Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

On Twitter on Wednesday, the Washington Examiner’s Justin Green went after Tom Mann. In a recent (and excellent) piece about the broken Republican Party, Mann wrote that, “For perhaps the first time in American history, the two dominant ideologies have captured the two dominant political parties,” and generally was sympathetic to Austin Ranney’s old criticism of ideological parties.

Green responded, “Oh NOOOOOO!!! The Dixiecrat coalition is dead so parties actually represent things now.” After some discussion, Ian Millhiser of the Center for American Progress jumped in, asking what is wrong with ideological parties, and arguing that they “are a good thing b/c they give voters clear choices.”

So, the dissent.

Yes, to put it perhaps crudely, purely ideological parties (and we don’t really have those) do, in fact, “represent things.” Abstract things. Idea-systems. That isn’t a good thing.

There are three lines of argument available here, each of which I agree with.

One is an Arendtian opposition to ideology in general. Hannah Arendt wasn’t fond of political parties, but made a partial exception for U.S. parties, precisely because they weren't ideological. For her, the problem (roughly speaking) was that ideology introduces absolutes into politics, where they don’t belong. The alternative to a party representing an ideology is for it to represent (groups of) people and their interests. That type of representation allows the sorts of compromises that politics rests on. That kind of system is inherently attached to, and intertwined with, people’s lives in a way that ideology may not be. If ideology as a way of thinking is undemocratic and dangerous, then encouraging it in our parties is a bad idea.

The second problem is more of an empirical one: Most people don’t have an ideology. That’s even true at the basic level of having policy positions that are sorted the same way as ideologues sort them. For example, one can't be for gun control without also being for a higher minimum wage. There is some recent mixed evidence that people who, say, want lower taxes are now more likely to also oppose legal abortion and to have supported the war in Iraq. Still, even that isn’t always the case. And at any rate, we certainly know that people don’t hold well-developed “conservative” or “liberal” ideas about policy.1 So organizing politics as a choice between competing ideologies when most people don't hold those ideologies doesn’t make much sense.

Indeed, thinking of elections and representation as choices, rather than as opportunities to advance our groups or our interests, implies a lot of assumptions that probably aren't correct. Why should elections be about which policy choices we favor? Most of us don’t care or know much about most policies. However, there are some things we care very much about, and we probably have a general idea about whether our elected officials agree with us on those things. Certainly, some of us care about big-picture ideas, and that’s fine. But there are also plenty of us who mainly just want our elected officials to be on “our” side, with “our” standing in for some primary identification group such as an ethnicity, a class or income group, a location within the nation or state, an occupation, a religion, or whatever. Those who want that kind of representation, which may be only peripherally about “issues,” are as entitled to representation as those who want liberal or conservative politicians.

The third problem with ideological parties is the danger they pose to democratic stability. James Madison’s insight was that the main reason democracies, from Athens to city-state republics, didn’t survive (and until the American Republican they mostly didn’t) was a problem of majoritarianism.2 Put simply, any time there’s a clear majority and a clear minority in a democracy, the minority will find its lot so helpless that it will prefer nondemocratic solutions. Madison’s brilliant remedy is twofold: a very large republic, so that no natural majorities will occur, and a set of institutions (checks and balances, federalism, separated institutions sharing powers) that discourage the creation of majorities. What these solutions depend on is that even on those issues where pollsters can find “majorities,” the more important truth is that most people don’t care very much about most issues. So those public-opinion "majorities" don't really exist. Instead, only minorities are for and against most policy areas. The result, in Robert Dahl’s phrase, is “minorities rule,” rather than any single majority winning. That’s important, because people in any temporarily losing minority will still believe they have a chance to win in the future.3

It turns out there are three ways that Madison’s solution to long-term democratic stability can be threatened and real majorities can be created anyway.

One is if the nation winds up divided around a single policy issue. In that case, the majority will outvote the minority, which will have no other recourse within normal democratic politics. That, oversimplifying, is probably the story of the Civil War.

The second is intense partisanship, in which everyone is convinced that all that matters is if their party wins.

The third is intense ideology, when all that matters is if a particular ideology wins.

The problem is clear: combine strong partisanship with intensely ideological parties, and the losing side doesn’t just believe it has lost an election, it feels it has lost the nation. There's no real danger of this happening now. Even in our era of strong partisan voting, relatively few of us really believe our political aspirations are permanently crushed if our side loses the next election. But for those who do feel that way, it's extremely difficult to retain support for democracy when it only promises defeat.

Now, preferring non-ideological parties doesn’t mean a preference for the historically unusual coalition of northern liberals and southern segregationists that made up the New Deal Democrats, much less a preference for the Democrats' historical support of racist policies for almost a century after the Civil War. For now, I’ll just say that it’s hard to treat the one-party, restricted-citizenship South through the early 1960s as any kind of democracy in the first place.

But just as it would be a mistake to reject federalism because it was tainted by “state’s rights” racists, it would be a mistake to reject traditional U.S. parties because of the mistakes of the New Deal Democrats in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. And the idea of democracy dedicated to organizing the polity around fundamental choices of any kind is a bad idea.

1 Or more likely, they hold portions of both; lots of Big Idea ways of looking at policy make sense to lots of people simultaneously. To put it bluntly: many of us agree that government should be smaller and that it should do more in almost every policy area.

2 To clarify what is essentially a translation issue: Madison and others in the 18th century used “republic” to mean the democracy he wanted, and the word “democracy” to mean, roughly, a strictly majoritarian and plebiscitary democracy. Modern democratic theorists generally agree that “democracy” and “republic” are best treated as synonyms. In his terms, Madison wanted a republic, not a democracy, but in our terms he wanted a (particular kind of) democracy. **

3 Madison didn’t really know about political parties, and certainly not mass-based parties. It turns out that parties are essential to democracy, because they are an essential part of representation and of organization. But they don’t have to be ideological to fulfill those roles.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for the article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net