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In Defense of Political Parties?

In Defense of Political Parties?
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Dear Reader —

Defending political parties is not fashionable. In fact, repudiating our party system — and auguring its imminent demise — has a long history in our country, and not without reason. James Madison warned of the dangers of factionalism in The Federalist Papers, as did George Washington in his famous “Farewell Address.” And our two parties sometimes do seem incapable of responding to, much less representing, the interests of the electorate. 

Jonathan Rauch has pointed out that order — organization — is at once one of the most difficult and most important elements of politics. This seems especially true in a democratic republic such as ours, in which disagreement and difference are constituent parts. Whence the danger of factions — those associations in which “a number of citizens … are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the … aggregate interests of the community,” as Madison put it. Madison saw our system of government, in contrast to direct democracies, as offering a way to check the natural tendency to form such associations — which, left to themselves, would undermine the public interest. 

But is a political party a faction? Not necessarily, at least according to political philosopher Harvey Mansfield. 

Factions are centrifugal, pushing away from a common center toward diffuse and particular interests. But political parties — at least when they work well — are centripetal, drawing disparate interests toward a common center. Through a system of punishment and reward, parties can unite otherwise disparate factions around common goals, thereby providing a vehicle for effective political participation. Think of FDR’s Democratic Party, which included both Southern Dixiecrats and the Northeastern intelligentsia or of Reagan’s GOP, which included both libertarians and religious traditionalists.

If this analysis is right, weakening political parties will lead, not to healthier democracy, but to more factionalism. Our health-care debates may provide a case in point. Republicans appear unable to unite around one of the few policy goals they ostensibly all agree on: repealing Obamacare. The outcome of current negotiations may tell us a lot about the health of our party system.

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


Nine GOP Senators Try to Explain Graham-Cassidy. For Vox, Jeff Stein interviews Republican Senators about the new push to repeal Obamacare.

Time to Retire Social Security Numbers. In our owns pages, Daniel Castro argues our system of Social Security numbers is “outdated” and should be replaced with a high-tech alternative.

The Trump Administration Is Right to Reform 340B. Also in our pages, Jerry Rogers applauds the administration's efforts to reform the federal drug-pricing program. 

The Merits & Demerits of ‘Merit-Based’ Immigration. In The Conversation, Alex Reilly, Kevin Johnson, and Mireille Paquet weigh the pros and cons of a popular immigration proposal.

Rebuilding with Public-Private Partnerships. In RealClearPolicy, R. Richard Geddes advocates a new approach to post-disaster reconstruction that emphasizes infrastructure resilience.

Harmful Provision Buried in National Defense Authorization Act. In RealClearDefense, Andrew Langer argues a “little-noticed provision” in the NDAA “may prove harmful to intellectual property rights.”

‘Bring Me Some Tariffs’? Also in RealClearPolicy, Clark Packard and Devin Hartman warn that trade protections the president wants to impose would harm U.S. manufacturing. 

‘Free College’ Is an Elitist Idea. Washington Monthly’s Anne Kim urges Democrats to drop the idea from their platform. 

What’s Missing from Long-Term Energy Forecasting? In RealClearEnergy, Mark P. Mills contends that future technologies will cause energy use to soar. 

Stopping the Drug Epidemic. In our pages, John P. Walters asserts that the answer lies in reducing the supply of addictive substances.

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