The proper role of political parties

Don’t count Jay Cost among those who are hyperventilating over news that the Democratic Party rigged its presidential nomination process to boost Hillary Clinton in 2016. He explains why at National Review Online.

The hyperbolic reaction to the Clinton-Sanders-DNC news does not suggest anything pernicious about the Democratic party, so much as it reveals how Americans in 2017 have forgotten the purpose that political parties were originally intended to serve.

British philosopher and politician Edmund Burke, the first great advocate for political parties, reckoned that they are essential to free government. “Party,” he wrote in Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents (1770), “is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”

The American revolutionaries tended not to hold this view, instead thinking of parties as factions whose interests naturally ran contrary to the general welfare. But the revolutionaries’ skepticism about parties began to shift in the early years of the Constitution, when James Madison and Thomas Jefferson came to believe that Alexander Hamilton and his allies were looking to create a permanent interest in the federal government, built upon the public credit. The Republican party (not the modern GOP, but what many historians refer to as the Democratic-Republican party) was the vehicle they created to stop the Hamiltonians and return power to the people at large (hence the name, “Republican”).

Even this earliest incarnation of a political party served regulating, gatekeeping, and pedagogical roles in the body politic. It was a regulating force in government, especially the House of Representatives, where Madison became, for all intents and purposes, the first party leader of the opposition. It was a gatekeeping force through the nomination process, by which party leaders endorsed candidates they believed would pursue party principles once in office. And it became a pedagogical force through newspapers and circulating letters, which informed the broader electorate about political events, with an eye to encouraging support of the party program.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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