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  • The Conditional Implications of Partisan Loyalty
  • Eric Groenendyk (bio)

e. e. schattschneider began his classic book, party government, by declaring that "political parties created [American] democracy" and "modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties" (1942, 1). Empirically speaking, this statement is difficult to deny: despite railing against the evils of partisanship, the founders of American government ultimately founded the American party system. And while this system has gone through many upheavals, parties remain the organizational workhorse of politics and government (Aldrich 1995).

But, normatively speaking, how should we understand the role of political parties in democracy? Are they a wonderful asset? A persistent hindrance? A necessary evil? This is a difficult question because the answer depends on the nature of party loyalty and the institutions that foster it (see Groenendyk 2013). On one hand, party loyalty is indispensable. By binding citizens together and fostering identity formation around a set of policy goals, parties can help overcome the organizational and motivational challenges posed by democracy. On the other hand, these same characteristics also make parties dangerous. If partisan loyalty is blind, then parties can undermine rather than facilitate government accountability. As opposed to helping citizens pursue their collective interests, blind loyalties turn parties into vehicles for demagogues to steer the sentiments of the masses. [End Page 695]


Although we may think of democracy as functioning like a marketplace, wherein office seekers act like policy producers and voters act like policy consumers, democracy is actually much more like a commons (Caplan 2007) or, more generally speaking, a public good. Either we all benefit from democracy or we allow democracy to crumble and none of us benefit. The key challenge, as with all public goods, is that we all must do our part to receive the collective benefits democracy provides, even though we all have an incentive to free ride.

Why is this the case? In the marketplace, consumers make purchasing decisions individually, but in democracy, decisions are made collectively, through the aggregation of votes. Thus, consumers feel the direct consequences of making a bad decision but voters do not. Each voter knows that his or her individual voting decision will have almost no chance of deciding the outcome of any given election. In short, while the market provides consumers with a clear incentive to make good decisions, the collective nature of democratic decision-making means voters have no such incentive. Voters are implicitly, if not explicitly, aware that their vote will not affect the benefits they receive, so what motivation do they have to research candidate qualifications or turn out to vote on Election Day?

This collective action problem constitutes the fundamental challenge of self-governance. Can democracy work if citizens lack an incentive to fulfill their role? According to some scholars, such as John Aldrich (1995), political parties offer the solution, making democracy "workable." The key theoretical innovation underlying this argument is that democracy provides office seekers, in contrast to voters, with relatively clear incentives, and office seekers created political parties to help them accomplish their goals.

The first goal of any office seeker is necessarily to be elected, since one's policy agenda cannot be implemented without winning office. Thus, while voters may lack an incentive to seek out information about candidates, office seekers have a strong incentive to ensure [End Page 696] voters receive their message. And, although voters may have little motivation to turn out to vote on Election Day, candidates have an incentive to make sure their supporters get to the polls and vote on their behalf. In short, office seekers have an incentive to find ways of overcoming democracy's inherent collective action problem.

How do they do this? In the nineteenth century, office seekers organized what came to be known as "party machines." These were hierarchical organizations built to generate party loyalty through local-level political patronage. Although their organizational structures varied to some degree, the "boss" of the party machine would reward his best campaigners (i.e., those who worked hardest to mobilize their neighborhoods, often by any means necessary) with government jobs. He would ingratiate himself to the rest...


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pp. 695-720
Launched on MUSE
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