On Restoring Responsible Political Parties

A trend in western democracies has been to decentralize party politics, giving voters direct say in making decisions. Yet primaries, ballot initiatives, referenda and term limits weakened political parties as systems. Voters “elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago,” explain Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro in an essay based on their book entitled Responsible Parties. “Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as tossing the bums out shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on the politicians they elect.” The 2008 global financial crisis along with widening inequality and corruption add to the anger. Governments can reverse the trends that threaten democracy by strengthening party power, giving party leaders ability to block unsuitable candidates. The essay offers recommendations for restoring party leaders’ ability to construct platforms with broad public appeal and select the most competent leaders for carrying out priorities. – YaleGlobal

On Restoring Responsible Political Parties

Strengthening democracies requires centralized political parties that can propose policies with broad appeal and long-term benefits
Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro
Thursday, June 20, 2019

Narrow decisions on big issues: The 2016 referendum that mandated Brexit has produced chaos; Britain also decided by referendum in 1975 to remain in the European common market

NEW HAVEN: Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have sought to bring politics closer to the people. Party members more often elect their leaders directly. There has been greater use of referenda and plebiscites. Many political parties have adopted primaries, local caucuses and other decentralized ways of choosing candidates. Districts have been redrawn to ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. In many – especially newer – democracies, proportional representation is favored as more inclusive of non-majority voters. Unlike single member district systems, which generate two big catchall parties, parties proliferate under proportional representation. Workers, employers, farmers, Greens, ethnic voters, religious groups, and nationalists can all vote for parties that they expect to fight for them in the legislature. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements: They move decisions closer to the people and they elect politicians who are less remote from – and more responsive to – the voters they represent. 

Paradoxically, however, this decentralization has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation from politics. Poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties, and institutions, dramatically underscored in 2016 by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the US presidency. Similar patterns prevail in many democracies, where anti-establishment parties and candidates enjoy unprecedented support from voters. They reject government recommendations in referenda and plebiscites, and they elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago. Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as tossing the bums out shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on the politicians they elect.

There are, to be sure, many sources of voter disaffection. A new Gilded Age has brought unprecedented wealth to the ultra-rich alongside decades of wage stagnation for the great majority. The 2008 financial crisis cost millions their homes and savings, yet their governments bailed out the big banks and paid multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives who helped cause the mess. Corruption scandals have tarnished many governments and leaders, forcing some from office. The United States and other Western governments have poured trillions of dollars into failed wars in the Middle East, with little to show for it besides accelerating public debt, rolling refugee crises, and frightening increases in anti-Western terrorism. Low growth and aging populations add fiscal strains to government budgets, compounding anxieties about health insurance and pensions. Voters have many reasons to be angry.

Yet the apparent paradox is real. The decentralizing democratic reforms since the 1960s are a separate, and important, source of voter disaffection. They feed political dysfunction and produce policies that are self-defeating for most voters, even those who advocate the decentralizing reforms. The seeming truism – that increasing voters’ direct control of decisions and politicians enhances democratic accountability – has, in fact, the opposite effect. Rebuilding well-functioning democracy means reversing this trend.

The key to dissolving the apparent paradox – that devolving power to the grassroots increases voter alienation – lies in understanding the relations between voters' interests and what the governments they elect can actually do once in office. Focusing on this question leads us to advocate a single member district system that typically generates two large parties that compete to form governments and regularly alternate in power. But the parties have to be strong and centrally controlled. Party leaders should be elected by – and retain the confidence of – backbenchers to remain in office. Leaders should play a major role in selecting candidates to compete for their party in elections, so that over time backbenchers and frontbenchers select and reselect one another. Traditionally this was known as the Westminster system, although in recent years the actual system in the United Kingdom has been adulterated in various ways.  Some changes, such as greater regional variation that operates at odds with the goal of producing catchall national parties, have resulted from self-conscious reform, but there are ways to counteract their baleful influence. Others, such as greater grassroots participation in leadership selection, fixed parliaments, and reliance on referenda, are ill-considered reforms that weaken parties and should be reversed.

Much of the misguided appeal of decentralizing reforms results from failing to evaluate systems as systems. Reformers typically focus instead on one aspect of the system deemed insufficiently democratic and then devise reforms without attending to their knock-on effects. We illustrate and buttress this contention by exploring ongoing debates about primaries, caucuses, direct election of leaders, majority-minority districts, term limits, and ballot initiatives choice of party leaders, all of which are regularly invoked in the name of increasing representativeness and grassroots democratic control.

