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The Indispensability of Political Parties

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 11, Number 1, January 2000
pp. 48-55 | 10.1353/jod.2000.0016

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Journal of Democracy 11.1 (2000) 48-55

In considering the forces and institutions that enabled democracy to flourish in the postrevolutionary United States, Alexis de Tocqueville paid particular attention to political associations and parties, which he identified as the key institutions of civil society. E.E. Schattschneider, perhaps the most important pre-World War II American student of political parties, put it even more unequivocally, claiming at the start of his now classic work on party government that "political parties created democracy and that modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties." In my own attempt to present a "minimalist conception of democracy," I have stressed the centrality of institutionalized party competition: "Democracy in a complex society may be defined as a political system which supplies regular constitutional opportunities for changing the governing officials, and a social mechanism which permits the largest possible part of the population to influence major decisions by choosing among contenders for political office"--that is, through political parties.

The existence of an opposition -- in essence, an alternative government -- restrains incumbents. An opposition seeks to reduce the resources available to officeholders and to enlarge the rights available to those out of power. Over time, in both new and revived democracies, conflict between the governing and opposition parties helps establish democratic norms and rules.

Tocqueville stressed that although political associations, by definition, seek to impose their views on the polity, in practice the interplay among them has contributed to the emergence of norms of tolerance and the institutionalization of democratic rights. In the then-emerging democracies of nineteenth-century North America and northern Europe, various groups learned that none of them -- neither Catholics nor Protestants, the bourgeoisie nor the landed gentry, adherents nor opponents of monarchy -- could eliminate its opposition without destroying the very fabric of society.

Stable democracy requires the creation of a supportive culture that fosters the acceptance of the rights of opposition, of free speech and assembly, of the rule of law, of regular elections, of turnover in office, and the like. The requirement that incumbents accept the principle of turnover in office is the most difficult to institutionalize, particularly in poor nations with state-dominated economies, where yielding office means not only that incumbent leaders must give up their source of status, power, and income but also that a large coterie of their followers (sometimes millions of people) must yield preferments. Another requirement, almost as difficult as the former, is that parties must have an almost permanent base of support among a significant segment of the population if they are to survive electorally. Parties in new electoral democracies will be inherently unstable unless they become linked to deep-rooted sources of cleavage, as parties in the older, institutionalized Western democracies have been.

Recently, there has been a revival of Tocqueville's emphasis on the role of voluntary associations in making democracy possible, but almost all of the discussion has ignored the fact that he gave priority to political associations (the most important of which are parties) because of their role in stimulating other associational activity. George Kateb has correctly noted that Tocqueville's decision to focus upon parties at a time (the early 1830s) when they were weak and noninstitutionalized "indicates a rare prescience; that he also . . . thought them indispensable to the life of a healthy democracy is even more remarkable."

What do parties fight about? Tocqueville asserted that there are two kinds of parties: those that emphasize ideology and those that emphasize interests. The former "cling to principles rather than to consequences. . . . In them, private interest, which always plays the chief part in political passions, is more studiously veiled under the pretext of the public good."The latter, which primarily represent interests, "glow with a fictitious zeal; their language is vehement, but their conduct is timid and irresolute"(I, 175). The most important and general source of conflicting interests, of course, is class.

The great thinkers of the nineteenth century emphasized class divisions. Not only Marx, but Tocqueville himself pointed to an inherent conflict between the privileged and the poor. He wrote of "those two great divisions which have always existed in free communities. . . . The object of the one is...

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