five years from now I’m guessing we’ll be completely mainstream.”