Political Parties and Polarization

The title of a short monograph by Simone Weil makes it pretty clear what she has in mind: On the Abolition of All Political Parties. Spoiler alert – she would like to see them abolished. She wrote the book in 1943 in the final months of her short life. Even though she wrote it over 80 years ago, I think it’s still relevant today.

Weil identifies three essential characteristics of political parties:

  1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
  2. A political party is an organization designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
  3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.

Building on this, she argues that the power of political parties undercuts the effectiveness of debates among people with diverse opinions – instead of working together, individuals gravitate to the official stance of their party. And individuals support the interests of their party even at the expense of the interests of the nation.

It seems to me that these pressures toward collective expression make it difficult to have conversations and debates that acknowledge the nuance of challenging issues. Debates on the floor of Congress and in the public more generally seem to involve a stream of people making party points from the party’s perspective rather than offering their own takes on the issues. The effect is not only to reduce the diversity of opinions that might contribute to a compromise solution, but also to make it less likely that members of one party will bother listening to those from the other party. Instead of “out of many, one” we get “out of two, two.” Or, more commonly these days, “out of two, none.”

And, yes, I know I’ve over-simplified here.

I know that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison argued against the formation of political parties, and that they and other framers of the United States Constitution made a deliberate decision not to sanction their existence in that document. The fact that they did that in large part because of memories of the ferocity of the civil wars in 17th century England doesn’t make me feel any better about the challenges we’re facing.

I wonder how long we’ll survive.

Reading Weil inspires me to re-read the relevant Federalist Papers and other documents on this issue. For example, Thomas Jefferson was more open to the existence of parties than his revolutionary colleagues. Yet another example of the futility of reading more: everything I read adds still more writings to my TBR pile. I guess I shouldn’t complain about that – reading more might even increase the diversity of ideas to think about – both out loud and otherwise.