Building Democracy 2.0: Parties and the Challenge of Voter Engagement

This is part 6 in a multi-part series examining ways to build an inclusive democracy for the 21st century.


We have now seen the close relationship between political parties and democracy.  Within the first decade of this nation’s existence, parties emerged as an effective tool for democracy by clarifying differences on major issues, advancing legislative agendas, demanding accountability on votes and seeking electoral support to create new working majorities.  Democracy requires a government capable of managing conflict, which arises from a free-for-all of factions vying for influence.  Political parties provide an institutional framework for these factions to coalesce and advance their agendas.  The competition among parties ultimately leads to outcomes in the public domain.  Given our cooperative nature, the idea of banding together into parties to compete in the political realm seemed natural enough, especially in light of the rewards from doing so.

The role of parties would continue to grow in the 19th century.  As the nation expanded into new territories, it also expanded the franchise to new demographics.  Many states began allowing white males over 21 without property to vote.  The number of eligible voters increased significantly.  With it, the complexity of engaging citizens in the political process became more difficult.  In 1788, it was relatively easy to engage a small group of elite property owners.  Many knew those standing for election.  It was a different story for those who lacked economic means, education and an awareness of the candidates.  A much larger and economically diverse electorate would test the young nation.  How do you engage the broader public in the democratic process when there is no direct, tangible reward for doing so?

Adam Smith described “an invisible hand” at work in the private economic realm where producers and consumers allocate resources to optimize a market of goods and services.  However, the public realm is different.  With public goods such as the national defense or public education, an individual’s consumption does not diminish the supply.  Public goods are available to everyone whether they want it or not.  In these circumstances, “consumers” have little incentive to act because they receive the benefit of public goods regardless of their participation in the political process.  This presents the classic “free rider” problem.  To work effectively, public goods require a mechanism for collective action.  In other words, individuals must see a reason to participate when they receive the same benefit regardless of their actions.

This essay will examine the challenge of collective action and how political parties evolved to solve this problem.  It will describe the election of 1828 as a turning point when political parties became “mass parties,” engaging a large audience in the political process.  It will consider the advantages and disadvantages of parties playing this role in a democracy.

The Theory of Collective Action

From today’s perspective, it can feel strange we celebrate a constitution that, when ratified, recognized the voting rights of such a narrow slice of humanity.  As noted, less than 2% of the U.S. population voted in the first election.  Each step to expand suffrage took decades – if not centuries – marked by reversals with the erection of new barriers.  The arc of American history chronicles this important struggle.  However, we seldom consider the flip side of the story.  Why is it that so many who do have the right to vote choose not to exercise that right?

Of the dozen or so nations today that practice compulsory voting, the United States is not one of them.  The concept never took hold here.  So far, our concept of liberty includes the freedom to opt out of the political process if so desired.  We have not seriously considered compulsory voting even though allies such as Australia require voting in federal elections.  As a voluntary practice, voting in the U.S. is uneven at best.  Since the early 20th century, turnout in federal elections typically ranges between 50-60% of eligible voters (between 35-40% of the total population).  In other words, a large number of Americans choose not to participate in the democratic process.

These low levels of voting reflect the challenge of public goods.  There is little chance an election will turn on one person’s vote.  Except in extraordinarily rare circumstances, we receive the same product (i.e., the same elected representative and attendant actions) whether we vote or not.  And many voters may not like the choices available on the ballot.  Finally, there is a cost associated with voting.  It takes time to learn about the candidates, who can range from judges, to state auditors to soil and water district commissioners.  It also takes time – often from paid work – to register and get to the polling site where you may encounter long lines.

These factors have produced a theory called the “calculus of voting.”  Similar to the social choice theory mentioned in the last essay, the calculus of voting arose after World War II when academics sought to apply economic models to human behavior.  It provides a useful framework when thinking about what factors can affect an individual’s decision whether to vote in an election.  The formula is as follows:

R = PB + D – C

R denotes the anticipated reward to an individual for casting a vote.  The formula asserts that a person will vote if R is positive.  P represents the probability that a particular vote will impact the outcome of the election.  B denotes the differential benefit an individual receives if his/her preferred candidate prevails.  D refers to the intangible satisfaction someone gains from voting such as a sense of civic duty or a show of support for a particular candidate regardless of the outcome.  Finally, C represents the costs associated with voting mentioned above.  In sum, P and B relate directly to the outcome of an election while D and C impact a decision to vote regardless of the outcome.

This formula reveals the extent of the collective action challenge with democracy.  Since the value of P is usually close to zero, P times B (PB) is low even if the differential in outcome to a voter (i.e., B) is particularly high.  As a result, theorists posit that variables D and C have the greatest impact on whether an individual decides to vote.  Essentially, do the intrinsic rewards from voting outweigh the costs of voting?

