Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All These Strangers

Mori Dinauer says:
But outside of a hard-core set of political junkies who have firm opinions on all matters politics, are highly informed, and aren't particularly willing to change their minds on anything, the public simply is incoherent. This is why strong political parties matter: rather than pretending the public believes what you believe, tell them what you believe and trust them to make a choice. It sounds corny, but that's what democracy is all about.
Ah, an excuse to trot out some arguments about political parties and democracy -- arguments I believe are quite important. Because I disagree. Not about the "public is incoherent" part of it, or that political parties are important -- those are certainly correct.

But for the most part the part of politics that's about incoherent, uninterested folks doesn't really need parties, and certainly not strong parties. For that sort of democracy, all that's necessary is to have some sort of opposition to the incumbent(s), which all by itself creates incentives for those incumbents to run the nation well (which, in turn, should get them re-elected).

So why are political parties important? For one thing, because while most of us may not know or care much about most issues, most of us also have group identifications that matter to us politically, and parties are an excellent shortcut for voters who want to stick with their group (whatever that group might be). That's why people (i.e. early 20th century Progressives) who don't think voting should be an individual, not a group, act tend to hate parties.

Parties are also important because while most of us do not have strong political views on most issues, many of us do have strong political views on some issues, and permeable parties are the best mechanism invented so far to give ordinary citizens entry into the political system -- to give them a chance to actually have an effect on policy in a large democracy. They aren't the only mechanism; people can also form interest groups. But for democracies, parties have the advantage that they teach people to bargain and form coalitions. In other words, parties both provide an avenue for participatory forms of democracy and teach democratic skills.

This is also why, in my view, strong political parties should also find a way to be relatively loose ideological coalitions. Rigid parties are, more or less by definition, not permeable. If firm party ideology covers all issues and is enforced by hierarchical organizational structures, then the only roles for new enlistees are foot soldiers and cannon fodder. If, however, parties are organized so that local groups can have meaningful chances of affecting policy -- whether because they are loose confederations of state and local parties, as they were in the US before 1970, or perhaps now through internet-based self-starting individuals and groups -- then they produce a far more meaningful kind of democracy.

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