America’s Party Culture, Part I: An Exclusive Club

An efficacious politics requires some degree of exclusivity, even in a democratic society. A functional government is built on choice; politicians must sort through vast troves of information, not all of it reliable, in order to identify and pursue the one course of action most likely to lead to a desired outcome. But it is not enough to lobby for the passage of a specific policy on the grounds that it benefits a certain constituency; broader contextualization, which explains how that policy contributes to the ultimate end of good governance, is also necessary.

Good governance, then, is built not only on choice, but on belief. It is to have deep-seated convictions that actions crafted to pursue a particular set of values will result in the blossoming of a society that is utopian, if only in an abstract sense.

Ideology, then, is upstream of politics. Values ought to inform political advocacy and issue positions because they help to orient governmental action towards a just end. This distinction is particularly important to the recognition that politics is exclusive because there is nothing more discriminatory than belief. Belief is not just an expression of support for a particular idea, it is a rejection of all competing sets of ideas and values as having inherently less worth.

If ideology, which is nothing more than a cohesive set of beliefs, is the center of politics, as it should be, then politics is inherently discriminatory.

But if politics is discriminatory, how can it be efficacious?

This is why political parties exist, to serve as a bridge between ideologues in government and the electorate. Values are not the exclusive domain of government; they exist in broader society. Life, like politics, requires choosing. Systematic belief is a tool for choice; it helps to create a hierarchical order of desires and goals which allow an individual to move towards a positive end. Value-judgments applied at an individual level are not only discriminatory but efficacious.

Since politics excludes personal affairs and deals with those matters which touch on whole swathes of the citizenry, it is impossible for politics to be truly efficacious. No matter the end towards which government acts, the diverse opinions and backgrounds of the members of the polis make it impossible to satisfy the distinct and contradictory sets of needs and desires which individuals possess.

This is an argument for limited government, one whose ideology is primarily concerned with the preservation of civil liberties and moves towards an end that constrains the powers of the state in order to let self-sovereignty reign.

Alas, this definition of political efficaciousness is somewhat arcane. The modern state is one that asserts its powers on behalf of the citizenry. Modern politics behaves more like an advocate for citizens, which is a role few contest.

It is also a role that augments government’s role in promoting efficacy. If government’s end is not just to secure rights conceptually and promote a culture wherein individuals are empowered to define and pursue their own welfare, but rather to secure rights in fact and provide materially for the welfare of its citizens, its ability to successfully do so is the chief variable in political efficacy.

However, this also makes government more discriminatory; the diversity of the citizenry makes it impossible to provide specifically for all, which means it must prioritize need. The citizenry becomes a hierarchical body, organized by those whose needs, according to government’s judgment, are most exigent.

Under such a system, political parties have a particularly important role to play. They connect those in the electorate with representatives who share their ideological beliefs and prioritize need in the same manner. Ideally, they act as a magnifying glass, amplifying substantive ideological divides which naturally exist in the electorate and mirroring them in governmental bodies, especially the legislature. Efficacy is bifurcated. When the party with which one identifies is in power, efficacy is likely to be higher, and vice versa. But efficacy is also operative strictly within the bounds of party politics. It is not government as a whole towards which partisans look for efficacious action, but to the party which espouses a similar ideology.

Parties need strong identities if they are to be viable; the fact that their power is dependent upon their values finding resonance with citizens, who believe ideological overlap will lead representatives to make choices that genuinely reflect their interests, is meant to be a check upon their self-interest. The need to win majorities in local districts in order to rack up a majority in powerful governing bodies ensures that the ideology parties promote reflects constituent needs, not the needs of the party.

Again, this undergirds the notion that politics is discriminatory. Parties are effectively exclusive intellectual clubs; they must be if they are to have any relevancy. If membership expands too greatly, those with competing ideals can muddle the party’s positions on issues, such as providing for constituents’ interests, where a hard-line statement of belief is most crucial.

Ideological flexibility can only expand so far, and it can only come from the grassroots; it cannot be the result of party leaders’ politicking in a bid to expand their influence. When this occurs, the party loses its identity and allows directly contradictory ideas to influence its actions, thus undermining its own relevance and placing it in jeopardy with its base.

Tolerance, then, ought not to be a cardinal virtue, at least not where ideological belief is concerned. Parties can tolerate disagreements over the best way to implement their core tenets of belief, but they cannot tolerate disagreements over the contents of those tenets.