What if there were no political parties? Would America be better off? The Founders were leery of what they called “factions.” In his Farwell Address, George Washington warned that factionalism could tear the country apart. Yet political parties began to emerge even before Washington left office, allowing Americans to sort themselves into groups of like-minded citizens to promote causes of mutual concern.
In a recent article in The Atlantic – What’s Ailing American Politics? – Jonathan Rauch discusses how, until recently, political parties as well as the rules and customs of Congress offered strong incentive for politicians to work together.
“The machines and parties used rewards and the occasional punishment to encourage politicians to work together,” Rauch wrote. “Meanwhile, Congress developed its seniority and committee systems, rewarding reliability and establishing cooperative routines. Parties, leaders, machines, and congressional hierarchies built densely woven incentive structures that bound politicians into coherent teams.”
Rauch argues that that system has broken down; there are now no middlemen between the politician and the voter. As a result, a well-funded politician can appeal over the head of the party to seize a nomination, even if he or she shares few of the principles associated with that party. The “go your own way” approach has also trickled into Congress. “Congress today is a collection of individual entrepreneurs,” Rauch observes. Congressional leaders have less influence over members of their own party, which leads to filibusters and other disruptions that shut down legislative business and undercuts compromises that might address problems.