Academic Writing

Distrusted and Inefficient: The Role of Parties in America

At the inception of the United States, the founding fathers abhorred the idea that factions and parties would become the characteristic feature of the American political system. Despite this, American political history has seen a multitude of party conflicts that shaped the nation. Even today parties play an integral role in how elections and the legislature function. Primarily parties act as heuristic markers to the public and help identify candidates’ positions and ideologies. However, the founding fathers were not entirely unjustified in their concerns. Party loyalty extends to incredible division among both Congress and the American public, complicating the lawmaking process and discouraging trust in the legislative system. Though parties play an essential organizational role that assists in voter information, the current two-party system characterized by polarization, gridlock, and divisive rhetoric limits the capacity for productive deliberation and representation.

One of the most beneficial roles that parties play in American democracy is providing labels for candidates that allow voters to quickly identify policy and ideological preferences. The idea of a representative democracy depends on an active electorate voting for candidates who they believe most closely represent their ideological desires. In order to encourage voter turnout, it is important to lower the costs of voting. Voter information is one way to lower the cost of voting as the more politically informed a person is, the more likely they are to vote. The problem then arises that the majority of citizens do not have the expertise to make informed decisions about federal issues, so they “rely on cognitive cues or information shortcuts” to make decisions in national elections. Party affiliation is one such shortcut that voters can use. By providing candidates with a party label, parties organize and suggest a general “type” of representative that a voter can choose in selecting a candidate of a particular party. In theory, parties help mobilize voters by making voting less time and thought intensive. However, there are several factors that complicate this benefit. First of all, due to the predominance of the two major parties, each party necessarily comprises a wide variety of candidates with different manners, ideologies, and personal beliefs; one Republican candidate is not the same as another despite sharing the same party. Voters may still have to conduct research during primary elections to determine the difference between particular candidates. Moreover, the discussion thus far assumes that all voters engage in proximity voting, which is when “voters choose the candidates whose views are closest or most proximate to theirs,” but this is largely inaccurate. Rather, voter choice is decided by psychological and social factors, primarily outlined in the Michigan Model as “a psychological attachment to a political party” called party identification. Party identification is an incredibly strong predictor of voter choice, and rarely changes over time; in fact, citizens are more likely to “change their own preferences rather than oppose their party,” in the case that a citizen has a different policy preference. Thus, the benefit that parties provide by categorizing and labeling political candidates, though it does lower the cost of voting, has little ideological significance, instead only reinforcing partisan identification.

In evaluating the role of parties in American democracy, it is worthwhile to consider the responsible party model. First developed in the 1950s when there was very little difference between the parties, the responsible party model states that parties should express the principles and programs they favor, nominate candidates loyal to the party’s program, run campaigns that clarify policy differences between the two parties, and once elected, carry out the party program. For the most part, the two major parties seem to fulfill this proposed role. However, in the aspects of expressing principles and clarifying policy differences, we see that the parties instead rely on hostile rhetoric that increases distrust of the opposition and of the government in general. Sides and his colleagues outline deliberation as one of the four standards of evaluating elections, in which a high volume of high quantity information is made available to citizens that “highlight[s] points of similarity and difference” to help voters decide which candidate they prefer. Instead of this comparison of positions, most campaign rhetoric depends on negativity and attacks, as well as vehement insistence that the other party’s policies would entail severe consequences for the nation as a whole. This is not a new phenomenon; Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad suggests that the very survival of the globe depends on electing Johnson as president instead of Goldwater. What is evident is the public’s growing responsiveness to such rhetoric. In 2016, 45 percent of Republicans viewed Democratic policies as threatening to the nation, while 41 percent of Democrats thought the same of Republican policies. In fact, parties, and especially average partisan voters, have much more in common than public rhetoric makes it seem. Furthermore, in this rhetoric, there is asymmetry among the parties that furthers the divide. In presidential primary debates since 1999, Republicans were much more likely to mention ideologies and principles than Democrats, while Democrats were much more likely to discuss social and demographic groups. This type of asymmetric rhetoric makes it even harder to connect parties with positions and evaluate them substantively.

Divisive rhetoric is just one part of another important detriment that parties introduce in American democracy—polarization. Polarization in itself is not necessarily a disastrous thing, but the legislative inefficiency it causes is. Polarization in Congress today can be largely seen as a result of highly competitive elections, which changes the way that parties act. Parties recognize that the most effective way of implementing their policy agenda is to wait to regain control of the government. Thus, they are unwilling to make compromises with the opposing party in exchange for whatever minimal concessions they may receive. This kind of thinking has predominated in the federal government since the Republican Revolution of 1994. The primary effect of this polarization is a legislature of gridlock and obstruction that restricts the government from enacting necessary policy change. Instead of compromising, the switching of majorities in the House and Senate leads to a history of governance that vacillates between policy extremes. For example, two of President Trump’s largest campaign promises and subsequent actions in office have been overturning Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Furthermore, the role of parties in polarization changes the mindset of candidates seeking election or reelection, as the primary goal becomes about electing a majority of their party in Congress instead of functioning as representatives of constituents’ policy preferences. Not only does this decrease the actual representative nature of elected representatives, but polarization has led to an increasingly unrepresentative Congress. Though the public is indeed polarizing, they have not polarized at the same extreme rate as Congress has, leaving a large section of moderate Americans underrepresented in Congress. As a result, public trust of Congress is at an all-time low of 18 percent of Americans.

For the most part, these characteristics of the party system in the United States seem likely to remain the same. As long as there are parties, candidates will continue to use party identification as labels and rallying points both to mobilize and gain support among voters. There is a potential for slight change if party realignment is observed persisting on from the 2016 election. Some data shows that partisan movement of voters in the Rust Belt would suggests a shifting of historic geographic party strongholds. However, this would only really change voter identification and behavior, not necessarily the function of parties as intellectual shortcuts. As for the harm that parties do to American democracy and society in the form of polarization and rhetoric that leads to inefficient legislature and public distrust, it seems unlikely that anything other than sweeping radical changes to various parts of the electoral and political system would produce substantial change. If one party were to experience a surge of overwhelming majority, there would be the potential to see a return to “permanent minority” behavior and increased compromise, but with stated party identification so evenly divided among American voters, this seems unlikely. One potential reform could appear in the form of judicial elections. Since the legislature is so tied up with partisan gridlock, judicial action at the federal, as well as state and local, levels becomes more important; thus, the effect of parties could be lessened if all judicial elections were required to be nonpartisan. This would free judges from feeling beholden to party supporters once elected.

Currently, parties are an inextricable and integral part of the American political system, and they have both their benefits and detriments for the democracy and society. While they are helpful in organizing and informing voters, once elected, obstructionist behavior and refusal to compromise results in legislative gridlock, producing a government that is unable to respond to the needs of the changing times. Furthermore, both this polarization and a pattern of misleading and vitriolic rhetoric parties use against their opposition decreases trust in the government and causes social rifts, both between segments of the society and between the people and the government. Careful study of the effects and actions of political parties within the United States continues to be necessary, and reforms should be investigated to determine the best course of action to take to ensure the continued effectiveness of the American democratic society.


poli sciSarah Burk