Interest Groups versus Parties: Is the difference important?

Okay.  So you get it that I don’t like parties.  How, then, do we get anything accomplished as a society?  Doesn’t it take party membership to win an election?

And, anyway, what’s the difference between a political party and a Rotary Club?  Aren’t they both comprised of groups of people aiming to make our society a better place in which to live?

Let’s break those questions down a bit and see what emerges.

Suppose I decide to form a club for the purpose of cleaning up litter around the community.  Ten volunteers sign up to join me every Saturday.  One of our club members is in charge of researching the best location for us to “attack.”  So we meet for breakfast at a restaurant near that location, divide ourselves into teams, allocate specific areas to each team,  then spend the next three hours picking up litter.  We’ve been doing this, say, for the last twenty years.

Would we be correct in calling ourselves the “Anti-Litter Party”?

That depends.  If litter is a major issue in our community–i. e., sufficiently important to cause candidates to win or lose seats in an election–then maybe we could claim party status.  In which case, we would want to register our club as a “party,” so that candidates adopting our label will show up on the next ballot.

I would argue, however, that in today’s United States, a viable party would need to articulate positions on more than one issue.  Candidates for U. S. Senate or House would need positions on such issues as immigration, health care finance, taxation, military action, and civil rights.  Litter might be an important issue in some communities, but it would not rise to the top ten issues to be addressed by our federal government.

Let’s pretend, though, that it suddenly makes it into the top ten.  Would we then be correct in calling ourselves a party just because our one issue had achieved national importance?  I would argue that while we might call ourselves a special interest group, we should still not call ourselves a party.

Here’s the key distinction:  The purpose of parties is to win elections.  The purpose of special interest groups is to advance their special interests.

So, you ask, what difference does that make?

Note that since parties are in business to win elections, their positions on various issues can change radically over time.  Though he ran as a Republican, Abraham Lincoln’s positions on the major issues of his day sound much more like positions taken by 21st Century Democrats.  After all, he favored a big federal government, and he used that government for the purpose of advancing the civil rights of minority citizens.

So, what happened to the Republican Party in the century following the Civil War?  One point of view is that Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 1968 sealed a transformation that had been happening for a couple of decades.  Or maybe it was LBJ, whose advocacy of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 had the effect of co-opting a Republican issue.

It doesn’t really matter.

My point is that the Republican and Democratic parties did not sit down to negotiate swapping their names when their positions on these important issues changed by 180 degrees.  They left it to the voters to figure out, over several election cycles, that what were once clear Republican positions might now belong to the Democrats, and vice-versa.

Hence my problem with parties.  While it might be true that party membership has been proven to enhance a candidate’s probability of electoral success, I would argue that we are old enough as a democracy to grow out of that habit.  We should, in fact, become suspicious of any candidate who wears a party label.

Party membership almost guarantees that a candidate will be forced to accept one or more positions that are different from those the candidate would choose as a thoughtful human being in the absence of party pressure.  In the case of our anti-litter club, on the other hand, we know exactly where the members stand on the one issue they care about.

One of the most extreme examples of party pressure in recent years has been the “no tax pledge” many conservative candidates felt forced to take.  By taking the pledge, they abnegated their roles as thoughtful representatives.  Are all taxes always bad?  Apparently so, if you take the pledge seriously, even if the nation suddenly needed to finance World War III or fix gaping potholes in an interstate highway.

That’s what parties do.  They ask their members to swallow party positions on all issues of importance to the party, leaving the candidate to serve first as a loyal party member, rather than as a representative of the voters.

If it’s really impossible to win an election without a party label, then how is it that more and more candidates are choosing to do exactly that?  I say we reward thoughtful candidates for their independence, but only if they adopt the thoughtful approach of spirited reasoners.

Like wearing seat-belts and quitting smoking, we can make voting for independent candidates the “in” thing to do.