No two national political systems are ever the same, but in our era at least they all do have one thing in common: they all want to be thought of as ‘democratic’. Even North Korea is officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And many people do not know, or do not remember, that the word ‘soviet’ in ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ (USSR) refers to a network of ‘democratic’ political bodies.
By the same token, no one national political system is ever totally unique. We borrow liberally from one another. Most systems, for example, include some form of political ‘party’; but what we mean by ‘party’ and how parties actually function varies widely from country to country.
Speaking very generally, I think we can divide the world’s self-styled democracies into three categories:
- One party systems
- Two party systems
- Multi-party systems
Marxist-Leninist political philosophy perfected the idea of single party rule (the Communist Party, of course). In such systems, the party represents the interests of the proletariat (or other rising economic class); it forms a bridge between party members and the institutions of state.
It is the party that keeps the rulers honest. It is the party that ensures that the lofty goals of the revolution will not be undermined by a welter of bureaucratic red tape. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work…until the state withers away.
Mark, at least, believed that the state was a necessary organ of class war but that it would eventually become superfluous and wither away. Like some modern cosmologists, he welcomed a Big Bang (expansion) but foresaw a Big Crunch (contraction).
Of course, nobody has ever experienced a ‘crunch’, either in cosmology or in statecraft. In fact, cosmologists no longer believe in the Big Crunch. Most now think that the universe will continue to expand until there is nothing left to expand. Perhaps that may be true of government as well.
In a single party system, the party and the state have common interests and make common cause. Accordingly, the party works to expand the scope and power of the state while the state seeks to strengthen the party in its role as vox populi.
Theoretically, it is through the party that the will of the proletariat is binding on the actions of the state. In practice, however, the state often uses the party to enforce its own will.
In a multi-party system, on the other hand, the importance of the state in the life of the nation and in the lives of all its residents is taken for granted. Politics is not so much about building the state as it is about controlling it.
Society consists of several socio-economic classes and many special interest groups. In an extreme case, each of these classes and groups may have its own political party. More often, classes and groups form coalitions so that the number of competing parties is more manageable.
In either case, the parties compete for control, sometimes absolute control, of the apparatus of government. Electoral changes can lead to substantial and enduring policy changes, each change advantaging one class at the expense of another.
The United States, on yet another hand, is a paradigmatic example of a two party political system. Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, Democrats and Whigs, Democrats and Republicans, we have functioned as a two party democracy for almost our entire history.
Third parties are almost invariably unsuccessful and short-lived…except when a third party is on the road to becoming the new second party (e.g. Republican Party in 1860.)
In fact, the so-called ‘two party system’ is so ingrained in our culture that we just take it for granted. It is to our political selves what water is to a fish. This is odd because nowhere in our founding documents (Constitution, Bill of Rights) are political parties even mentioned. It is also odd because two party political systems are much less common than one party and multi-party systems.
How does a two party system work? Surprisingly, it is an odd hybrid between a single party system and a multi-party system. Like a single party system, one of the two political parties is invariably dominant. It more often controls the government and it is more active in defining the national agenda. Several parties have each functioned in this way at one time or another. Today, of course, it is the Democrat Party that plays this role.
As in a one party state, the dominant party and the state share common interests. The ideology of the party promotes the power of the state and the state uses that power to bolster the popularity of the party. They work hand in glove.
In our diverse society, the dominant party represents the interests of a wide range of classes and interest groups; but invariably these are groups that stand to benefit from a growing and increasingly activist government.
Unlike single party states, however, a two party system requires a second party that functions as a more or less permanent opposition party. Today, of course, that is the role of the Republicans. As is graphically obvious this election season, there is no unified Republican ideology, no consensus Republican platform.
Like any second party, Republicans are defined by their distrust of government, by their desire to freeze or shrink the scope and power of that government, and in some cases, by their antipathy toward the groups and classes represented by the dominant party.
Of course, Republicans win elections too; but when they do, they focus more on reigning in existing programs than on initiating new ones. They do not have a ‘grand vision’ for society…but that is not a criticism. They’re not supposed to! Their ‘constitutional’ role is that of the loyal opposition even when they happen to be in power.
A one party system is about building the power of government…until it withers away in utopia. A multi-party system is about controlling the institutions of an already established, accepted, and powerful government. Only in a two party system is the scope and role of government itself perpetually in question.
In a one party system, elections play a subservient role in the political life of the nation. In a multi-party system, elections often determine policy for years at a time. But in a two party system like ours, the ball is always up for grabs. We are rugby to their football.
Because of our somewhat unique intellectual and political history, ‘government’ itself has always been the central issue in U.S. politics. Our two party system grew organically out of this soil. Borrowing from the great French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, our system is characterized by etre (being) and neant (nothingness), affirmation and negation.
How well such a system works in an era of globalization and technocracy is a matter of debate; but it is a refreshing contrast to the single and multi-party systems that dominate most of the rest of the world.