Building Democracy 2.0: The Rise and Function of Political Parties – Setting the Record Straight

This is part 4 in a multi-part series examining ways to build an inclusive democracy for the 21st century.

Introduction

As described in Part I of these essays, democracy arose at a particular moment to address circumstances facing a society tasked with creating a new form of government.  While it was the outgrowth of social adaptations that preceded it, democracy marked a profound departure from other governments in place at that time.  Instead of viewing individuals as a subject that served more powerful interests, democracy provided a framework that harnessed the intelligence of a collective mind.  Instead of viewing conflict as a threat to stability, democracy channeled conflict horizontally among multiple sources to generate competition, exchange and compromise.  These two innovations sparked a revolution in human development that ultimately circled the globe.

To be clear, the advantage democracy offered centered on the interplay between government and society.  In comparison to other forms of government, democracy created efficiency, cohesion, stability and security for members of society.  No longer did government have to devote significant resources to stifling threats to its legitimacy and its position of power.  It did not demand the relinquishment of freedom in return for security.  Rather, democracy invested citizens in its legitimacy by giving them a voice.  These attributes of democracy created a self-regulating and self-policing quality to governance.  It offered stability and calm without the use of force, and it provided through elections a feedback loop that diverted resources from a few in power to benefit the public.  This in turn expanded the productive capacity of citizens, leading to unprecedented material progress.

At least, this reflects the best hope for democracy.  When our Founding Fathers adjourned in Philadelphia in 1787, it was just an idea written into a relatively brief document:  the U.S. Constitution.  The practices that gave it life at an operational level did not yet exist beyond the most rudimentary form.  Part II of these essays will explore the role of political parties in this process.  It will show that political parties arose early on to provide an institutional framework for those practices necessary for democracy to succeed.

In particular, political parties solved two critical needs associated with the innovations that gave rise to democracy. First, political parties became the mediating institutions that produced soft competition as described in the last essay.  Prior to the rise of modern political parties, those conflicts devolved into destabilizing rivalries for power or disintegrated into divergent factions.  Second, political parties solved the question of collective action.  If democracy depends on the participation of individuals acting independently with diverse opinions and decentralized information, how do they engage, especially when there is no tangible, direct benefit afforded by participating?  Political parties provided an answer to that challenge. Solving these two problems made democracy stable and sustainable.  Without the advent of political parties, democracy could not have flourished.

Before discussing how political parties emerged to meet these challenges, it is important to address a common refrain:  that the Founding Fathers disdained political parties.  Many commentators make this point whenever discussing the current woes of American politics, particularly relating to polarization.  This perception plays well with an audience that increasingly eschews affiliation with either of the two major political parties.  In fact, a strong plurality now identifies as independent rather than as a member of a party.  Unfortunately, this perception impacts the way we look at parties today.  It makes it more difficult to understand those aspects of political parties that are essential to a well-functioning democracy.  Therefore, this essay will focus on what the framers actually said about parties to underscore the point that political parties emerged later as an antidote to the concerns they expressed and were not anathema to the constitutional framework envisioned by them.

Fear of Factions

When the Founders launched “the great experiment” in the late 18th century, there were no political parties in America.  The Founding Fathers were united in trying to defeat a powerful foreign nation and to conceive a new government based on representative democracy.  They studied closely the weaknesses of prior efforts at democracy.  They considered ways to mitigate risks through structures such as a system of checks and balances.  Certainly, the framers had deep concerns about groups that placed narrow interests over the broad public interest of a fledgling nation.  But many observers conflate the framers’ use of the term “faction” and “party” with the modern concept of “political party.”  Contemporary writers generally cite two main sources for the view that the framers opposed parties:  Federalist 10 and George Washington’s Farewell Address.  A close look at both of these writings reveals the terms “faction” and “party” were used to warn against forces fundamentally different from political parties in a representative democracy.

Maurice Duverger’s groundbreaking empirical study, Political Parties, describes the origins of these terms.  He states the word “party” comes from the term used for the “troops which formed round a condottiere in Renaissance Italy.”  Later, it was used for “the clubs where the members of the [French] Revolutionary assemblies met, and the committees which prepared the election under the property franchise of the constitutional monarchies.”  Duverger continues, saying the term now describes “the vast popular organizations which give shape to public opinion in modern democracies.”  In each case, “the role of this organization is to win political power and exercise it.”  Given the understanding of parties and factions at the time of America’s launching, it is understandable the framers feared them.  What they did not know is that political parties in a representative democracy would emerge as a counterweight to the threat posed by factions.

