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Should we abolish Political Parties?

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Colin Bird

on 24 April 2017

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Transcript of Should we abolish Political Parties?

Should we abolish Political Parties?
Schumpeter’s conception of parties is not an elevated one. He sees them simply as bureaucratic elites contending for power. Their primary motivation is to attain the votes necessary to obtain power – considerations of political principle and ideological commitment are on Schumpeter’s view at best secondary.
Bob Goodin’s little essay on party democracy offers a rather more optimistic view about both what parties are, or can be, and about some of the democratic ideals that Schumpeter wants us to discard.
Goodin’s argument proceeds through the use of a thought-experiment. (Like Cohen’s camping trip, Rawls’s Original Position, Nozick’s ‘Wilt Chamberlain’ example, and Schumpeter’s ‘mental experiment’ in
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

He invites us to imagine a democracy that is like ours in all respects, but in which there are no organized political parties.

That is, we have: one person one vote; regular, free and fair elections; candidates run for congressional/parliamentary/executive positions on the basis of constituency-based votes; legislation is enacted through democratically elected assemblies; no significant corruption, etc., etc.

But candidates stand as individual citizens, not as members of a particular parties or platforms. There is no co-ordination among candidates around a shared set of policies or principles.
Goodin’s question: what would such a No-party democracy look like, and would it be a desirably democratic society? Goodin’s answer is NO. He thinks such a system would display several fatal disadvantages:

1. Political representation would become fixated on the personality traits of the candidates standing

2. Democratic politics would become less concerned with ‘principles’ or ‘ideas’ or ‘visions’ and be more centered on the representation of the material interests of particular groups and constituencies. This would also affect political decisionmaking in legislatures: politics would become an endless negotiation about how to put together a coalition behind any given policy. A form of ‘patronage politics’.

3. Identity politics would be the norm. ‘Demographically shared interests’ would become central.

4. As a result, legislation would lack continuity or coherence: governments would be hodgepodge coalitions of separate legislators; all legislation would be ‘one-off’, not coherently related to what has come before.
Why does any of this matter, from the standpoint of democratic ideals?

One might say: well, that’s exactly what democracy should be – at least on the no-party model, representation of citizens’ interests is reasonably direct – it isn’t mediated, and hence distorted, by party political elites.

Goodin’s answer to this question:

the no-party model precludes the possibility that citizens ‘give the law to themselves’ through participation in democratic elections.
This undermines the central idea of democratic self-government, which requires that citizens in some sense ‘give the law to themselves’
Here, Goodin’s position departs from Schumpeter’s, for he defends this idea by going back to several claims that Schumpeter rejects, in particular the idea that democracy requires some sort of collective self-determination, and the identification of something like a ‘collective will’.

In the absence of this idea, the notion of a democratic public giving laws to itself, following its own will, won’t make sense and (according to Goodin at least) this must make democracy a sham.

Whereas Schumpeter regards competitive party democracy as a method of political decisionmaking that dispenses with any idea of a ‘collective will’ or of the citizenry ‘giving laws to itself’, Goodin instead claims that the value of political parties consists precisely in the way in which they make it possible for a society to know and follow its own will.
Goodin’s answer to Schumpeter:

in order for talk of a ‘collective will’ to make sense, we have to not only be able to attribute a particular decision to the democratic public, we must also be able to view that decision as taken for reasons that citizens recognize and understand as its rationale. In other words, there must be (what Goodin calls) a collective ‘ratio’, in order for a decision to be appropriately ‘will-like’.

The 'ratio' of a democratic decision refers – roughly – to the reasons WHY it is adopted.

Goodin doesn’t say this, but his thought seems to rest on an analogy between individual and collective decisionmaking. In order for me to attribute some action to you, it’s not enough just to point out that you were causally involved in producing some outcome; I must also be able to make sense of what you did as having some point, purpose, or reason standing behind it.
It’s not clear that one can apply the same logic to collectivities or societies. But Goodin thinks that we can, and that in the context of democratic self-rule, political parties play an indispensable role in identifying the ratio of collective action.

This is because parties are not just (as Schumpeter says) collections of ambitious political hacks who find it mutually convenient to band together in order to promote their goals in a concerted way. They are ‘ideational’, as well as simply ‘organizational’.

If this line of argument is persuasive, then Schumpeter was wrong to give up on classical ideals about the ‘will of the people’. Goodin’s argument would imply that political parties play an essential role, not just in allowing competition over leadership among elites, but also in making the idea of the ‘public’s will’ coherent.

