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  • Writer's pictureOren Levin-Waldman

By Design the American Party System follows the Broker Model

Unlike European countries, the United States has never had a responsible party model. Instead, it has had what is known as a broker party model. The tension between Progressives Democrats and moderate Democrats in Congress to a certain extent mirrors the tension between the two models. A responsible party model is usually ideological where the goal is to win programs. In a broker model the goal is to win elections and the promise of programs and/or other policies is only a means to attaining that end.

A broker party model is non-ideological. Candidates are selected by the voters usually through primary elections and/or participatory caucuses. The goal is to win elections, and contributions are generally made to candidates; not to parties. In the U.S. where we have mainly a two party system, each party stakes out a position that will get itself elected. Once elected, the goal, of course, is reelection. Again, programs and policies are only secondary to the first goal, which is winning elections.

The U.S. has a broker party model precisely because it has a two-party system and the main reason we have a two-party system is because we have single-member districts. It was French political scientist Maurice Duverger who theorized, in what has come to be known as Duverger’s law, that single-ballot pluralities in single member districts tended to favor two-party systems. In short, because only one person can represent a district and that person’s election is based on winner-take-all, only the two strongest parties will survive.

In parliamentary systems, which characterizes most European nations, districts are multiparty districts whereby more than one person can represent the district, and election is based on proportional representation. This allows for parties to be more ideological. Indeed, in a responsible party model, the goal is to win programs. The parties choose their candidates and donations are made to the party. Whereas a broker party model has loose party control, a responsible party has very tight control. In a responsible party model, when rank and file members in parliament break ranks with the party leadership, the government usually falls and new elections are called.

Because the U.S. with its separation of powers and single member districts allows governing administrations, even failed administrations, to remain in office until the next scheduled election, the government never falls. The result, of course, is ungovernability with the public being held hostage until the next election.

As we mentioned previously in this space, this was no accident. Rather the framers of the Constitution deliberately designed a political system that would not be able to act so as to protect individual rights, albeit by default. The framers chose republican government because they feared that democracy would lead to mob rule following their irrational passions. Only those who had the time and wisdom to devote to the public interest would be able to employ reason. But they also viewed party government as no less evil than interest groups. Both parties and interest groups were likened to factions.

To the framers, interest groups as factions would put their interests above the public good, and they had no reason to believe that political parties would behave any differently. Of course the modern political party may retort that it does indeed speak for the public interest. Moreover, how can a system that is so robust because it is so difficult to act because it is difficult to achieve consensus ever really give expression to the public interest?

And yet, this question underscores the problem with defining the public interest and the very reason the framers would only want a system that could govern through incremental steps. After all, how do we know what the public interest is? Who is to say that group A’s conception of the public interest is better than group B’s? And this very question gets to the very heart of the meaning of liberalism, especially as it revolves around neutrality.

As a political philosophy liberalism rejects absolutes and embraces tolerance for diversity. At the heart of liberalism is the idea of human agency. Each person has the capacity to identify a conception of the good for him or herself and chart out a plan to bring that good to fruition. The role of the state, then, is to be neutral with regards to conceptions of the good, because to make a choice is to effectively say one’s conception is better than the other. This is the fundamental dilemma that policy poses to liberalism because if a policy course has been chosen, then the state is not neutral.

Arguably the concept of neutrality is given voice in the idea of limited government, and a government that governs through incrementalism comes close. On the other hand, a government that is neutral can’t act, even when a crisis demands that it does. The only way out of this would be a democratic process whereby not only are all permitted to participate, but all must participate.

Those who demand party loyalty to the party position whatever the issue is are perfectly willing to ride roughshod over the rights of others. And while Progressives in Congress may think that they are speaking for the public interest, that public interest is nothing more than their particular conception of the good. Moderate Democrats, and of course Republicans, have a different view of what constitutes the public interest. And yet, Progressives aren’t willing to listen to the position of Moderates.

A broker party model is effectively designed to allow our representatives to govern within the framework of checks and balances whereby a conception of the public interests emerges through consensus. But this requires open debate and compromise. The American political system has become so polarized, not only between Democrats and Republicans and between conservatives and liberals, but within the parties themselves.

It would appear as though Progressives in their zeal to transform the country are attempting to use the idea of a Responsible party model to overcome the obstacles of separation of powers. They would not be the first. Thomas Jefferson too sought to govern through party government whereby he expected members of his political party in Congress to be loyal to his positions. What Progressives miss here is that there is no such requirement in the U.S. constitution, and that it is inimical to incrementalism, which is the only thing that can be achieved through the separation of powers.

If the goal is to have a transformation, then a new constitution is required. Otherwise, if Progressives really seek to get anything done, then they should begin engaging in the democratic process as it was designed.

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