We can see this calculus play out at a demographic level.  Recall the previous discussion of positive liberty.  Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work concludes that regions in Italy with a richer civic tradition have much higher rates of voter participation.  Such traditions happened to correlate with income and access to strong social networks.  These same factors are at play in the U.S.  Over 70% of those with a bachelor’s degree vote while only about half of those with a high school degree turn out.  75% of citizens making more than $150,000 per year vote while fewer than 50% of those making less than $50,000 per year manage to vote.  Of course, older Americans turn out in much higher numbers than young people.  For many, voting feels like a special privilege considering their everyday struggles.

Based on these factors, we can see why so many opt out of voting.  At a societal level, this phenomenon is problematic.  As described earlier, one of the great values of democracy is the collective mind.  The participation in an election by a diverse population drawing from decentralized and private information creates a valuable signal for those in government.  It helps society to perform more efficiently and optimally.  Low rates of participation by voters distort governmental decision making, and ultimately, threatens to alienate segments of society because certain viewpoints are not represented.  This in turn increases social costs.  Therefore, solving the collective action problem and maximizing participation of voters is critical to democracy.

1828 and Formation of the Mass Party

Political parties came to play a pivotal role in solving the collective action problem.  Just as parties helped overcome the disconnect between individual preferences and group outcomes, they also found a way to lower the cost of voting and increase the perceived benefits – both intrinsic and real.  John Aldrich’s Why Parties recounts the way parties accomplished this, focusing on the election of 1828.  In this election, leaders revived the competitive party system after a period of decline and built a mass operation that turned out voters in historic numbers.  Those actions marked a significant step forward in the organization of political parties and would shape the direction of parties in the U.S. going forward.

After the initial party formation in the 1790s, competition waned.  Many significant issues related to the Great Principle, as Aldrich called it, were resolved.  Hamilton, who drove much of the policy debate with his expansive vision of federal power, met an untimely death in 1804.  American politics entered a period known as “the Era of Good Feelings” (I know, it’s hard to imagine such an era today).  The Federalist Party declined – unable to expand its reach much beyond the business elite in the Northeast.  The Democratic-Republican or Jeffersonian Party dominated as one Virginian after another reached the White House.  Madison and Monroe succeeded Jefferson.  All three Virginians served two terms.

With no clear successor to Monroe in 1824, several strong candidates emerged, including John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William Crawford.  They all ran as Democratic-Republicans. Jackson won the popular vote with 41% while Adams came in second.  It was the first presidential election where the winner did not achieve a plurality of the vote. Since no candidate won the electoral college, the outcome was thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives.  Adams ultimately prevailed amid charges of “a corrupt bargain” with Clay, who was named Secretary of State.  With this background, the stage was set for a rematch between Adams and Jackson in the 1828 presidential campaign.

Martin Van Buren, a U.S. Senator from New York at the time and ally of Jackson, proved indispensable in masterminding the 1828 campaign.  He began by reviving the two-party system.  Jackson would run under a newly formed Democratic Party, and Adams would run under the banner of the National Republican Party.  Van Buren recognized that the expansion of the franchise to include those without property as well as the addition of new states to the Union offered fertile ground if voters could be properly mobilized.  Infrastructure improvements, including new communications and transportation systems, would facilitate such mobilization.

Construction of the first mass party flowed from an organizational structure.  It began with a nucleus in Congress – members who were opposed to Adams and saw the benefit of aligning with a potential new president in Jackson.  Van Buren spearheaded this step, convening members to form a group known as “the Caucus.”  The Caucus had the ability to raise money and oversee a national campaign from its vantage point in Washington, DC.  The next organizational step extended to the states.  The Caucus worked relationships with state and local officials to establish an alliance that could orchestrate activities on the ground at the local level.

Lastly, a mass party relied on turning out the vote. Efforts to mobilize voters centered on the calculus of voting by reducing the cost of voting and elevating the value of voting.  The Democratic Party achieved this in several ways.  It organized mass rallies throughout the country.  Those rallies generated enthusiasm for the candidates.  They featured bonfires, alcohol and raising hickory poles to advertise “Old Hickory.”  The party leadership engaged a sympathetic partisan press and also subsidized a chain of newspapers.  Charges that Adams gambled in the White House at public expense along with a number of other offenses stoked the rhetoric.  All of these efforts required significant resources that only a party organization could provide.  Ultimately, they paid off with a victory for Jackson.

Scholars have collected data to determine the extent to which party organization impacted the outcome of the 1828 election.  The “strategic party theory” hypothesized that the Democratic Party would expend the greatest resources organizing those states with the greatest return on investment.  At this time, New England had the strongest state organizations.  However, Adams was likely to win those states based on the outcome in 1824.  The South had little party infrastructure so the cost to organize was high and Jackson was likely to win based on the prior election.  Therefore, the Democratic Party focused its efforts on the Mid-Atlantic states where there was some existing organization and victory would tip the balance of the Electoral College in Jackson’s favor.  The results show that turnout jumped by nearly 42% in those states with a party organization as compared to 18% in states without such a structure.  While some have theorized that turnout reflected the popularity of Jackson or recent expansion of suffrage, the comparison among states with mobilization efforts demonstrates the impact of party activity.