For Goodin, parties allow citizens to give the law to themselves

This requires that political parties be relatively coherent in their ideological outlooks, and reasonably disciplined in their internal organization. Otherwise, we will not be able to read into their choices and actions the necessary kind of ratio.

Goodin also seems skeptical that multi-party systems will in practice tend to be as effective in identifying a collective ratio than two-party systems. On his account, two-party systems will tend to be more democratic than multiparty systems.

Problems with Goodin’s view

1. What about divided government? Or the fact that political parties typically alternate in office over time? Laws are repealed and amended; they also often conflict with each other. Can any coherent ratio be discerned behind all this, even

2. What about those whose favored political party has lost an election? Or who find themselves in a minority? Or whose political opinions are not represented by either of the two main parties? In what sense do
‘give the law to themselves’?

3. The problem of multiple rationales for the same legislation, perhaps supported by two or more parties.

of the problems Goodin claims would arise in 'no-party' democracy
infect party democracy. Patronage. Personality cults. Demographic bunching. Identity politics. It's all there.

5. Goodin's image of parties is surely highly idealized. They are not usually shimmering exemplars of principle, but simply self-reproducing, bureaucratic, managerial, elitist, and oligarchical (think of gerrymandering). Note further:

Political parties compete for votes, but votes don't pay their staff. So, (like all complex organizations) they depend on financial contributions to function and fight elections. Given the ever greater influence of economic elites, it's hard not to see political parties today simply as tools of oligarchical domination.
The amazing, embarrassing, fact that we might be about to have another Bush/Clinton presidential election.
Benjamin Page (left) and Martin Gilens, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens",
Perspectives on Politics
, Volume 12 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 564-581
Gilens and Page describe the current American political system as exemplifying 'economic

Their data suggests that if American economic élites want something, there is around a 45% chance that it will be enacted; if they want to
something, there is only about an 18% chance that it will be enacted.

While their study is not mainly about political parties, it lends circumstantial plausibility to the worry that political parties are simply creatures of wealthy oligarchs, not organizations dedicated to the common good, or to the representation of average citizens.
Possible Goodin response:

OK, I agree that parties, as they are now, don't look like the sort of organization that allows a collective 'ratio' to emerge in the way I recommend.

But this doesn't refute my claims:
that political parties can perform that role, and
that they are necessary for a people to 'give the law to itself'.

This is a good response. Parties may not be
for popular self-government, but they are

However, it is not a decisive response.
Goodin's claim that parties are necessary for a 'ratio' to emerge is true only if there is no alternative mechanism by which meaning and purpose can be conferred on democratic procedures. Surely there are any number of alternative mechanisms imaginable.
1. One possibility might be that platforms, principles, policy goals, policies, might be crafted by independent, nonpartisan bodies with which candidates in a no-party democracy could identify. After all, you don't have to have a liberal or a conservative party in order to have liberalism or conservatism represented in the legislative/electoral process.
2. Another might involve a combination of referenda on matters of policy/principle + an understanding that elected officials have a responsibility to act on the outcomes of referenda, and are subject to recall/being thrown out if they don't. Parties currently both field candidates,
craft platforms. But these tasks could be separated.
3. Or, you might advocate a form of deliberative democracy .....
James Fishkin (left)
& Bruce Ackerman

Ackerman and Fishkin (A&F) represent an increasingly influential strand in contemporary democratic thought, the advocacy of "deliberative democracy". According to deliberative democrats (who come in various stripes), the problems of modern democracy reflect the way in which Western societies have invested in inadequate models of democratic procedure.
The basic deliberative democratic complaint:

Modern representative democracy is too much a matter of unreflective procedures. We simply ask citizens to express their preferences in various venues, and we then apply some procedure to aggregate these votes and reach a result.

The problem with this model, according to deliberative democrats, is that it asks too little of citizens. It does not require citizens, voters, legislators etc. to be particularly reflective about their preferences.
Deliberative democrats lament the tendency for citizens and politicians to be

Superficial/ignorant rather than sophisticated/informed
driven by self-interest rather public spirit
Unprincipled rather than principled
Mindlessly partisan

One can think of Schumpeter and the deliberative democrats branching out in opposite directions from a shared assumption:

modern democratic politics is often stupid, unreflective, and narrowly self-interested.

