What Are Political Parties Good For? Plenty, Actually


If you take a dim view of our political parties, you’re in sterling company. So did George Washington.

In his famous Farewell Address, he warned against “the baneful effects of the spirit of [political] party.” It’s safe to say he was not a fan.

So it’s with some trepidation that I want to speak up in favor of political parties. They are the best stage I know for broad economic, political, and social change. It’s hard for me to imagine a democracy without them.

We live in a very different country from the one George Washington led. The United States today is not just geographically bigger, but immeasurably larger in both population and diversity.

And that’s where our two great parties, for the most part, have excelled: they accommodate different interests, opinions, and views. Our system does not have enough consensus-building mechanisms; the parties are crucial to this.

Of course, more than building consensus within a party is needed. Even though the American people prefer bipartisanship, the parties too often prefer to lambast each other. But legislation passed on a party line vote rarely stands the test of time. 

Our parties also play a lubricating role in the mechanisms of democracy. They get out the vote and educate voters. They choose, train, and promote candidates who are (for the most part) worthy of holding public office. In short, they’re a personnel system for government office.

I am a member of a party, and have certainly been disappointed in its performance on occasion. And I cringe when I hear a member of either party express hatred or accuse the other party of disloyalty. Both parties are patriotic, both want the best for their country — even if they have different ideas about what “best” means. That’s part of the democratic dialogue, after all.

George Washington was right, of course, in pointing out some of the risks of people joining together to form organized parties. But he didn’t fully recognize their role as consensus-builders — their concern with transcending differences and political factionalism and arriving at stances designed to appeal to political majorities both in elections and in legislatures. The most successful party officials I know have made consensus-building a priority, both within their own parties and across partisan lines. In a country as diverse and divided as ours, that’s not a baneful effect at all.