Political Parties are good. No, really.

Seth Masket and Hans Noel have a new Political Parties textbook out (I need to take a good look at my review copy and decide if I’ll be switching over to it next spring) and in honor of it they’ve got a nice “Five Myths” on parties out in the Post. Every time I teach about political parties I spend a fair amount of time explaining, essentially, “no really, political parties are good for democracy.”  There are some deep pathologies in the American party system, but, nonetheless, parties are a essential in a properly-functioning democracy.  Masket and Noel:

Myth No. 5

Parties are bad for democracy.

Political parties are indeed profoundly frustrating. But democracies around are a lot healthier with parties than without them. Research consistently shows that state and municipal elections without parties feature lower voter turnout and greater voter confusion.  

At every stage of the democratic process, political parties play crucial roles in getting things done. Without the structure parties provide, logrolling, favor-trading and compromise on legislation would have to start from scratch each time a bill is proposed. Party leaders can bargain with one another on behalf of their members and shepherd agreements that individual members could not achieve.

Something similar happens in elections: The party label provides a useful cue to voters, but it’s more than that. Smart parties help ensure that you have a candidate to vote for who also has support from other voters who (roughly) share your perspective. And in our single-member district system, they ensure that only one such candidate is running, so the party does not split its votes and hand the election to its rival.

Then there’s accountability: When leaders do something you don’t like, you can vote them and their allies out.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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