The results are often perverse. Primaries and caucuses allow extreme minorities to pick candidates. Visible signs of this in the United States are the Tea Party’s power over congressional Republicans and Donald Trump’s selection in 2016 by a highly unrepresentative 5 percent of the US electorate. In the UK, direct election meant that activists reelected Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader when he had just lost a confidence vote in his Parliamentary Party by 172 to 40. Majority-minority districts often weaken parties that serve minorities’ interests. Term limits increase the gridlock that most voters abhor: Why work with lame ducks when you can just wait them out? Ballot initiatives generate myopic decisions that often frustrate voter preferences. Rather than enhance democracy, these disconnected reforms create Rube Goldberg machines that undermine it.

What to do instead? The central task is to restore centralized control of the much-maligned but core institution of modern representative democracy: the political party. The American Progressives of the late 19th century were not wrong to take aim at corrupt party machines that traded favors for votes, but not knowing how to eliminate corruption without undercutting parties, they went too far. In replacing smoke-filled back rooms with primaries and local caucuses, they inadvertently robbed voters of the very thing they hoped to restore: democratic accountability. As long as party leaders are forced to compete with leaders of an opposing party also hoping for an electoral majority, they are in the best position to forge platforms with long term and widespread benefits. Competition within parties undermines this by holding leaders hostage, instead, to intense minorities with narrow interests. Ballot initiatives and referenda have similar effects. They sound more democratic, but this is an illusion. Party leaders need to be freed from their clutches so that they can stitch together coherent policy platforms and select competent candidates who are capable of carrying them out.

If political competition is indispensable for political accountability, district-based systems such as those in the United States need radical restructuring in light of what has been done to them in recent decades. In the Unite Kingdom, it would be smart to reduce the number of constituencies at least by 50 to 600 as was suggested in a recent report on boundary commissions proposed, and arguably by more. Britain’s constituencies are a third the size of Germany’s single member districts in their mixed system, and a tenth of the size of the typical congressional district in the United States. In an ideal world, every electoral district would be diverse in ways that mirror the nation’s diversity across the range of issues that voters care about. This might be a bridge too far, but given the wealth and prosperity differentials between London and the rest of the country, it would be good to include a sliver of London in every British constituency. The median voter in each constituency would then better resemble the national median voter, and their elected representatives would find it comparatively easy to agree on policy priorities. Backbenchers in the legislature would be happy to delegate authority to their party leaders in order to get legislative work done and protect the party’s brand into the future.

American geographic diversity puts that arrangement out of reach unless the nation were to adopt fully non-geographic districts. That extreme solution would in any case generate its own pathologies. More realistically, reformers should insist on continuous and non-partisan adjustment of district lines to maintain the competitiveness of congressional elections. This recommendation flies in the face of recent history, in which state legislatures have relentlessly redistricted with exactly the opposite purpose: to create the maximum number of districts for their own party while wasting as many votes for the opposite party as possible with super-safe districts. In most districts, this means that the primary election is the only contest of any consequence and competition between the parties falls by the wayside.

Majority-minority districts have a similar effect, undermining competition and in the end failing to serve the interests of the minority voters they are intended to benefit. There are better ways to achieve diversity in legislatures, such as the reservation of seven out of New Zealand’s 120 parliamentary seats for Māoris or the comparable provision in India dating back to the Poona Pact of 1934, which reserves 84 out of the parliament’s 543 seats for Untouchables and other scheduled castes. Similar measures can enhance gender diversity without diluting democracy’s competitive lifeblood. Making every district accountable to the preferences of voters in the political middle would go a long way towards both moderating the stances of American legislative parties, and strengthening their leaders at the expense of the shrinking number of outliers.

The pathologies we identify are not limited to single member district systems like the United States and the United Kingdom. Proportional representation systems, while less than optional to begin with, have also suffered from the misguided impulse to increase grassroots control in the name of democratic accountability. Low-vote thresholds to protect small parties, open list systems that let voters select individual representatives on party lists, and the use of primaries when lists are drawn up all produce intra-party competition that rewards small groups with intense preferences. These reforms undermine healthy competition over national programs, promoting logrolling deals and special interest politics. Better to increase thresholds, forcing small parties to combine, retain closed lists to strengthen party leaderships, and use counting rules that tilt in favor of the largest parties. Whatever the system, we make the case that reforms should move away from smaller weaker parties toward larger stronger ones. Strong political parties play a vital role in identifying, competing over and defending the broad interests of the voting public.

