There are all sorts of posts, articles, and op-ed today, musing over whether the Democratic Party has “gone too far left”. Rather than add my voice to the din, I’d like to go off on a bit of a tangent.
Political scientists distinguish among all sorts of different kinds of political parties. Catch-all parties, class-based parties, interest-based parties, programmatic parties, cadre parties, mass-based parties, dozens of different kinds. I’m just going to talk about two kinds of political parties: catch-all parties and programmatic parties.
A “programmatic party” is one in which the party advocates a particular programmes, there is a tight relationship between the party membership and the party’s programme, and there are rules for determining whether you’re in the party or not. A “catch-all party” on the other hand is more loosely organized and it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether an individual is actually a party member or not. You just take their word for it.
The system of elections that prevails in the United States is called “winner take call, first past the post”. Places with such elections tend to gravitate to two and just two political parties. Historically, the United States has had just two major parties at any one time and both parties have been catch-all parties.
Right now both of our political parties are trying to force themselves through painful transitions from the catch-all parties they’ve always been into programmatic parties. The irony of this is that neither political party would have become major parties in the first place if they’d been programmatic parties. They’d have been relatively small, local parties, insignificant nationally. But now they have control of the reins of power, they won’t relinquish them, they’ll block any upstarts, and, well, there’s no one who can stop them in their march to become programmatic parties.
That has several consequences. The fastest-growing party affiliation today is “independent”, i.e. no party affiliation and we get lots of breast-beating wondering whether the Democratic Party has “gone too far left”. It’s just right for some places in the country.
I think that for the United States two programmatic parties and just two is not a comfortable fit. We’re just too large and diverse for that.