Parties In Liberal Democracies Essay, Research Paper
The State as a metaphysical entity is often taken to be an unavoidable concept at the base of any study of politics. However there exists a more fundamental assumption, that of a society of human beings sharing certain values, interests and beliefs, to which a owes its legitimacy. This is the assumption with which modern political science starts. What role does the political party system play in the interactions between the State and society?
One school of thought has traditionally insisted on a formal separation between the rulers and the ruled, the ordinary members of society and the leaders and representatives they elect through democratic voting systems, as a basis for the study of liberal, democratic, political systems. An analytical study of the relations between these two entities can be more rewarding in terms of understanding the processes by which the representatives are chosen, and an understanding of the social and organisational bases of their influence.
Leiserson in Parties and Politics examines how the distribution of power in a society is reflected in the organisation of political parties. Political organisation serves as a third structure, a kind of bridge linking the two other main structures: the constitutional-legal system and the social stratification system. Thus the origins of parties and the ways in which they organise themselves across the political spectrum are rooted in social structure.
We may define a party system as a formal organisation which allows a social and ideological interaction of politicised individuals. There is also a second field of interaction: the political party provides the connective linkage between the holders of power, who must remain accountable and therefore dependent on their electorate, and the electorate itself, the voting public. This is indeed the crux of a democratic system. Once elected, public policy-makers must remain in touch with and permanently accountable to the mainstream movements in popular sentiment and intergroup feeling. However the party system introduces an additional element to the basic concept of the democratic voting system (representation, legitimacy, accountability, etc). Party affiliation extends to the entirety of a politician s term; that is to say a party member does not just adopt his party s ideological stance for the duration of an election campaign, but he remains subjected to the changes of the broad sentiment of the individuals whose interests he represents and on whose behalf he acts, through the evolution of the party s creed which supposedly reflects these changes. The party acts as an interest group, promoting the interest of the group(s) of individuals it is traditionally associated with. What s more, parties may serve as a point of reference of stability, whereby citizens may attach a certain brand value to the party they chose to support and they may look to their respective spiritual family (von Beyme) for guidance and reference in times of indecision: it s a two-way interaction, which reinforces the linkage between the electorate and the various political groupings it adheres to.
A further ability of the political party system is its structural approach to organising and adjusting political controversies. It permits productive and democratically useful debate, by canalising, even polarising, the multitude of different interests at stake by grouping them under one broad ideological banner, thus allowing, theoretically, even the smallest of minorities to express itself by adding its voice to a larger group with similar ideological roots, whilst avoiding a fragmentation of public debate. Any two Labour-supporters in the UK may not necessarily agree on every point of the party s manifesto; but as long as they agree in principle of the majority of the issues the party feels most strongly about in aggregate, the democratic representation process is complete. Edmund Burke in his definition of a party speaks of some political principle on which all members are agreed. Thus the party is the key element, the key link in indirect democracy. The party must adjust and coordinate the interests of the value and power-seeking rational individuals and the groups they form, sometimes alienating certain members, other times gaining new adepts, but on the whole respecting and furthering the achievement of the purposes of the group association. This demands strong leadership, coercive authority and responsibility exercised by not just one leader but a structured elite of officials.
However, the political party system certainly leaves a lot to be desired. First of all, there exists an effective oligopoly in the party competitive arena: if the voters are discontent with all available parties, there is little scope for them switching their support to a new entrant because it is very hard to create a new party., especially when existing parties have already deeply penetrated social structures. Hence the cynical comment that in any election one votes for the least bad party rather than the best.
Furthermore the lack of information, and the difficulty of collecting and collating it, leads voters to search for short cuts to making a rational decision on which party to vote for. As well as producing detailed policies, parties present general ideologies as vague as possible so as to maximize their electorate. David Robertson in A Theory of Party Competition shows that parties will change their policies in the pursuit of maximising electoral success. In a two-party system like the UK s, parties have been criticised for becoming increasingly less distinct from one another as their policies seem more and more similar. Today s typical voter has less time to spend on collecting information and in view of the absence of any real, clearly-defined political agenda on offer, he becomes increasingly disillusioned and consequentially disinterested with and alienated from the democratic voting process. This is a flaw of the democratic political party system, one which could be addressed with a new kind of political organisation.
What are the alternatives to a party system as a suitable basis for a democratic political organisation?
With the exception of the United States and the United Kingdom, the political party is but a late arrival in the parade of accepted institutional modes of representation. One alternative to party politics suggested in The United States is a military bureaucracy controlled by elected civilian politicians, but this would in effect undermine the democracy itself, like it has done in Latin American countries ruled by military juntas under a pretence of republican government. Leiserson points out that civilian control of the military and separation of church and state have displaced two of the traditional rivals to party government in the modern state.
Otherwise, mass media (newspapers, radio, television, cinema, etc) has arisen to challenge the central function of the political party as the primary agency of political education for the individual. The influence of party affiliation can be undermined by the function media fulfills as a purveyor of information, as it addresses the need for information of the modern interested citizen who wishes to make an informed decision. This power of mass media can be used to influence public attitudes and voting patterns when party organisation is weak. The ability of mass media to propagandize indirectly and subtly should not be underestimated, and parties themselves can indeed make use of this potential.
Another alternative to the political party are interest and pressure groups. Interest groups can be distinguished from parties by the fact that their officials do not usually seek office, their normal methods of operation are to acquire influence in the non-governmental sectors of the economy. Were interest groups to formally organise their relations with one another in a similarly structured way to that in which parties do in a political party system, one could imagine a viable alternative to the latter type of organisation, with informal negociations between collections of interest groups with similar interests replacing the open fighting and bickering that often characterizes adversarial party politics (especially in the two party electoral systems of the West). In such a system elections would determine interest group leaders. However one may argue that one is simply substituting parties with interest groups and not changing very much.
A final rival to the political party is the more feasible concept of abolishing party strife and merging all parties into one, with the obvious examples of Nazi and Communist regimes, but also of the DeGaullist RPF. However the idea that a one-party system eliminates politics is merely an illusion: rather it conceals political strife from the public eye. Internal cleavages do occur, such as with the RPF which eventually split, after ten years, into a more representative array of political groupings across the political spectrum. In Nazi Germany, the single party system concealed the struggle between the party, the army, the bureaucracy and the industry for the attention of the Leader. Besides, one-party politics undermines many democratic values, such as freedom of speech, association and political opposition.
The problem with adversarial party politics is that parties tend to govern in a sectional interest rather than the national interest. Parties alternate in power in a cyclical fashion, each party undoing what its predecessor has done, but no party actually acting in the interest of the group as a whole, but rather in that of its supporters.
The example of Switzerland has shown that it is possible to represent the interests of most groups in an approximate fashion in spite of recent strains caused by rising support for the extremist People s Party.