Of course! Get real: mass politics is inevitably ill-informed, venal, driven by self-interest. Schumpeter: accept this as a fact and find some use for limited democratic procedures (choosing leaders) within basically elitist systems
Deliberative Democrats want to move in the opposite direction. Instead of accepting

the reality of elitist rule
the inevitably blind and unreflective quality of democratic preferences, etc.,

they insist that democratic citizens might be educated to become more reflective, rational, magnanimous through the right sort of democratic participation.
The Forum, not the Market

Whereas Schumpeter’s model of party democracy was the analog of corporations competing for customers on the market, the deliberative democrat’s models for desirable democratic forms include e.g. juries, New England town meetings, committees etc.

The aim in these institutions is not simply to count up votes mechanically, or simply to select leaders or other elites. It is instead to try to reach conclusions that everyone is prepared to stand by and that are relatively reflective and informed as opposed to thoughtless and ignorant.
Deliberative democratic theorists might endorse stronger and weaker expectations of these forms of discussion.

Most strongly (as is often true with juries), groups of deliberators might be expected to reach unanimous conclusions.

Alternatively, they might be expected to reach conclusions that most, but not all, accept.

More weakly still (but nonetheless potentially very important), one might hope merely that deliberation can shake loose unreflective assumptions, prejudices and ideological commitments. The aim here is not necessarily to affirm any shared conclusion, but simply to change participants’ preferences so that they become more reflective about their opinions and perhaps more open to alternative possibilities.

A&F’s proposal only really requires the last of these.
Note that the emphasis in deliberative democratic thought is as much on reforming
as on improving public policy

Deliberative democracy is in part a tutelary, educative project. It aims to create what J. S. Mill called “school(s) for public spirit”, an idea that (A&F) cite warmly. (According to Mill) the citizen in this model:

“is called upon … to weigh interests not his own; to be guided in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the general good … He is made to feel himself one of the public and whatever is in their interest to be his interest”

Concern about freedom: note Mill’s use of the term “made to”?
Deliberation Day
Institute a new national holiday, one week before national elections. Prohibit all work (except necessary services) on that day, and pay citizens $150 each to participate in a day-long process of deliberative discussion.

The procedures would be guided by the leading candidates, and by impartial moderators, but in the end it would be up to local citizens to make of them what they can.
I won’t review the details of A&F’s proposal. But note the following important features of their view:

1. The aim is not to get everyone to agree; indeed, the Day does not require that local deliberative assemblies issue in a clear decision.

2. A & F do not aim to replace traditional party democracy with deliberative democratic procedures. Rather, by making traditional party democracy more deliberative, they want to
give parties and other political elites incentives to resist tendencies toward ‘soundbite’ pandering and
resist what they call 'civic privatism'
Civic Privatism: democratic decisions are simply aggregations of individuals’ private, often self-interested, preferences.

A&F associate ‘civic privatism’ with the Schumpeterian analogy between democratic elections and the economic marketplace. (esp p.143). They cite several factors as encouraging civic privatism:
The secret ballot, which they don’t want to abolish, but which they do think encourages one to think of one’s vote in an unduly solipsistic way
Modern science of public opinion has made it much easier for politicians to pander to self-interest and to reduce serious issues to mere soundbites, and turn political shouting matches into forms of public entertainment.
“Rational Ignorance”: it doesn’t pay citizens to become better informed.
Questions about Deliberation Day

Is it worth the cost?
NB A&F acknowledge that the Day would be expensive – roughly $15 billion per year in direct costs (tho’ that doesn’t include the lost production from the introduction of a new holiday).
what if everyone heads to the beach?
deliberative polling evidence cuts both ways -- why involve everyone? If the aim is to make better public decisions, we need only to have enough people deliberating to make it the case that more justifiable decisions are reached.

Practical details and their effects on representation.
Wouldn’t those involved in ‘essential’ services tend to be systematically underrepresented? Who watches the children on the Day?

Do A&F go far enough in a deliberative direction?
Their proposal is, in the end, a hybrid, an effort to graft deliberative democracy onto a basically Schumpeterian stem. But....

Can political parties be trusted to take the aims of deliberative democracy seriously? Or will they just find ways to subvert the Day, deploying sophisticated public relations strategy, skillfully manipulating the media to mobilize support etc..
Is one day of deliberation really going to make much of a difference?
Wouldn't it be better to abolish parties and replace them with more deliberative assemblies?
Why the focus on the national level? Isn't deliberative democracy better practiced at the local level -- workplace democracy, etc.
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