"Who Are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties?" Political Parties and the Problem of Minority Factionalism

By Cost, Jay | AEI Paper & Studies, October 2018 | Go to article overview

"Who Are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties?" Political Parties and the Problem of Minority Factionalism


Cost, Jay, AEI Paper & Studies


Over the past 60 years, political scientists have identified several ways that parties can facilitate representative government. They can solve problems for candidates and officeholders. By organizing the legislature, they can overcome the collective-action problem inherent to large organizations. By creating interbranch networks of fellow partisans, they can facilitate the enactment of legislation. By controlling political nominations, they can regulate ambition. By building large networks of donors, they can mitigate the financial burdens candidates face in mounting campaigns. Finally, by providing voters with information, they can help make vote choices more rational and thus electoral outcomes more predictable. (1)

Parties also help voters by improving democratic accountability. Insofar as the major political parties offer voters a clear choice between competing visions of the public good and how to realize a shared vision, they can transform vote choices among individual candidates into referenda on ideas. The victors can thus claim a mandate to act, and the public's ability to translate its preferences into policy is enhanced. This has often been called "responsible party government." (2)

Without disputing these potential advantages, the American parties as they exist now were generally not developed in a purposeful fashion. Rather, the parties evolved as a response to short-term problems politicians faced in the republic's early days. Indeed, the many civic virtues of the parties are actually a product of a party system, in which the two parties regularly compete against one another. Yet the party system is a product of no intentional design, but rather two sides coalescing to fight the other. The party system, in other words, is more like the British constitution than the American Constitution--a consequence of unintentional accretions that eventually yielded a system of governance and not a deliberative laying out of principles for such a system.

Still, the earliest instantiation of a national political party--the Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison around 1791--was purposeful. As Jefferson, Madison, and their allies were laying the groundwork for a party organization to seize control of the government, Madison explained their rationale for doing so in the pages of the National Gazette, itself a partisan journal.

A careful examination of Madison's "party press" essays suggests the initial intention behind the American political party as a solution to a problem of legislative governance of minority factionalism, which the Constitution leaves mostly unaddressed. The Constitution bases all political authority on the public alone but carefully distributes it to prevent a majority faction from using the power of government for its own selfish ends. But what happens when a minority gains control of government? The framers did not confront this problem, and it was up to Madison and Jefferson to invent an ad hoc solution on the fly, as they believed the Federalist Party of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was such a minority faction.

Putting aside the merits of Madison's grievances against the Federalists, we can glean from his party press writings a clear justification of how political parties educate and mobilize the public against a minority threat and ensure that the public's dictate for housecleaning is carried out in government. If the Constitution is a centrifugal document, distributing powers to reduce the threat of majority factionalism, the Madisonian party is a centripetal institution, concentrating and focusing the public will to cleanse the government of corrupting influences.

To illustrate this thesis, this report is broken into four parts. The first traces the rise of party politics in the United States over the 1790s, so that the election of 1800 came to be the first truly partisan political contest. The second section will begin to explain how this came about, in particular how statesmen such as Madison and Jefferson--formerly skeptics of party politics--came to engineer a new party system. …

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