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Five myths about political parties

  • Author: Seth Masket, Hans Noel
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 10
  • Published April 10

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, is co-author of the new textbook “Political Parties.”

Hans Noel, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, is co-author of the new textbook “Political Parties.”

The American founders believed that empowering factions would undermine the common good. But those same founders quickly formed parties, and a two-party system evolved soon after. Today, the Democratic and Republican parties inspire great loyalty but also skepticism, with critics blaming them for many of the woes of our political system. But how parties function, and how they contribute to democratic governance, generate significant misunderstandings - including these five myths.

Myth No. 1: Social media and gerrymandering cause polarization.

“Social media inflames tribalism and makes democracy more difficult and unstable in many ways,” writes New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in a Politico Magazine feature on ending political polarization. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, has similarly written that social media bubbles promote “hyper-partisanship.” Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann blames gerrymandering — the drawing of political districts to affect election outcomes, often by creating safe seats for Democrats or Republicans — for creating  “hyper-partisanship that paralyzes our politics and governance.”

But modern polarization - the process through which parties become ever more politically distant from one another and people increasingly vote along party lines - began in the 1970s, well before the advent of social media. According to congressional roll call votes and Americans’ split-party voting behavior, the late ’60s and early ’70s were one of the least partisan periods in history. That soon changed. President Bill Clinton’s impeachment (and Newt Gingrich’s demonization of Democrats), a strong party divide over the Persian Gulf War and other highly partisan moments all occurred before Twitter and Facebook were invented.

We also know that the increase in polarization is not driven by gerrymandering, because the Senate has become more polarized alongside the House: Zero Republican senators voted for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan. While the original borders of the states were in some cases drawn for political purposes, they haven’t been redrawn since.

Polarization is largely a result of deliberate choices by politicians and activists to make the parties more ideologically consistent. The work of Democratic activists in the 1960s and ’70s to drive White Southern conservatives out of the party - and the work of Republican activists to woo them - induced the polarization we’ve seen in recent decades.

Myth No. 2: The two major parties shut out third parties.

The “politics industry” is “a textbook example of a duopoly, an industry dominated by two entrenched players,” according to Katherine Gehl, a business leader, and Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School. “While State election laws vary widely,” wrote Mitchell Rabin, a Green Party supporter, in 2016, “a glance reveals that many were designed to keep 3rd party candidates out.”

The two major parties no doubt prefer not to face competition, but this is not why we have only two parties. Political scientists have identified several factors that drive down the number of parties in any given country, and the United States has nearly all of them. The biggest is that we elect officials from single-member districts with plurality rule, a system called “first past the post.” That gives voters an incentive to choose one of the top two candidates - and gives candidates an incentive to join the two dominant parties. The United States is also a presidential system, which means the most important office of all is chosen in a grand single-member district. State-based winner-take-all protocols for allocating electors to the electoral college only exaggerate the effect.

Yet another factor is the remarkably open primary system in the United States. In other countries, figures like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might have formed third parties, but they instead had the opportunity to compete within the major parties - and they took it.

Myth No. 3: Most voters are independent; independents are centrist.

A significant number of Americans — as many as 35 percent in the most recent American National Election Study (ANES) — don’t identify as either Republican or Democratic. Many commentators describe their votes as up for grabs — including David Winston, a Republican operative who wrote after the 2018 midterm elections, “Independents, those who operate in [the] political center, determined the outcome of this election just as they always do.” It’s often suggested that this large group has a distinctive enough ideology to deserve its own party.

But on a closer look, these voters are neither as centrist nor as independent as many believe. It’s true that more Americans describe themselves as “independent” than used to - the figure was 25% in 1954 - but most of those independents vote very consistently with either the Democratic or Republican party. In the ANES, more than 90% of independents who lean toward one party voted for the presidential candidate of that party in 2020, a rate similar to those who explicitly identify with a party.

It surely means something that more and more voters identify as independent, but the word speaks to their alienation from politics rather than their voting behavior. Independents are mostly people who find politics too contentious and don’t want to get involved — even if they usually vote for the same party.

Myth No. 4: The Democratic Party shuts down nonestablishment voices.

Since Trump’s victory in 2016, few are under the illusion that the Republican Party can control an outsider who might crash its primaries. But many on the left remain convinced that the Democratic National Committee is a powerful machine that squelches disfavored candidacies. Naturally, Sanders’s back-to-back nomination losses inspire many of these complaints. “The DNC broke its own charter violations by favoring [Hillary] Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee, long before any votes were cast,” wrote Michael Sainato in the Observer in 2016. During last year’s primaries, the radio producer Grace Curley wrote that after Biden won South Carolina and other moderates dropped out, the meaning was clear: “The fix is in . . . again.”

In truth, the Democratic and Republican parties are two of the most internally democratic parties on the planet. Yes, in the past their systems were far more closed, and presidential nominations were determined by delegates at a convention far from the influence of voters. But now anyone can run in a primary, and party insiders have lost control. In other democracies, primary elections are uncommon, and even where they occur, the requirements to vote in them are high; participants may have to pay dues, for instance. That Sanders, an independent, thrived in two contests shows the party’s openness, not its rigidity.

Myth No. 5: Parties are bad for democracy.

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban has said, “We would be far better off if we gave up our political affiliation and identified ourselves as American.” And the columnist Kelvin Wade is even more blunt: “Political parties are killing us as a nation just like many of our Founding Fathers believed.”

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.

Five Myths is a weekly column from The Washington Post.

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