Robert A. Dahl. Political parties: contributions to democracy.
In the light of long experience, not only in the United States but in all other democracies, there is no longer any substantial ground for doubting that political parties make substantial contributions to the operation of a democracy--at any rate to a large democracy. To most democrats who reflect on the problem, the positive contributions of parties far outweigh their negative aspects. But in many democracies, not least the United States, the negative aspects stimulate a lively interest in the possibility of reforming the parties or the party system.
The principal contributions of parties, it might be suggested, are three:
They facilitate popular control over elected officials.
They help voters to make more rational choices.
They help in the peaceful management of conflicts.
Yet each of these propositions must be qualified. To explore adequately the contributions and defects of parties, even American parties, would require s volume in itself. The essays, monographs, and full- scale books that appraise political parties and advance or criticize proposals for reform would form a sizeable library.
A brief discussion can nonetheless open up some of the major questions.
One of the strongest claims made for political parties is that they assist the electorate in gaining some degree of control over elected officials and, thus, over the decisions of government.
For one thing, they carry on much of the organizing that makes a large-scale system of elections, representation, and legislation workable. The ambitions that induce party politicians to carry on than organizing tasks may repel democratic purists who would prefer motives closer to those invoked in the noble rhetoric with which men good and bad usually cloak their deepest purposes. Yet, whatever one may think of the motives of party politicians, these men (and women) perform some functions that are essential if democracy is not to dwindle into flatulent ineffectuality: Nominations, for example. In the absence of concerted effort, an election in which a candidate satisfactory to a majority might have emerged victorious may be won instead by a candidate who is satisfactory only to a minority. Surely, it is no virtue if a majority of like-minded voters are presented with three satisfactory candidates to run against a fourth candidate they agree is worse; for if they distribute their votes over the three they like, the fourth may win even though he be the most objectionable. Once like-minded voters see that it is worthwhile to organize themselves around a single candidate they have already acquiesced in the beginnings of a party.
The organization furnished by party is particularly necessary if an opposition is to exist. The dominant forces have somewhat less need of party organization; a President might, for example, operate with a sort of non-party coalition. This is no doubt why party machinery fell into decay when opposition temporarily became merely an exercise in futility during the long death- agonies of the Federalists and before the reappearance of new cleavages around which an opposition could form. When there was no opposition, there were no effective parties. One could also put it the other way around. When there is no party, there is not likely to be an effective opposition. To displace the incumbents, who have the resources of government at hand, an opposition needs to organize, focus its forces, keep up the pressure, draw in every possible ally--all of which spells party. It is, thus, no accident that in Europe it was usually the Labour or Socialist opposition parties that first developed modern party organization-- during the lengthy period they dwelt in opposition before assuming office.