Internally disciplined and hierarchical parties might seem undemocratic, but the leaders’ authority is granted by the party’s parliamentary backbenchers for their collective good. All are in the same boat and they know it. Party members know they are better able to get and stay elected when they offer coherent policies; and everyone knows that if they lose confidence in their party leaders to provide that coherence, they can choose new leaders who can – as the swift departures of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and David Cameron in 2016 underscore. Parties that are broad-gauged, encompassing an electoral majority, and disciplined enough to enforce majority- enhancing deals, are as good as we can get in a democracy. Voters know not only what the party stands for, but also what it will implement in the event that it wins the election and becomes the government.

Even Westminster is merely good – not great – because every attractive attribute of political competition has a countervailing flaw. Favoring the majority at the expense of minorities has a substantial drawback, especially if some voters are permanently in a minority on any issue. But many of the standard solutions to this problem make it worse. Instead, we advocate reforms that do avoid entrenching balkanized electorates while undermining democratic competition. It might be true that there are some vulnerable minorities that will not be adequately protected by any electoral arrangements, particularly when ethnic and racial inequalities consistently map onto inequalities of income. Even in that case, vulnerable minorities are better served when politicians are not given incentives to campaign on political platforms defined by ethnicity and race.

End runs around the electoral system do not work either. Ethnic and racial minorities stand no better chance of gaining political ground in a system based on checks and balances such as the American one because those systems tend to fall prey to powerful groups rather than work to protect weak ones. The evidence is now overwhelming that most advances achieved by vulnerable minorities have in the United States have come through legislatures, not the courts – protestations by lawyers to the contrary notwithstanding. Comparative evidence confirms that separation-of-powers systems with independent courts do no better than parliamentary democracy at protecting vulnerable minorities. Indeed, courts have undermined democratic competition in the United States since 1976 by declaring money to be speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, disproportionately empowering the well-heeled to work their will in the American political process.

Likewise with plebiscites and referenda. Britain had never had a referendum before Harold Wilson called one in 1975 over remaining in the European Union. In those pre-Thatcherite days, it was Labour that was divided over Europe, which was seen less hospitable than Britain to workers’ legal protections under UK law. Rather than do the hard work of fighting it out within his party, Wilson put it to a referendum in which Remain beat Leave by 67.2 percent to 32.8 percent. Pleased with himself as a Cheshire cat, Wilson opined in his autobiography:   “…It was a matter of some satisfaction that an issue which threatened several times over thirteen years to tear the Labour movement apart had been resolved fairly and finally … all that had divided us in that great controversy was put behind us.”

Five years later, the issue split Labour anyhow. Michael Foot, having retracted his earlier acceptance of the referendum result and declared that Britain should leave Europe without another referendum, won the leadership contest in 1980. The Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams, & Bill Rodgers – stormed out to form the Social Democratic Party.  Had Dennis Healey not defeated Tony Benn for the Deputy Leadership, the exodus would have been larger. Thirty-five years later David Cameron made a comparable blunder as the path of least resistance to avoid confronting the Tory rifts over Brexit. It is not working out any better for them than it did for Labour.

It is the job of political parties to bundle issues, so that voters discount the things they want against the other things they want. American voters support unilateral tax cuts when asked about them in referendums such as Proposition 13 in California in 1978, limiting property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value.  The downstream effect was to decimate California’s public schools and local government. Polls show that voters will support any tax cut when asked about them in isolation, but not if they are told that a particular cut will be accompanied by losing a popular program such as free medical prescriptions.  Then they are forced to discount their preference for lower taxes by their preference of free medical prescriptions.

That is exactly the kind of discounting that parties do when they bundle policies into programs. They discount everything they propose by everything else they propose in ways that they hope will appeal to as large a swath of the population as possible. This is why both Labour and the Tory parliamentary parties strongly favor remaining in Europe. When they discount the costs of leaving against everything else they know most voters want, remaining makes the most sense. Yanking the issue out of the mix for a referendum creates an artificial choice for voters, as they will learn once Brexit occurs and they must live with the costs.

Weakening parties and undermining their vital function in democratic competition sounds democratic and is often the path of least resistance for party leaders who want to avoid the hard work of working out the compromises and tradeoffs that successful bundling requires.  But that is what parties are there for. As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider said three quarters of a century ago, “the condition of the parties is the best possible evidence of the nature of any regime.”  Strengthening political parties is urgently needed if we are to have any hope restoring healthy democratic regimes.

Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, both professors of Political Science at Yale, are the authors of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, published by Yale University Press. Read an excerpt.

© 2019 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

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