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Are Political Parties Consistent with Democracy?

By       Message Paul Cohen     Permalink
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George Washington
George Washington
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In 1796, George Washington ended his second term as president. In his farewell address he warned the nation against factions:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Washington's warning against factions (political parties) had about as dramatic an effect on future developments in this nation as Eisenhower's prescient warnings to the nation about the growth of the military industrial complex; both warnings went entirely unheeded. Washington's immediate successor, John Adams, became the nations first Federalist president the very next year and every president since then has been affiliated with one or another political party. With very rare exceptions there have been exactly two parties of any significance competing against one-another and giving voters a very limited selection to make.

Democracy continues to fall short of its promise, remaining only a hope that is at best only imperfectly fulfilled. So possibly George Washington was quite correct about political parties (factions) being incompatible with democracy. But if he was correct and that is a significant reason our democracy has such flaws, does that mean we must somehow banish political parties? Or is there some alternative approach that might bring our country to a more acceptable approximation of a democracy?

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There are, to be sure, benefits from political parties. They provide funding for campaigns for office for example and they provide contacts and training for people entering the public arena. But our political parties hold enormous power and there is good reason to think that concentrated power in the political arena is as worrisome as we understand it to be in the economic sphere. But perhaps the problem that troubled our first president was not political parties alone but that he understood that there would likely be only two, and that these would necessarily be very big and powerful political. Probably he even understood how power corrupts.


In earlier articles we have seen that there are opportunities, by changing our voting system, to encourage a larger number of political parties to thrive. I won't belabor that point here, but rather turn to exploring a vision of how we might hope elections to be conducted were there more competition.


What if we had an electoral system that allowed considerable freedom for individuals to run for office and what if many people decided to take on that challenge. With modern communications technology these candidates would all have an opportunity to present themselves to the public, but only a few exceptional ones would become well known. With an excessive number of candidates a single election would likely be quite unmanageable; voters would find so very many unfamiliar candidates. It seems clear that there would probably have to be some way to winnow the field down to some manageable number of candidates.

This need to reduce the number of candidates points up an important service that our two-party system now serves - to reduce the number of candidates, effectively, to two (which, using plurality voting, is the most candidates that can be handled while expecting a sensible outcome). With no limit on the number of political parties, some way to reduce that field of candidates to some manageable number would still be needed. The typical voter cannot be expected to contend with more than a few candidates.

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Any time there is a large enough collection of candidates, we could expect every candidate to be familiar to some voters but probably not all of them. And it might be that no voter would be familiar with all of them. But even in these conditions, with a more appropriate voting system (Balanced Ration voting would seem a particularly good choice for this purpose, but perhaps there are even more suitable ones) a preliminary election could be held to retain five or perhaps ten candidates to compete in a final election some time later. In the interim between the two elections, the finalist candidates could have a chance to campaign and debate to allow voters to learn about them. That way, all of the voters to have an opportunity to develop and express an opinion on all of these finalist candidates. This final election could again use the same voting system but with only a few candidates it might instead use balanced approval voting or some other system.


But what about political parties? Nothing would prevent them from continuing to exist or to choose candidates to sponsor and support. What would change though is that they could (and should) become completely private organizations without any official status. Government would not, as it does now, sponsor primary elections to help parties to choose their candidates nor would government be involved in managing party membership lists for political parties. There would be no need for government even to know to what party (or parties) any voter belongs and that probably would be a good thing.


Some voters might remain unaffiliated with any political party but other voters might choose to become members of several different parties and to participate in the choice of several different candidates. Government would not, as it does today, dictate that a citizen is limited to supporting just a single party; the parties would manage their own affairs and have no more involvement with government than than an organization such as the Elks Club receives. Getting government out of the corrupting responsibility it has taken on, managing the voting rolls according to political party, would eliminate a major source of election fraud.

We might wonder whether George Washington would be disappointed to find us allowing the corruption he envisioned with political parties. But perhaps he would be smiling to observe this sort of separation of factions from government and this alternative approach to limiting the power of factions and avoid the unavoidable hostility that seems unavoidable when there are just two factions.

Later in this series there is another article that relates in a general way to the topic discussed here.

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A concerned citizen and former mathematician/engineer now retired and living in rural Maine.

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