All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 1984

The Role of The American Political Party System

Dr. Polin, professor of government and politics at St. John’s University, New York, is the author of Modern Government and Constitutionalism. He has contributed occasional articles to The Freeman for the past twenty years.

The Constitution of the United States of America nowhere mentions political parties or otherwise indicates their utilization in the American system of government.

But political parties are instrumental in moving that governmental system, which derives nationally from the emergence of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist parties, respectively in support of and against ratification of the Constitution. And that governmental system could not operate according to its past and present character without political parties. For that governmental system is one that political scientists term party government.

The matter becomes more comprehensible when we distinguish between the form and the character of the American system of government. The written Constitution provides that, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government” (Article IV, Section 4, emphasis added). But the unwritten constitution that supplements our written Constitution provides a democratic character to the American system of government, and it does so by the manner in which American political parties operate and the functions they perform.

Democracy and Republic Explained

We may note at this point, therefore, that American constitutionalism consists in faithful adherence to both our written Constitution and to a traditional set of principles and practices, some of which were already in place and some of which developed after ratification to implement the Constitution. We may note here, also, that this American system of constitutional government has evolved as a democratic republic, and that most Americans do not understand precisely the meaning of these two terms and how they may be found either in combination or one without the other.

The meaning of democracy is better understood by Americans, thanks in good part to Abraham Lincoln’s popularization of the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people” and Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Their dictionaries tell them, clearly and correctly, that democracy is “government by the people,” and they are generally aware that this requires both majority (or plurality) rule and its limitation by minority and individual rights.

Unfortunately, there is not sufficient comprehension among Americans of the meaning of a republic, and so we sometimes hear the erroneous pronouncement that “we are a republic and not a democracy.” The truth is that we are both a republic and a democracy.

But what is a republic? Very simply, a republic is a form of government not headed by a king and where a public office cannot be inherited or owned. Under a res publica (a thing of the people), the government, its land, and its property belong to the people; whereas under ancient forms of absolute despotism, the people, the government, and the nation’s territory and property all belonged to the ruler.

In the eighteenth century, a republic was usually thought of as a representative form of government with a legislature elected by qualified male citizens. In the twentieth century, a republic is sometimes democratic (as in the United States of America, France, Ireland, Israel, and Italy); sometimes communistic (as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, People’s Republic of China, Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia); and sometimes fascistic (as in the Third Reich of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, the Fascist Republic of Italy proclaimed by Benito Mussolini in 1943, the falangist State of Spain under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and many of the dictatorships of Latin America). Thus, a republican form of government neither precludes nor entails democracy.

Limited, Constitutional Government

Under a governmental system that is characterized by constitutionalism and democracy—be it a republic such as the United States of America or even a monarchy such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, or Sweden—an essential feature is that the authority and processes of government are limited by constitutional provisions, tradition, institutional practices, and various groups.

Among these counteracting groups are such different organized and unorganized types as are brought to mind when we mention the media, political parties, civic-action associations, labor, industry, agriculture, religion, education, and the scientific community. Where permitted to operate, they all serve as counterweights that limit government by tending to restrain it from acting harmfully to them and to constrain it to act beneficially to them.

Free media are leading performers of such a dual negative-watch-dog and positive-creative role in an open society. Free political parties are quite similar to free media in that both are initiators and communicators of proposals: they make proposals and recommendations or accept them to broadcast to the public and call to the attention of government. As is also the case with our free enterprise economy, they are free because they are not, in general, operated by government or unduly subject to its control.

Political parties play an additional role in maintaining democratic, constitutional government, however, in that they are involved in effective action as well as discussion: they are at “the cutting edge” of enactment into law and execution of policy. Thus, under a genuine democracy—which must be differentiated from many a so-called “people’s democracy”—political parties are indispensable to its functioning and the preservation of its nature.

Observe the use of the plural here—political parties—for where only one political party is permitted, there is neither constitutionalism nor democracy. There may be a republic, but it will certainly be a case of authoritarian pseudo-constitutional-ism and pseudo-democracy if it be a one-party system of government. Authentic constitutionalism and authentic democracy require that there be an adversary system of political parties that operate freely in the interest of the public, their members, and their clients, but not a party that is a controlled instrument of the government.

