Political Parties Are Vital to Democracy

By Vile, John R | News Sentinel, July 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Political Parties Are Vital to Democracy


Vile, John R, News Sentinel


The approaching Republican and Democratic conventions provide appropriate occasions to recognize the critical role that political parties have played in American politics.

Even those of us who value our party memberships typically praise democracy over party government. Indeed, Americans can hardly get enough of democracy. Although we continue to say our pledges to the American flag "and to the republic for which it stands," we increasingly use the word democracy rather than the word republic to describe the U.S. government, which has, in fact, become increasingly democratic.

The Jeffersonian Republicans, the Jacksonian Democrats, the abolitionists, the populists and the progressives successively initiated democratic reforms that increased political participation, eliminated property restrictions for voting, extended the vote (at least on paper) to blacks, provided for direct election of U.S. senators and prohibited discrimination in voting on the basis of sex.

During the Progressive Era, which expressed disdain for political machines and smoke-filled rooms, many states adopted the initiative, the referendum and the recall, which allowed citizens to introduce and adopt legislation and remove officials from office.

The progressives also invented party primaries. Most of the delegates to the 2016 conventions will arrive already pledged to candidates that voters have directly designated.

In a recent article in The Atlantic provokingly titled "How American Politics Went Insane," Jonathan Rauch argues that in initiating all these democratic reforms, progressives failed to consider the effects on political parties. He is particularly critical of the nation's almost exclusive reliance on party primaries. He observes that the turnout for such primaries is small, the voters largely unrepresentative and the ties to existing party establishments so weak that they produce an inordinate number of politicians like Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump who denigrate their own party establishments. …

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