Are Political Parties Killing Democracy?

Yes, with malice aforethought. Political parties are continually at war with competing parties. In recent years the rhetoric has become nasty, often untruthful and even personally hurtful. Agreement between parties on anything but mundane issues has become impossible and harmful  to the nation. Commenting in Cognoscenti, Steve Almond wrote that in the 1950’s only 10% of US parties had negative feelings for the other party, while in the 21st century that has increased to 90%. Evidence suggests the same prevails in Canada.

It seems that democracy has become outmoded. Clearly in many western nations democracy is not getting the job done. That is, the voice of the people is not a principal driver of policy formation. Rather, when voting for constituency representatives, too often the voter votes for the party not the representative. The party label has become a vote getting magnet, while the voice of the people goes unheard.

Political Parties – the Problem

This does not happen without the significant influence of a political party elite. Why? Because most political parties appear to be more interested in being re-elected than they are in governing. Policy should be based on the expressed needs and aspirations of the people in the constituencies. Rather, the unforgettable purpose of political party elites is to collect votes, by lying if they must.

Why is the Process upside-down? 

The party elite develop electioneering platforms they hope will be attractive to their political base and beyond their base. At the same time each party takes actions, often making false and untrue declarations,  intended to block rival parties from being elected. But here is the rub. The people do not participate in the development of the party platform; that is the exclusive territory of the party elite – a very few entitled party spokespeople, the managers of this top-down process. Meanwhile, the elected representatives are expect to sell the platform to their constituents.

The Threat of Rising Autocracy

Do political parties pose a potential autocracy threat to Democracy? Certainly not by normal political evolution expectations. However, there are former representative democracies that have become autocratic: Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and Venezuela for example. In each of these modern conversions a “strong-man” elected leader of the country managed to become the authoritarian leader. They continue to have elections, and claim their country is a democracy, but they each are de facto autocracies. 

In my opinion, supported by several reported similar speculations, there is a current example of a failed attempt to convert a nation. I view the summer of 2020 actions of D. Trump a near miss. He came very close to being in the position to declare a national emergency that may have justified the suspension of normal governmental operations and a justification for “calling in the troops”. At that point Trump would have had control of the nation. A shout out to the military leaders (the Pentagon) for reminding the nation, the world, that the military is a-political, an American institution, and not beholden to a person or a political party.

Listen – the Populace is Speaking.

Let’s step aside and think about democracy. As Larry Diamond wrote in  his book “The Spirit of Democracy”:

“The very essence of democracy is that it reflects people power and not simply the constitutional choice of enlightened elites.”

Democracy is intended to be a bottom-up process, that is, from the people. That means the elected representative is responsible for understanding and delivering the constituency message to the legislative institution – for example to parliament or congress.

From the time of the 13th century Magna Carta until early in the twentieth century, governing a democracy was the exclusive purview of the elites. But the twentieth century brought on great change, a revolution. As Dillon sang, the times they are a changing, and the “revolution” has continued into the twenty-first century, with no end in view.

Onward People Power

Today, with ready access to information via the internet and access to social media, the people have found their voice and do not hesitate to express themselves, often via protest. As you may expect, frequently there is a disconnect between the voice of the people and the policy development of the political elites. It seems that the political elites subscribe to the presumed notion of the unsuitability of citizen participation.

“Perhaps the most enduring … charges [are] that: most people are incapable of participating in government in a meaningful or competent way because they lack the necessary  knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, experience, or character”. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Say it isn’t so! How Victorian of today’s political elites. 

The Sun is Rising on a Solution

The Era of Exclusive Democracy is passing. As evolution dictates the void must be filled. Enter the next Era – Inclusive Democracy. Bottom-up people power will create a thriving populace to the benefit of all people. Extinguishing political parties may be critical to the solution that will save democracy.

Stay tuned. Next up:  A Short History of Exclusive Democracy

Jon Constable – author of “Evolve Canada Democracy” – PDF at

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