Fewer Party Jobs and Favors

In the past, American political parties were customarily looked to for jobs and favors by the party faithful and contributors. Because of the development of a merit system for the civil service that is based largely on competitive examination and the dispensation of welfare and unemployment benefits by government agencies instead of by party bosses, many who formerly clung to the party and tried to keep in its good graces now look directly to government for such help and ignore party channels. As a result, party control over its adherents has greatly lessened, and its influence in neighborhoods has also gone down as community-action and civic-improvement groups have stepped up their activities. In addition, party discipline over legislative members has obviously decreased: today’s legislative party leaders often cannot “whip into line” the increasingly in-dependent-minded representatives of the people who may be enrolled in the same party. But those seeking to advance their interests still make substantial contributions to political candidates, parties, and action committees, especially in this time of super-expensive television campaigns.

Nonetheless, the system of party government prevails and flourishes in America: one party is usually in control of government at the Federal, state, or local level and often of both its executive and legislative branches. In modern national states where limited, constitutional government is practiced, there is either similar control by one party or control by a coalition of parties, which is simply an alternative model of party government. In both cases the central idea of party government is represented: control and direction of the government through the agency of political parties.

Two-Party System Workability

Although complaints are heard that the American two-party system is too narrow in its representation of the electorate, a number of important points in its favor may be listed. It is less confusing to the voter. It makes it easier to arrive at a legislative working majority and decisions instead of having intra-house stalemate. The two major parties make overlapping appeals to the same middle-of-the-road largest section of the electorate; therefore the two-party system neither leads to polarization and eventual head-on conflict of political segments nor to disturbing, extreme alteration of governmental policies and behavior when the opposition is voted in. The average citizen usually finds himself in agreement on enough items with either victor and not sufficiently threatened to become subversive or violent. Also, he knows the time of the next election that will give him an opportunity to vote for a change of results.

The two-party system in America therefore undeniably produces desiderata of the highest order: a unifying consensus, a working majority that is able to effect decisions, and a continuity of successful action that may be called dynamic equilibrium. Dynamic equilibrium may be described in this sense as keeping government in pace with new conditions by bringing about rational adjustment or change in its policies and activities.

Free Parties for Free Government

The political establishment in America and elsewhere has been under constant attack by disaffected elements who are impatient with imperfections and delays and who therefore denounce our political parties as “system-maintenance instruments.” And almost everyone expresses some dissatisfaction with the excessive costs and wearisome duration of campaigns and with the constantly broken promises of those who are elected. Perhaps this criticism may bring about some improvements in the way we elect our public officeholders. Nonetheless, abandonment of the present system of elections and party government is not favored by more than a very few.

The preponderant view of the American public about the role our political parties play continues to be what Calvin Coolidge voiced for them in a quieter time when he wrote (New York Herald Tribune, 30 December 1930):

We cannot weaken or destroy political parties in the United States without weakening or destroying the rule of the people. The party system has been adopted because of necessity. It has been the most efficient instrument of maintaining free popular government. No other method is effective in putting into operation the theory of representation . . . . Those who support party organization and submit to party discipline are supporting the only course yet discovered for orderly government by the people.

Partisan Elections Promote Freedom

No one-party political system, however, can provide such free government by the people; and it may be doubted that a multi-party system has the potential to do so in America. But the two- party system has a demonstrated record of success in America that deserves proper appreciation, especially for its role in promoting political education and freedom. The continuing debate that goes on between our two major parties and their affiliated politicians accomplishes the function of educating the citizenry on public matters and issues more fully, accurately, and convincingly than does a governmental ministry of information or propaganda in a non-democratic society.

Our free media, of course, deserve to share major credit with our free political parties for this achievement, but our principal concern here is with recognizing the contribution of our political party system to our way of life. Accordingly, we should be aware that our adversarial political parties and their elected officials and candidates carry on educative, apportioning, and countervailing functions that are essential to the nature and operation of our democratic republic.

Two-Party System Promotes Unity

It is America’s good fortune that our Democratic and Republican parties, instead of polarizing the public, help to unite us nationally by largely duplicating each other and bringing together a broad section of the political spectrum, including also their more liberal and more conservative wings and personages.

The Democratic and Republican parties also serve to integrate and coordinate the attitudes, policies, and activities of government in America. Thus, they serve to unite our various governments and move them in the same general direction instead of at cross-purposes. It is no accident or mere coincidence that the national, state, county, and local committees of both parties mirror each other and are patterned on our governmental levels and units.

The role of our political parties, then, is to help our team of governments pull together in a dynamic equilibrium by giving them common purposes and shared programs in the public interest. The American political parties help link our governments with each other and with the people in a constantly interactive system of democratic-republican constitutionalism that preserves our basic freedoms and promotes our moral and material progress.