The deftest sport
The men who drafted our Constitution never wanted political parties. In fact, John Adams and his Federalist cronies were decidedly against them. Adams wrote, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures into opposition to each other.”
Adams wanted more unity; most who denounce our system today want less. Today, there are some who denounce “politics as sport,” claiming that presidential elections become gross spectacles of statistics, during which the voting issues are decided by interest groups and the media, and political parties manipulate the public through advertising. Moreover, there seems to be this inherent assumption that the public is ignorant: that we vote on the basis of character, that we walk into our voting booths on Election Day and mark down an arbitrary preference and go about our lives as before. The success of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth four years ago certainly attests to this ignorance.
Political parties, it is said, enable this public ignorance. By streamlining the entire gradient of political viewpoints on an infinitude of issues into two candidates, political parties simplify politics. We are given two packages and asked to pick one, and to some, this is degrading.
But if we look to history again, we will see that political parties are themselves agents of change. John Adams’ own party died out because it could no longer hold its footing. The great threat to any political party is its eventual irrelevance, and because of the competition between two parties, each must stay on its toes and remain relevant. In the 1850s, the Democrats did everything they could to accommodate pro-slavery arguments, because they lacked public backing without the South. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Republicans took measures to accommodate the socially-conservative views of a Southern population now alienated by the Democratic party. The two parties we have today have evolved into what they are because they have accommodated the changing views of the public.
It is important to remember that great democracy—and yes, I think it is still appropriate to believe that we are capable of great democracy—has a basis in deliberation, not in mere aggregation of votes. The deliberation that occurs within our two pluralist political parties—between interest groups and legislators, constituents and representatives, citizens of all different colors and types and opinions—is not only desirable, but necessary. Political parties provide a means for accommodation. When a conservative financier from New York City and a deer hunter from Arkansas can agree to support the same candidate, effective deliberation has occurred. Some sort of unity has been reached.
Adams’ complaint against party politics was that they factionalize. But now, in 2008, I can’t help but think that factions are what we need. Adams’ version of unity was always a stretch, even in an electorate consisting entirely of white males; it is impossible in our own pluralist society. But small-scale unity can exist, and our best hope for it, ironically, is through the deliberation within two opposed yet accommodating factions.
Yes, we are given two packages and asked to pick one, and yes, perhaps this is a little degrading. But party politics ensure that we are each capable of affecting government. It is through political parties that people with no governmental experience might enact a change in policy; it is through interest groups that social concerns become political concerns. So perhaps politics is merely a game. But it is a deft sport, where the rules change every second and the teams constantly reassemble. I can think of nothing more enjoyable to watch.