The Virtues of Political Parties


I’m reading Nancy L. Rosenblum’s defense of political parties in her book, On the Side of the Angels. I already had a strong appreciation for parties, so it’s always nice to hear their virtues clearly articulated. While Rosenblum seems to be primarily writing to other political theorists, her message really needs to be told to citizens of struggling Central European countries, whose original expectations of democratic elections were unrealistic, or citizens in Sub-Saharan African counties like Zambia, Mozambique, or South Africa, where one party rule creates false accountability. I would guess, however, that nobody in those countries would have the attention span to make it through Rosemblum’s book, which while good, is much longer than I felt it needed to be. (She also has a tendency to litter scare quotes and quotations so often, it is nearly impossible to distinguish if she is quoting a fellow academic, or merely suggesting her own words are misleading.)

Some of Rosenblum’s themes, however, are important, and I wish she had shortened her book to focus on them.  In particularly, her chapters where she writes about civil society and banning certain political parties have relevance for many transitioning and weak democracies.  The tendency to view civil society as a substitute for parties, for example, is a common problem among democracy promoters working with less than democratic parliaments.  Similarly, the debate over what should be a legal political party is timely given the events in the Middle East.  I found Rosenblum dealt with these issues very well, offering a fair summary of the tradeoffs for banning parties based on different criteria.   I tend to agree with her that any justification for banning a party runs into serious problems. The rule that a party can’t challenge the fundamental system of a government, for example, may sound like a good argument in the United States, but King Mohammed VI of Morroco could easily make the same statement while justifying the ban of a party that started demanding more power be invested in parliament.

The notion that there is a way to distinguish an acceptable party platform in a country assumes that there is a consensus on the fundamental structure of state institutions.  Yet if there is a true consensus, then a party attempting to challenge it should garner few votes and pose little threat.  Excluding them could only serve to push them out of the political arena and onto the streets.  If the party does build substantial support, however, then there is clearly not a consensus on the legitimacy of the state.  This does not mean that electoral engineering can never be a legitimate tool for state and nation building, but that it might not always be the best, or adequate, solution. In post-independence or post-conflict societies, political parties – some with violent pasts – may have to work together to build an uneasy consensus on the nature of the state.  Here especially it is difficult to ban a party based on a platform.

Posted on May 1, 2011, in Democracy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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