Federalist 10

Federalist 10 offers the most extensive discussion of factions and parties in the Federalist Papers.  Recall that Madison, Hamilton and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788 after the Philadelphia Convention to support ratification of the Constitution.  Federalist 10 responded to one of the biggest arguments made by opponents of democracy:  fear of instability and violence.  In Federalist 10, Madison acknowledged:  “the violence of faction” and the pain inflicted upon “a minor party” by “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority … have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

He describes the term faction as “a number of citizens … who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”  Factions, as understood from history, did not operate within a framework of equal rights under the law.  Madison describes factions as creditors, debtors, mercantile interest, property owners as well as those with “a zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points.”  He understood factions represent an aspect of human nature:

“So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinction have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Madison argued a representative democracy could tame this natural tendency that plagued prior efforts at democracy.  He noted that to operate, a direct democracy must contain fewer citizens “who assemble and administer the government in person.”  Its smaller size makes it susceptible to factions which wield greater influence relative to the overall participants, resulting in “spectacles of turbulence and contention.”  A republic, on the other hand, delegates government to representatives, which allows a “greater number of citizens and greater sphere of country over which the latter may be extended.”  The larger republic can override factions by encompassing a diverse population spread over a large territory so that “the public voice … will be consonant with the public good.”  In other words, the narrow viewpoint of any one faction could never dominate the diverse opinions of multiple competing factions.

In sum, Madison saw factions as groups – small and large – that put limited interests ahead of the broad public interest.  These groups did not advance a platform.  Their success did not depend on democratic elections.  They did not operate according to rules that respected the rights of competing groups.  Factions were a source of violence and conflict because the system in which they operated was limited in size or, more likely, hierarchical.  Whenever a faction gained power, it used that power against the interests of those it opposed.   In response, the Founding Fathers designed the new republic in such a way as to guard against this pattern by distributing authority broadly.

Washington’s Farewell Address

Eight years later, George Washington addressed the nation after serving two terms in office.  By this time, the divisions among political leaders were clear.  Washington had hoped American democracy could operate as a virtuous and ongoing debate by leaders who put the national interest ahead of more narrow agendas.  What he did not anticipate was that rival leaders would develop and organize around fundamentally different ideas of national interest.  These leaders fought for independence.  They fervently supported the new nation and believed their views were consonant with it.  They did not desire to dominate minority interests.  They simply believed policies advocated by their political opponents threatened their vision of the new republic.

A close look at Washington’s Farewell Address delivered in 1796 echoes similar concerns expressed by Madison in Federalist 10.  Washington describes two types of threat posed by factions or parties.  The first type of threat related to parties which divide people by “geographic discriminations.”  He understood how easy it was “to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other [geographic areas].  You cannot shield yourselves too much from the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.” These misrepresentations are used in order to “subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”  In other words, Washington warned against factions that appeal to natural divisions within society such as geographic ones.  These types of divisions threaten to fracture the Republic into its constituent parts.

Next, Washington described another type of threat.  This comes from rival factions within government that spin out of control.  He notes this spirit is “inseparable from our nature.”  It exists in all governments, “but, in those of the popular form [such as the United States], it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.”  He continues:  “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”  “It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration.  It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms….”

This passage reflects Washington’s observations during his two terms as president.  Nascent political parties were emerging.  After refereeing rivals within his administration for eight years, Washington warily observed the pernicious effects of personal ambition that caused leaders to form factions as a way to expand their power.  Interestingly, Washington did not identify factions driven by competing policies or principles as the problem.  Since formal, organized parties did not yet exist, his observations were limited to geographic divisions and the jealous rivalries by those in government – those who put personal ambition ahead of the interests of the Republic.  Like Madison, Washington’s understanding of faction was shaped by the danger posed by self-interested groups in societies that predated the United States

Conclusion

A close look at Federalist 10 and Washington’s Farewell Address shows a keen awareness of the risks associated with democracy.  Without a central authority to quash threats to its power, it is easy to see how narrow interested factions could seek to fill a vacuum.  This had happened so many times before.  Instead of channeling conflict in a productive manner, these groups used conflict to advance a narrow, self-interested agenda, leading to violence and destruction of the government.  What the Founding Fathers did not understand is how groups might operate when authority was distributed.  Further, this process would take several decades to evolve so that political parties functioned as we understand them today.

Unfortunately, when political organizations first arose in the United States to advance a broad agenda by electing like-minded members, a new term did not stick.  Some referred to these early groups as “caucuses” and “committees of correspondence.”  But once formed, they received the moniker of “political party” forever linking them to a term fraught with historical baggage as noted by Madison and Washington.  This is particularly unfortunate given the critical place parties played in channeling conflict productively through the use of soft competition.  The next essay will examine how that happened.


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

Other 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

See More: Voting & Elections