a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Should Parties Be Democratic?

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?

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "cartoon party discipline"

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.

Currently postdoc at KU Leuven, I hold a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Louvain (Belgium). My main research interests are democratic theory, theories of justice, and civic education.


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  1. Hi Pierre-Etienne,

    Interesting question. Another factor (related to your point about PR vs. majoritarian systems) is how competitive the system is. If one is party is always going to win, that party ought to be democratic. (I’ve just been watching The Wire, season 3, where the mayoral election is all about the Democratic primary).

    Apart from that special case, I agree with you that it’s not obvious parties must be democratic. The system needs to be democratic, and if intra-party democracy promotes that system-level control and accountability, fine, but that’s an “if”. Something else that occurs to me is that one function of parties is to provide voters with definite choices, to frame debates with competing conceptions of the public good. Polarization may be taking this tendency too far, but it is important. What effect does democracy within parties have on this deliberative function of parties?

  2. Hi Andrew! Thanks for your comments!

    I think you’re right about the degree of competition. That’s another relevant factor.

    The last question you mention is also one I’m interested in: whether intra-party democracy comes at the cost of ideological coherence or definite political projects. I’ll dig deeper into the empirical literature.

  3. Such an interesting and timely post! I wonder what you think about the following possibility: Assume that parties have a right to organise themselves non-democratically (in spite perhaps of this being morally regrettable, or even morally wrong). Also assume that your analysis of the normative importance of having exit/voice is correct. Should we see these considerations, taken together, as powerful arguments in favour of PR systems?

    • Thank you, Anca! I think there is a strong argument that can be made for PR systems based on freedom of electoral choice, and probably also one based on increased opportunities for partisan exit (because there are more options) and voice (because they are usually more open to intra-party democracy). But there is also a strong argument for majoritarian systems based on responsibility-assignment and accountability: with coalition governments, it’s hard for voters to know who does what and who is responsible for which decisions. And there is also the fact that voters have no say on the coalition-building process.

      In the end, I’m not sure what weighs the most. I suspect that my preference for PR largely comes from habit, including the habit of voting for different parties in simultaneous elections, which I wouldn’t do in a majoritarian system!

  4. This is so interesting, thank you! I had been wondering whether the fact that parties aren’t PURELY private associations might justify state demands for parité in the promotion of women and men – ie non-discrimination internally in their choice of candidates. The difficulty with thinking of them as purely private associations, after all, is that if successful they will furnish us with a government, who we have to obey legally whether we like it or not. So the idea of them as purely private (as in Switzerland, where that logic is held to invalidate any attempts to gain transparency over their fund-raising or to control amounts) is considered unacceptable. On the other hand, as you say, they are private in the sense that no one has to join the blinking things (at least in a democracy) and it seems perfectly appropriate that the ideas/ideals of the association should shape their internal rules on promotion of candidates for safe seats/high office, as well as their choice of programmes.
    My sense, then, is that the public/private distinction cuts through political parties rather than around them (this is something I want to work on more) and that might give us a way to think about why it should generally be up to members how much power they hold within the party, there should be more scope for state efforts to limit discrimination/actively promote sexual and other forms of equality in the choice of candidates.

    Even far right parties like the national front, I think, can be required to treat racial minority candidates fairly and to promote them to safe seats, accept them as members etc. There was an interesting case in the UK a few years ago where an Indian sued in order to join the predecessor of the British National Party,, on the grounds that he sincerely shared their anti-immigrant views; and he won. I want to think about this more in future, but it seemed to me that IF far right parties are to be allowed to compete for elections (given that they meet democratic norms in some ways but not in others), than it is legitimate for the state to require them to abide by norms to increase the share of minority candidates/women in safe seats/positions of power, just as with other political parties. I can see that the case for these things might be stronger in majoritarian v proportional systems, but the democratic rationale for limiting internal party autonomy in those ways would seem to apply regardless.

    but I take it that that is not where either of you would go, Anca or Pierre-Etienne. But I suppose there is then a question of how strongly you want to claim that parties ARE private assocations, or what implications follow from this.

    • Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

      Thank you very much for your comment, Annabelle! This short piece was just exploratory. I think you’re right about the private/public distinction – that’s something I want to explore in more depth in the coming months.

      That said, I also think that states can impose rules and duties on purely private associations. So the cases for imposing parity or internal democracy can both be made regardless of how we see the status of political parties.

      • annabelle lever

        This is great. Can’t wait to talk about it more. Just discovered this site. It is really fun.

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