Democracy is not an objective gold standard of government but rather a social construct that can change – for better or worse. From it’s possible initial appearance in ancient Athens, democracy has evolved to become more inclusive along dimensions such as sex, wealth and age. However there remain other opportunities for improvement – many of which are connected to reconsidering the power, or even continued existence, of political parties.
Political parties can shape the manifestation of a democracy in several, often interrelated, ways.
Parties are the vehicle through which the candidates that electors can choose between are selected – thus while 30,000 or so electors may be eligible to vote the actual candidates they choose between may have been selected by only 300 party members (in the UK for example only 1.5% of the electorate is a member of any political party).
Even worse, in a country such as Australia with a secondary house – in this case a Senate – the voting system practically guarantees that a candidate highly favoured by a major party is elected. In Australia when voting for the senate electors have the simple option of voting for a party or a highly convoluted one of selecting from a frequently innumerable list of unknown candidates. Unsurprisingly in most Australian States over 90% of voters chose the first route. Effectively independent of voters, politicians are then free to pursue largely party – or worse personal – agendas.
Perhaps most egregious though, is where political parties get to choose the boundaries of the constituency within which electors vote. This “gerrymandering”, as the process is known, has led, in the USA where it is particularly prevalent, to constituency shapes that defy any logical rational save to ensure that a particular party’s candidate is elected. It has been estimated that as a result as many as 94% of House of Congress districts (constituencies) are uncompetitive.
The final noxious effect of political parties relates to the afterlife of politicians. Even when no longer serving as an elected politician many individuals retain an element of power within a party which means that they continue to be feted. This may take the form of directorships in companies which want to secure influence or ambassadorships where it is the current party leadership itself that wants to secure the good graces of old party luminaries .. or shunt them off to the sidelines!
The question then is are political parties actually necessary? After all they did not exist in Athens – hailed as the crucible of Western democracy.