By Aminta Kilawan-Narine, esq.
When America’s Founding Fathers got together almost two and a half centuries ago, they cautioned against political parties, viewing them as “factions” that could potentially pose a great danger to maintaining the interest of the public. The Founders felt that political parties could result in only certain views gaining traction in the national political discourse, while other views would effectively be shut out. Yet, despite their concerns, such parties developed early on in the nation’s history. They continue to play a critical role in the political processes of our federal, state, and local government to this day. Political parties are a cornerstone to America’s existence.
Parties serve several important functions in the United States’ political system. They help to select candidates, galvanize voters, make governance easier and hold opposing parties accountable. Sure, the party system isn’t perfect, but I would argue that effective democracy could not exist without it. In countries around the world, parties have at times gone completely awry, exploiting and oppressing citizens, actually harming the democratic process – think Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China, for example. In the United States, while I’d venture to say that under its current national leader one party has become an utter laughingstock, there is another party always eager and ready to chime in with alternative public policy ideas. Such is the beauty of living in a place where democracy, rather than dictatorship, prevails.
Some argue that political parties stifle the voices of constituents. However, when political parties operate properly, they actually help to elevate the voices of local citizens to a national platform. They provide a sense of belonging to people and an active link between residents and their elected officials. They create a sense of community and family. I for one carry a keychain with the statement “Proud Democrat,” engraved on it. It’s not uncommon to see such emblems of political party pride on bumper stickers, baseball caps and the like. Contrary to popular opinion, parties are also flexible. While it’s easy to pinpoint some major platforms that have remained the same for a while, anti-abortion = Republican, pro-choice = Democrat, for example, parties aren’t rigid. In 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, opposed same-sex marriage. Fast forward to 2012, Obama became the first president to support same-sex marriage. A few years later, the Supreme Court held that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry. The Democratic Party has now become firm in this view.
I’ve found that overall, my values tend to line up pretty accurately to my chosen party. This helps come election time, since political parties typically nominate candidates for elected office. While many may throw their hat in the ring and run for a particular seat, only one will rise to the top to get the blessing of their party. Parties are important in that they weed out candidates and, ideally, choose the best one for the job. Voters could otherwise be overwhelmed with choices if everyone who ever wanted to run on the either the Democratic or Republican ticket was never vetted. The electoral process is arguably smoother because of endorsements and nominations made by the major parties.
Parties aren’t picture perfect tools in democracy though. The rise to elected office, especially locally, can be made far more difficult due to the party system. Locally, only candidates who are endorsed by their “county party committee,” made up of party members from the voting districts in each county, get to use the county committee’s name on the ballot and in their campaign materials. A party’s endorsement also allows a candidate to appear in the first “line” in a primary, on a voting machine or ballot sheet. This makes it easy for a loyal Democrat or Republican to vote for all the candidates who got the party’s nod, rather than have to wrack their brains about who from the list is the best suited for the job.
Many candidates opt to drop out of a race after not getting “county support.” Such support is considered crucial to a candidate emerging victorious. Why is that? County party committees tend to have the know-how and resources to ensure a candidate gets elected. The political process is not easy to navigate, especially for first-timers who make the brave step to run for office. It helps to have those who have been tried and tested on your side, to show you the ropes and to provide the resources needed, including petitioners and canvassers who are intimately familiar with the neighborhoods of those whose phones they will call and whose doors they will knock on to get out the vote (commonly referred to as “GOTV”). Most candidates who run and win start currying the favor of their party leaders, such as Congressman Joe Crowley in Queens or Frank Seddio in Brooklyn, well before they even announce their run for office. This is one of the factors that guarantees a favorable result in the end. Those who win without party support, like New York State Senator James Sanders Jr. who represents the 10th Senatorial District, for instance, are anomalies.
Once elected to office, those who enjoyed the support of their party during the campaign will also benefit from this support throughout their elected term. Political parties come with vast networks. People from these networks often help an elected official to come up with the best and most effective policy or legislation. Allies from the party often become fellow elected officials whose support is necessary to move legislation from introduction to passage with their votes.
Political parties also help to bring opposing views to the table for negotiation and hopefully, compromise. Progress is often made through dialogue and conflicting views. There are no two sides of a story after all and identifying solutions means understanding the full scope of a problem. Political parties can hold each other accountable. The opposing party can bring visibility when the party in power makes a misstep. They can ensure that their supporters know and understand what’s going on by functioning as a watchdog. In the era of Donald Trump, we’ve seen the Democratic Party do as much.
Parties benefit themselves when they foster political participation. That means hosting political forums, fundraising, and the like. It also means not resting on laurels and relying solely on long-time supporters but also recruiting new members, particularly those from under-represented or historically absent groups. Donald Trump’s election provides some lessons learned: working class whites in rural America came out in groves to vote for him. They’ve been referred to since as the “sleeping giant.” Bernie Sanders was also able to galvanize support from voter bases that typically ignored politics, such as college students who “felt the Bern.” Yet, without the blessing of the Democratic Party from the get-go, Bernie Sanders was climbing an uphill battle.
There’s a lot that can be said of political parties, both in favor and against them. Make no mistake however, parties play one of the most important roles in the American political system and cannot be ignored.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.