Who says strong political parties are bad for democracies?

It is the job of political parties to bundle issues, so that voters discount the things they want against the other things they want.

By Frances McCall Rosenbluth & Ian Shapiro (Perspective)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Thu 20 Jun 2019, 8:58 PM

Last updated: Thu 20 Jun 2019, 11:01 PM

Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have sought to bring politics closer to the people. Party members more often elect their leaders directly.
There has been greater use of referenda and plebiscites. Many political parties have adopted primaries, local caucuses and other decentralised ways of choosing candidates.
Districts have been redrawn to ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. In many - especially newer - democracies, proportional representation is favoured as more inclusive of non-majority voters. Unlike single member district systems, which generate two big catchall parties, parties proliferate under proportional representation. Workers, employers, farmers, ethnic voters, religious groups, and nationalists can all vote for parties they expect to fight for them in the legislature. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements: They move decisions closer to the people and they elect politicians who are less remote from - and more responsive to -the voters they represent. 
Paradoxically, however, this decentralisation has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation from politics. Poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties, and institutions, dramatically underscored in 2016 by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's populist stampede to the US presidency. Similar patterns prevail in many democracies, where anti-establishment parties and candidates enjoy unprecedented support from voters. They reject government recommendations in referenda and plebiscites, and they elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago. Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as tossing the bums out shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on the politicians they elect.
There are, to be sure, many sources of voter disaffection. A new Gilded Age has brought unprecedented wealth to the ultra-rich alongside decades of wage stagnation for the great majority. The 2008 financial crisis cost millions their homes and savings, yet their governments bailed out the big banks and paid multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives who helped cause the mess. Corruption scandals have tarnished many governments and leaders, forcing some from office. The United States and other Western governments have poured trillions of dollars into failed wars in the Middle East, with little to show for it besides accelerating public debt, rolling refugee crises, and frightening increases in anti-Western terrorism. Low growth and aging populations add fiscal strains to government budgets, compounding anxieties about health insurance and pensions. Voters have many reasons to be angry.
Yet the apparent paradox is real. The decentralising democratic reforms since the 1960s are a separate, and important, source of voter disaffection. They feed political dysfunction and produce policies that are self-defeating for most voters, even those who advocate the decentralising reforms. The seeming truism - that increasing voters' direct control of decisions and politicians enhances democratic accountability - has, in fact, the opposite effect. Rebuilding well-functioning democracy means reversing this trend.
Much of the misguided appeal of decentralising reforms results from failing to evaluate systems as systems. Reformers typically focus instead on one aspect of the system deemed insufficiently democratic and then devise reforms without attending to their knock-on effects. What to do instead? The central task is to restore centralised control of the much-maligned but core institution of modern representative democracy: the political party. 
It is the job of political parties to bundle issues, so that voters discount the things they want against the other things they want. American voters support unilateral tax cuts when asked about them in referendums such as Proposition 13 in California in 1978, limiting property taxes to one per cent of assessed value. Polls show that voters will support any tax cut when asked about them in isolation, but not if they are told that a particular cut will be accompanied by losing a popular programme such as free medical prescriptions. Then they are forced to discount their preference for lower taxes by their preference of free medical prescriptions.
That is exactly the kind of discounting that parties do when they bundle policies into programmes. They discount everything they propose by everything else they propose in ways that they hope will appeal to as large a swath of the population as possible. 
Weakening parties and undermining their vital function in democratic competition sounds democratic and is often the path of least resistance for party leaders who want to avoid the hard work of working out the compromises and tradeoffs that successful bundling requires. But that is what parties are there for.
-Yale Global
Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro are professors of Political Science at Yale

More news from