David Brooks and Political Parties

David Brooks has an intereting column out today in the NY Times. You can read it here:


His main contention is that people mainly "inherit" their parties either from family or from society. This is true enough. Most people are democrats because their family or town is democratic. A good illustration of this is the famous dictum that: I was born into the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party.

His next major point is that people mold their philosophy to fit their party. People do not choose to be a republican or a democrat because they favor limited government or a strong centralized state, they become a democrat or a republican and then adhere to its principles.

I do not wish to dispute Brooks on this point. But I would like to mention the great benefit that political parties bring to this Republic. It is true that the founders did not anticipate the political parties. Yet it is my contention that political parties fit pretty well within the federalist scheme that Hamilton and Madison articulated in the Federalist Papers. In Federalist 10, Madison states that greatest cure to the diseases of Republican governments is to

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Madison claims that the problem with Republican forms of governments is faction. Factions are groups, whether a majority or minority that are united by passion or interest against the interests of the rights of the people or the common good. Because republican governments have elections, factions will vote their way into office and distribute benefits accordingly.

In order to get Republican government to work, a cure for the problem of faction has to be found. Madison proposes the following solutions

1) To create a legislative body where the views of the people (factions) must be passed through (Madison later expands on his theory of the legislature to include bicameralism, with one large body and one smaller body to constantly check eachother)

2) To extend the sphere of the republic, making it large.
3) To create free commerce within this large republic to prevent large factions from even forming.

Madison's argument has proven correct. A large commercial republic prevents serious factions from even forming. In smaller countries torn by civil war and despots, there is usually very few commercial opportunities and it is very easy to form a faction. This does not exist in America. We have thousands of different careers and opportunities available to us. Thus, warring factions are prevented from even forming.

But it is here where political parties come into play. The greatest challenge to Madison's formulation came from John Calhoun, who claimed that this formulation would lead to logrolling. If a faction could not gain a majority through honest debate they would attempt to do so through building a coalition. Calhoun is right but he is missing the bigger picture. It is here where the advantage of the 2 party system is seen.

The two political parties are basically loose coalitions of various factions who come together to form a working majority. While the republicans tend to be the party of limited government, there are many smaller factions within this working coalition that disagree on a lot of things: there are libertarians, social conservatives, neoconservatives, business interests, religious interests, etc. Likewise the Democrats are also a loose coalition of people who generally favor a larger government: environmental interests, consumer interests, labor intersts, some religious interests, etc.

In order for either party to gain a working majority, they must elect someone who is not extreme and comes across as fairly moderate. This in and of itself prevents extremism from even forming. It doesn't mean you will never get someone who is decidedly towards one side of the spectrum (LBJ and Ronald Reagan), but it does moderate it. Notice how stable our government has been in the past 100 years. Whenever reform gains a strong sentiment around the world, we always elect someone who is much less extreme than other countries do. Likewise, today, the democratic candidate has to distance himself from the extremists in his party in order to have a chance at gaining a working coalition. John Kerry has to come up with a plan for WINNING the war on terrorism or else he will lose the election.

I know that during this election season there is going to be a lot of yelling and screaming about how the two party system is destroying our way of life. But keep the above in mind whenever someone says it. Then, you can quietly chuckle at them.

Note: I am in no way implying that Brooks disagrees with anything I said. His article merely provided me with an attempt to articulate this view.