Two aspects of this period are worth noting.  First, the Democratic Party did not emphasize much of a policy agenda. Due to Jackson’s notoriety as a popular war hero, party leaders did not have to expend significant resources educating voters on his brand.  It was the party of Jackson.  This tactic allowed state and local party leaders to tailor messages specific to their voters.  This characteristic of American Parties – downplaying a central and cohesive policy agenda – would persist well into the 20th century.  Second, turnout increased significantly in the 1828 even though only one party possessed a mass organization.  By 1840, turnout hit one of the highest participation rates in American history at 80%.  With a competitive two-party system, nearly all segments of the population eligible to vote were engaged by one of the parties.  Every voter mattered.  These high participation levels would continue until the end of the 19th century.

The Leviathan

Voting, like many other activities associated with public goods, poses a dilemma mostly due to the free rider problem.  We have seen how political parties arose in part to resolve the dilemma.  While a significant number of voters choose not to vote, many do vote because political parties work hard to lower the cost and raise the satisfaction gained from voting.  The hickory poles of 1828 have morphed into bumper stickers, registration drives, phone banks, “lit drops,” letter writing, door knocking, rides to the poll, and now relentless texting.  Nevertheless, it feels uncomfortable leaving to political parties the job of solving the problem of collective action, especially considering the debates we face over voting in the 21st century. Political parties have a self-interest.  A party organizes and expends resources to mobilize those most apt to support its candidates to the exclusion of all others.

Despite the self-interest, parties are best positioned to play this role for several reasons.  The alternative is not particularly attractive. Thomas Hobbs was one of the first political theorists to confront this problem.  He considered how a society addresses issues where the optimal outcome depends on collective action.  In the absence of trust and a robust civic culture, Hobbs turned to third party enforcement.  A third party would require everyone act so that those who spend time and effort doing so would not be “penalized” relative to those getting a free ride.  There are at least two problems with this approach.  Utilizing coercive enforcement is expensive and inefficient, requiring an apparatus for such enforcement.  This approach also requires a neutral party that is trustworthy.  If it falls on the federal government to see that everyone votes, those who control the government could use such authority for their self-interest.

On the other hand, political parties fit neatly within the new social construct embodied by democracy.  Elections created a market comprised of voters making choices about government.  As government grew more complex and required more resources and positions to carry out its actions, the benefits accruing to political actors increased.  As within any market, entrepreneurs create enterprises that help them compete for those benefits.  Political parties became the enterprise with sufficient resources for politicians to compete and win elections.  Such competition ensures that the self-interest of a party in engaging only certain voters is countered by another party that engages other voters.  Consequently, consumers in the form of voters are served by a healthy market of producers.

While political parties are a necessary aspect of any healthy democracy, they come with a price.  As with any group activity, parties rely on our proclivity for tribalism.  As noted earlier, parties can move from soft competition to hard competition under certain circumstances.  Democracy relies in large part on behavioral norms.  While competition is fierce, participants abide by certain guardrails that ensure reciprocity by opponents.  When those guardrails erode, participants no longer follow the unspoken rules of the game.  They may even try to undermine the written rules.  We have to recognize that competition in a free market carries significant risks.  Competitive parties are essential for a robust democracy, but they have the potential to undo democracy.


Political parties emerged as a tool for democracy shortly after this nation’s founding.  They provided an antidote to the framers’ concerns about factions by binding disparate groups into a productive force to drive policy and legislative action.  As the electorate expanded and the political system grew more complex, democracy faced another challenge – one of collective action.  Political parties helped solve this challenge by working creatively to engage voters who have a marginal incentive to participate in the political process.  By the time the U.S. had two parties actively competing to mobilize the masses, voter turnout increased dramatically.  High levels of participation by voters is critical.  Democracy depends on the input of a diverse electorate to provide a signal for the priorities of society.  Although political parties have a self-interest in selectively mobilizing voters, competition among multiple parties ensures a healthy marketplace for voters.  The alternative of requiring and enforcing voter participation poses its own problems.  Therefore, political parties are the best available vehicle to solve the collective action problem even if our tribalistic nature can threaten democracy if not properly contained.

Mack Paul is a member of the state advisory board of Common Cause NC and a founding partner of Morningstar Law Group.

Parts in this series:

Introduction: Building Democracy 2.0

Part 1: What Is Democracy and Why Is It Important?

Part 2: How the Idea of Freedom Makes the First Innovation Possible

Part 3: The Second Innovation that Gave Rise to Modern Democracy

Part 4: The Rise and Function of Political Parties – Setting the Record Straight

Part 5: How Political Parties Turned Conflict into a Productive Force