What is a political party?

From usatoday.com.

From usatoday.com.

This is a deceptively simple question. Think about it for a bit … can you tell me what the Republican party actually is? I’ve explored party philosophies vaguely in some other posts, but I’ll address it head on here.

Of course you can reply with some witty or hilarious short response, but that tells me nothing about the Republican party itself, nor what it is.

So, I’ll run through what a political party actually is.


Interests and factions!

So, you gotta know what interests and factions are. You ready!?

Interests: What you’re interested in. Maybe you want less taxes (which is probably a vast portion of the United States), you want better environmental protection, better educational standards, the Fed gone, or you could be an average middle class citizen looking for a like-minded candidate. Whatever you are interested in is in fact an interest.

People can have many interests. You can be interested in lowering taxes and philanthropy. You can be interested in social justice and lowering taxes. It really doesn’t matter, but people each have individual interests. There is a mixed bag; some wealthy people want higher taxes, some want lower. Some poor people want more government spending, and some want less — or they really just to be left alone.

The core concept is that an interest is a thing you are interested in … it’s a simple concept, but an important one.

Factions: First, imagine the entire population of the United States as “the people.” This is one giant group. We know that the entire population is not on the same page … like at all.

BUT, there are some people who have similar interests. These people can express their interests formally (nonprofits, citizen groups, etc.) or informally (internet blogs, websites, pub conversation). Either way, people commit to interests, and hence are grouped together by interests. This grouping is what a faction is.

So there can be a faction of lawyers; but then smaller factions can form, such as defense lawyers, civil lawyers, copyright lawyers, or public defenders. So, there can be smaller factions within a faction.

The key with factions is to remember that they are groups of people within similar interests, and each faction can have a certain level of specificity.

… AND!?

Over time, factions tend to align with one another.

Christians, for example, make up a huge portion of the United States (like 80% or something). This is a faction, although there are many specified factions beneath this. But why are Christians (at least fundamental) aligned with the Republican party? Because of similar interests.

The Republican party is “conservative.” What does this mean? Well, literally it means that the party upholds “traditional” social and economical institutions, and is cautious and skeptical of change. Because change can cause conflict. At a fundamental level, the philosophy of your average “conservative” aligns with your average Christian — which is the emphasis on traditional (church, school, family) institutions to hold society together in a coherent way.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, are not interested in traditional pillars of societies. Rather, environmentalists want sometimes radical changes to policy to protect the environment according to scientific evidence. If the conservative party emphasizes non-change, then it’s in the environmentalist’s best interest to ally with the opposite faction; the Democrats.

The Democratic party is “liberal.” Literally, the word ‘liberal’ means a willingness to discard tradition. What’s traditional for a conservative doesn’t matter to the liberal, because the liberal is open to challenging tradition at the potential cost of disrupting society; because it’s better for the longterm. So what’s radical for a conservative is really not radical for a liberal.

POINT: Those factions that share similar philosophical roots tend to ally together. Also, in contemporary American politics, you can see fractures within the conservative (Republican) party. Why? Because social issues are becoming more relevant ever since the ’60 or so, and the Republican party never really make stances on social issues (because they want to appeal to the broadest voter pool possible); instead they only focus on fiscal stuff. But this approach is starting to deteriorate.

Now that it’s becoming apparent that social issues are in fact issues today, the Republican party is showing signs of splitting between more-socially minded Republicans (Libertarians), and more-fundamentalist, traditionalist Republicans (Tea Party).

Why are there only two main parties!?

This is because of the American voting system — there MUST be an absolute winner. It’s a winner-take-all system. While some countries have proportional representation (where representation must reflect party composition), the American system does not.

OK, we know that one person must be chosen. Just by knowing this, there will obviously be only two candidates. Why? Because three or more candidates would screw everything up, and there would be no clear 51% majority with three candidates (unless it’s a landslide).

If you’re an organization representing a pool of voters (a faction), like say the NRA, then your goal is to get somebody in office who reflects your members. As an organization, you are going to want to win with your guy, so you align with the most-logical candidate who is shares your interests. All organizations do this, and over time these interest groups (factions) ally together to form a dichotomous political party structure.

There are two parties in the United States because it’s a winner-take-all system, which forces a competition between two people so that there is a clear winner. I mean really, if there were like 5 candidates, there would be no clear victory and then a runoff would have to happen; so generally the screening process occurs when the two national parties select formally supported nominees (the primaries).

Party development and skepticism!

Well, some of the framers (especially Madison) were skeptical of political parties, and really didn’t like them; but eventually they were created anyway. The worry was that singular ideas and policies (factions) could take over the United States — and this included the faction of the American public at large.

Imagine this: A dictatorial-minded individual runs on the platform of restoring economic order and “American-ness” to the country. This candidate performs speeches that riles everyone up, and everyone thinks, “what a great guy.”

This person gets elected, increases jobs and revenue, and even implements social mechanisms to restore national unity. But there is a cost, and the nation goes to war. Eventually this person convinces everyone that we can’t be a great country until we get rid of some people. So, the leader targets people, kicks them out, or puts them in work camps. Finally, when it’s clear that the country is losing the war, those in camps are exterminated in a last ditch effort to rid them from the country for good.

That example in fact did happen in Germany, and this is what the framers of the American Constitution worried about — any one dominating policy to dictate actions. This is why the framers were skeptical of parties: they thought the parties would devolve into bad policies. Also, this is why we have the Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments).

But, as it stands, there is really no other way of organizing interests so that they are all heard. Also, these interests alignments change over time, and party names change. The South was once the Democratic party. Yup, “the people” demanded slavery and states rights. However, after the Civil War, they shifted values to reflect a “conservative” mindset. Now the South values traditional pillars of society like church, smart business, and minimal spending and maximum saving.

There was once a Republican-Democratic party, which seems ridiculous today. There were Progressive parties, and also the Whig (those who wanted a Parliament) and Tory (those who wanted to stay in the British kingdom) parties.

Also, back in the day, political parties were in fact parties. They were rooted in the local towns, cities, and neighborhoods. Most of the time literal parties would be thrown on election day. So if you were a part of the Democratic party, and voted Democrat, then you could join the party, drink a ridiculous amount, and yell at the other side. … I mean really, can you get any more American?

Finally, there are lots of little political parties that nobody cares about in the US. Really they just take away from the popular vote. BUT they probably would have a higher likelihood of being elected at local levels. So, if you’re a member of the American Communist or Constitution parties, then you should probably start locally — because the voter turnout is ridiculously low and you only have to convince a few people to vote for you. If those smaller parties were smart, they would ally with one another to create a viable third party — which has come somewhat close to happening in American politics, but not yet.

Let me know if you learned about political parties. Hopefully you understand what they are a bit more.



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