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The Role of Parties

June 14, 2009

George Washington warned against political parties–“faction” as they were known at the time. But there were already divisions within the new republic: Federalists and Anti-Federalists; those who supported the Constitution and those who favored states rights and a looser confederation.

Such differences of opinion are inevitable and they lead naturally to the foundation of coalitions of like-minded people which become political parties.  Birds of a feather flock together.  (In 2008, more people should have had the common sense to understand that Barack Obama, hanging out with radicals his whole life, is himself a radical.)

Despite Washington’s warning, we have an entrenched two-party political system.  Why two parties?  It’s a simple numbers game.  Whenever the voting system is constructed as winner-take-all the choices tend to narrow down to two.  Parties become “big tents” which allow enough variety of opinion to build a winning coalition of voters.  Voters are rational and tend to vote not only for a candidate they agree with but also for one they think will win.  Third parties either fail or get co-opted by one of the major parties.  Compromise and policy direction are worked out during the campaign and formalized in party platforms.

In contrast is the proportional representation–or PR–system which occurs in parliamentary systems such as Israel and many European states.  In this system people are represented in proportion to the votes cast.  As a consequence, parties are narrow ideological parties.  People vote their beliefs and numerous small parties all send representatives to the legislature.  It is only after the election that compromises are made as parties build a coalition to form a majority.  In the worst case, such as Italy, these coalitions don’t last very long, the majority falls apart and new elections are called.  In the best case, one party gains a majority of seats.

Parties also perform the utilitarian functions of recruiting, training and supporting candidates for public office.   Historically, they have been most active during the campaigning season.

All this changed in 1992.

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