Should political parties organize their internal affairs in a (more) democratic way? By this, I do not mean merely allowing party members to select candidates for a presidential election or to elect the president of the party. The question is also whether party members should be involved in the writing of political programs and in deciding which policies to pursue.
The answer might seem obvious at first sight: given that parties play an important democratic function (aggregating multiple demands and uniting citizens behind competing political projects), it would seem odd if they were themselves organized undemocratically. And yet we know that parties tend to be very hierarchical – it has even been described as an “iron law”. To what extent is this regrettable?
Parties are private associations that aim, if not to rule, at least to secure political presence in order to promote some political ideas. No one is forced to adhere to these ideas. Thus, if you do not like a party’s ideas, you are free to vote for another one or for none. From this perspective, there is no principled reason to ask for intra-party democracy. It is up to parties to decide whether they have a predefined ideological line or want to involve party members in shaping this ideological line. They might have strategic reasons to opt for the latter option if it increases their chances of electoral success for example. Yet no party is morally obliged to be electorally successful. Hence, absent principled reasons to democratize, one could consider that it is their choice to be strategic or not.
It seems to me however that this argument has much more strength in PR systems, where voters can choose among a plurality of parties without jeopardizing their chances to have an impact, than in majoritarian systems, with two dominant parties. The reason is that citizens’ real freedom to choose between competing parties is higher in the former. In majoritarian systems, if you disagree with the policy choices of your preferred party, you are left with an unattractive choice between a) abstention, thus losing the benefits of participation; b) voting for the other dominant party, which might be incompatible with your political values; or c) voting for a minor party, with practically no chance of impact (and a risk to strengthen your political opponents). In other words, the exit options of party members, in majoritarian systems, are reduced, which negatively affects their real freedom to choose.
Thus, it seems that the principled argument (as opposed to strategic arguments) for intra-party democracy is much stronger in majoritarian systems than in PR systems. Because we want voters to have genuine opportunities to weigh on collective decisions, and because this freedom is really weak when they face only two options and have no say on the determination of these options, we should press for (or regulate in favor of) more intra-party democracy in these contexts. In PR systems, however, to the extent that the supply of parties is sufficiently diversified, the claim for the need to democratize parties is weaker.
Sadly, in reality, it seems that parties are much more open to intra-party democracy in PR systems than in majoritarian ones, but this does not affect the normative analysis.
A last point: the case for (more) intra-party democracy might also depend on other available opportunities for political participation. In the age of party democracy, where parties had a quasi-monopoly on the channeling of citizens’ political aspirations, the case for intra-party democracy might have been stronger than it is today. In countries where citizens have a right of initiative, petition, or are involved through deliberative mini-publics, the case might be weaker.
To conclude, I do not mean to suggest that intra-party democracy is not valuable in itself. I believe that it is an important way of making sure that parties remain connected with their partisans. I also believe that parties might need it nowadays to regain legitimacy. Yet the point I wanted to make is a more modest one: it is not obvious that parties should always be democratic. In some contexts, it might be legitimate for them to hold to a strict ideological line, as long as voters face sufficient alternative options.