The Trouble with Parties

By Plattner, Marc F. | The Public Interest, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Parties


Plattner, Marc F., The Public Interest


THE presidential election of 2000 presented the United States and the world with a vivid lesson in the power of political partisanship and its potentially damaging effects. Through five long weeks of angry confrontations in the legislature, the courts, the media, and the streets, partisans on both sides disputed a whole series of issues related to the counting of the votes. Not only Republican and Democratic officials but also judges, columnists, academics, and ordinary Americans repeatedly sided with the positions taken by their favored presidential candidate. All claimed to be guided by the public interest, the law, or the principles of justice, yet on every point at issue, no matter how narrow or technical, they almost invariably espoused the view that favored their own party. Virtually no one publicly broke ranks on any matter. The division between the two sides could hardly have been more systematic or more pronounced.

There is, of course, a brighter side to this picture. None of the street protests turned violent, and there were no injuries, much less any deaths. No one seriously suggested that the dispute should be settled on any other basis than that provided by the Constitution. And when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its final ruling on the matter, it was universally if reluctantly accepted by the partisans of the losing side. Though partisanship exerted a powerful hold, its grip was clearly weaker than that of the Constitution.

Why did the broader public interest in maintaining the constitutional order and the rule of law prevail over partisan interests? Several reasons may be cited. First, America's now centuries-old and deeply rooted tradition of reverence for the Constitution posed a formidable obstacle to any resort to extraconstitutional measures. Second, the differences of principle or policy between the two parties, especially on the economic and foreign-policy issues where the president has the greatest influence, were remarkably modest. Third, the livelihoods of most Americans (except for a small number of people seeking political appointments in a new administration) were not likely to be immediately affected by the outcome of the presidential contest, and the prosperity that the country was enjoying diminished any inclination toward seriously disrupting the status quo. It would be folly, however, to expect such favorable conditions always to obtain in the United States, let alone in other democratic countries. These cond itions are especially likely to be absent in newer democracies, whose political institutions inherently lack (in Madison's phrase) "that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability." In less well-entrenched democratic regimes, particularly in Latin America, it has not been uncommon for bitter party divisions to precipitate military coups or even to lead to civil war.

The decline of the political party?

But if too much partisanship can be fatal to democracy, the weakness of parties can also pose dangers. In a legislature with weak party attachments, it may prove impossible to pass needed legislation; the result, as in Yeltsin's Russia, is often to resort to presidential decrees or even the forcible disbanding of the legislature. Conversely, legislators may be easily wooed by a president through patronage or less savory means; in countries with weak parties like the Philippines and Korea, it has been common for presidents elected without a legislative majority to acquire one through massive party defections. Indeed, one of the areas in which the dozens of new democracies established in the past two decades have been least successful is the creation of strong and stable political parties committed to democracy. In part, this reflects the impossibility of "crafting" a party system--unlike most other key democratic political institutions, parties cannot be legislated into existence. …

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