Political Parties II

After I recently put up a post about third parties, I ran across this excellent passage by Samuel Eliot Morison, from his Oxford History of the American People. The book is a staple at used book stores, and is frequently available for very little money. Morison is an old-time historian, basically a New Deal liberal in outlook. Anyway, Morison is basically patriotic and sensible, and tells the tale clearly and fairly, especially by contemporary standards.

Morison is here talking about Martin van Buren’s political machine in New York in the 1820s:

The Albany Regency’s political system in New York spread throughout the Union, although issues differed from state to state. Party organization in the Jackson era settled into a pattern that has changed little since. In contrast to its British prototype, which exists normally on the one level for electing members to Parliament, the American party existed in three layers, federal, state and municipal. Analysis of the Whig and Democratic parties and their successors reveals a bundle of local, sectional and class interests. Their cross sections, instead of displaying a few simple colors, were a jigsaw puzzle of radicalism and conservatism, nationalism and state’s rights, personal loyalties and local issues. Party strategy was directed toward accumulating as many bundles as possible, and statesmanship was the art of finding some person or principle common to all factions that would make them sink their differences and in union find strength.

And, I’d add, to be perfectly clear, “… and win elections.” This is the way it works and has pretty much always worked. And the question that ought to occur to anyone paying attention is this – how the heck else can you govern a continent-sized country composed of hundreds of millions of people?. I am heartened by the responses I got to the earlier post, which suggests that our ChicagoBoyz backbenchers are not attracted by the siren song of futile and counterproductive third party politics.

10 thoughts on “Political Parties II”

  1. Surely third parties provide a valuable form of last-resort feedback to either of the main parties that are not servicing their constituencies? If, say, the democratic party loses a large number of votes to the green party and it costs them an election, this is a sign that some green party policies should be incorporated into their platform if they want those votes back in the next cycle? Not voting, which is another option for dissatified party members, doesn’t send quite so clear a message…

  2. “A valuable form of last-resort feedback?” No. The Party ignores people who don’t deliver votes and rewards those who do. That is the currency they deal in. So, it is not “feedback”, it is a way to lose elections to someone worse. But, I do hope that the Green Party provides this valuable service to the Donks on an ongoing basis.

  3. Of course – the election is lost because one of the parties fails to deliver a platform that appeals to enough voters. So, from both the perspective of that parties former adherents and the party itself, someone worse wins. I’m sure most party members are always focused narrowly on winning the next election – so, after they’ve lost one because of votes cast for a third party, the question to answer is ‘what do we do to get those votes back?’ An obvious answer is to give some credence to items in the third party’s platform, isn’t it? That’s what I meant by feedback. Or am I missing something here?

  4. Yes, you are missing something. First, give yourself a name of some kind. That’s a point of courtesy around here. Second, you posit this: “The question to answer is ‘what do we do to get those votes back?'” Not necessarily. The question is always, what do we need to do to get 51% in the next election? It does not matter who composes that 51%. The way to do that may be to write off the unreliable zealots and reach farther into the center, and figure the extremists will have nowhere else to go, but if they bolt again at least we still have a scenario to win. That seems at least as likely. So, good riddance is a more likely response. Parties are extremely sensitive devices for finding middle-grounds. Moreover, if concessions are made to the zealots, the party will be less likely to win the general election. Look what is happening to the Democrats. Clinton the centrist won twice. Dean the hardcore Donk is a much weaker candidate than Clinton was. Finally, not being team players, and causing the “bad guy” opposing coalition to actually come to power is not likely to get you very far in terms of concessions. To the extent that any emotion is involved, which happens in politics, the defectors will be considered traitors who handed a win to the bad guys.

  5. First: no discourtesy intended, I apologize. Identity (of sorts) included.

    Second: thanks for your time and the elaboration. You’re right, I was missing something – I hadn’t considered shifting the platform any which way for more votes, rather than to bring back strays specifically. D’oh!

  6. Dan, “shifting the platform any which way for more votes” is the essence of what political parties do — which brings us back full circle to old Prof. Morison’s quote above. It’s what they are there to do, to find some combination, any combination, that will allow electoral victory.

  7. On the other hand, we’ve got a couple of examples of third parties that never came close to winning an election, but got their party platforms written into law anyway.

    The Socialist party of the 1920’s wound up getting most (all) of their platform into Federal law courtesy of the New Deal. And there was a Prohibition party that enjoyed similar success.

    Now whether the existence of these parties caused these things to happen, or whether the parties existed because their platforms were gaining popularity is an important question. But there is reason to hold out hope that (for instance) the Libertarian party isn’t a complete waste of space. If it can pull off the same trick the Socialists did in the 1920’s, we’ll be in its debt.

    And if Bush is going to carry your state by a big margin anyway, it won’t hurt to vote Libertarian in the meantime.

  8. Are we really better off attracted to the siren song of futile and counterproductive old party politics? Reduced government or lower taxes from the two old parties? Futile. Voting for Republicans to reduce government? Counterproductive. That argument works both ways. In Illinois, at least, when you are attracted to the siren song of the Republicans you get doubled state budgets in 5 years, 67 indictments and 56 convictions of Republican operatives. Shall I go on with the siren song of the ILGOP? Actually, the only song coming out of the ILGOP right now is abortion and war. Liberals are blasting the state with messages of higher income taxes, and the ILGOP must be getting a vocal chord transplant as they are deadly silent. I always find it telling when so-called conservatives like to hail the virtues of competition at producing continuous improvement, except, of course, when it comes to political competition.

    But you are right, the two old parties only care about 51%, not about centrist issues or any principles. They would prefer only three people voted as long as two of them went their way. Thinking the GOP cares about delivering on the principles in their platform is futile and counterproductive. They haven’t and won’t and that isn’t debatable. This is why we are at 45% taxation levels and headed to 80%. It is debatable that political competition can improve the situation.

  9. Ken’s point supports my thesis. Those programs were enacted when the activists who wanted them moved “in-house” at a major party and showed that party’s leadership that they could attract, on net, more votes by adopting those positions. Eugene Debs and his socialists helped push both the other parties to the right. Once the socialists of 1900-1910 or so gave up on that approach and tried to work from within the Democratic party, they started to get somewhere.

    Trigger’s point seems to be that the GOP says one thing and does another. That too is typical. But getting someone to say “cut spending!” is easy. Specifying which expenditure gets cut, and having the guts to face down the folks who like that expenditure, that’s not so easy. It is rarely the case that a generic “low tax, cut spending” program can ever have any meaningful effect. Enthusiasm has to be drummed up for particular programs or particular tax cuts.

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