Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

The Party System

How does the role played by party organizations in the selection of leaders square with the democratic concept of people? When a presidential election takes place, the nation designates not the man whom they think to be the most qualified in an absolute sense but the man whom they think to be the best or the better qualified among a very small number of already designated candidates. The choice of the electors is narrowly restricted by the antecedent choices of the parties. Critics of democracy revel in describing the people as a captive sovereign caught in a narrow circle drawn by organizations and committees in which private persons play the leading parts.

Yet it cannot be taken for granted without further inquiry that political parties are private organizations. Rather, the truth seems to be that, in some cases and to some extent, they act as organs of the people, so that a preliminary choice made by parties may have the character of a choice by the people. The problem is to determine under what conditions and to what extent parties act as organs of the people.

A first condition concerns their historical significance. It happens that through the operation of routine-mindedness, obstinacy, inertia, etc., a nominating organization retains, as an irrational legacy of the past, an importance disproportionate to the actual weight of the ideas and interests that it represents. A party may become a sort of rotten borough. It also happens that under the impact of transient circumstances the influence of a party grows far beyond its significance in terms of lasting reality or falls far below it. When none of these accidents happens, when there is a proportion between the power of a party and the historical substance that it expresses, its nominations are genuinely, though not unqualifiedly, acts of the people. A clear example is supplied by the Conservative and Labor parties in Britain today. These great organizations participate so deeply in the community life of the British that men chosen by them are, in a very deep sense, choices of the people. The vote of the majority decides whether the prime minister will be Mr. Churchill or Mr. Attlee; but, even prior to their re-election as members of parliament, it can be said that the people have designated these men as leaders of the government and the opposition.

In order that parties should assume the character of organs of the people, it is essential that they be widely open and allow for a continual stream of influence from without. A party which is so anxious to preserve the purity and strict discipline of its members as to remain voluntarily a minority or even a small minority and which is governed by a small group of leaders never exposed to the risks of election has no part to play in a democracy; it has all the essential features of an organization calculated to foster oligarchy.

Concerning the number of parties -- a question devoid of glamour but not of importance, for the sound operation and the very survival of democracy may depend on such trivial issues -- let it first be stated that democracy excludes absolutely the one-party system. If this system occasionally seems compatible with some amount of democratic control, it is so only to the extent that competition inside the party brings about effects similar to those normally expected of duality or plurality of party organizations.

The recent trials of democracy in several great countries, especially Germany and France, called attention to the danger inherent in a multiplicity of parties. The Anglo-Saxon two-party system has demonstrated its value as a factor of clarity and stability in government. One of the recognized reasons why proportional representation causes precarious and weak governments is that it favors the multiplication of parties. However, it must be granted that there is something nondemocratic about the extreme restriction imposed upon the elector's choice by the operation of only a few parties. Suppose that each of the existent parties identifies itself with some major trend in the nation's history, that it is widely open to influences from without, and that it is provided with a sound internal organization. Even under such favorable circumstances the operation of the party system, and especially that of the two-party system, implies that the choice of the people is, to a considerable extent, restricted by private influences -- this is, plainly, a nondemocratic feature.


We are, thus, led to examine a problem of great amplitude, viz., whether democracy can tolerate the operation of nondemocratic principles and possibly benefit by it. This question is commonly answered in the affirmative in so far as it applies to modern democratic monarchies. Although the king of Great Britain and the Scandinavian kings may do little governing, they certainly play a very important part in the political life of their kingdoms. No matter how democratically inclined they may feel, these hereditary presidents of democracies, by the very fact that they are designated not by election but by birth, are nondemocratic characters. Yet few supporters of democracy would wish monarchy to be suppressed in these countries. The almost unanimous opinion is that, under the circumstances, monarchy is useful in several respects -- that it is useful, in particular, for the protection of democracy. It is easy to see that by accident (but such accidents are frequent) a nondemocratic principle may serve democracy by holding in check forces fatal to it. One recognized drawback of democratic institutions is that they may occasion sharp strife among parties or factions. When people are sufficiently exhausted by such strife, the situation is ripe for the one-party system and dictatorship. Accordingly, one major need of democracy is protection against the destructive effects of domestic conflicts. That such protection, under definite circumstances, should be best procured by such a nondemocratic factor as a hereditary monarch is perfectly intelligible.

The same reasoning applies to the nondemocratic features of the party system. Let it be granted that even under the best circumstances the restrictions imposed upon the elector's choice by the antecedent choice of the party are, to some extent, nondemocratic. This does not necessarily mean that such practice is harmful to democracy. It may help democracy if it holds in check forces designed to harm it.

True, the problem with which we are concerned here is not peculiar to democracy. Any regime, in order to work well or merely to survive, needs or may need the operation of principles distinct from, and opposed to, its own idea. Ancient monarchies were kept in existence through extensive concessions to the aristocratic principle, and, in modern times, association with rather radical democracy is the only thing which proved capable of assuring the survival of monarchy. At this point it is pertinent to refer to the theory of the mixed regime, worked out, among others, by Aristotle and, with greater clarity, by Thomas Aquinas. The best regime cannot be any simple regime, such as monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy; it is a regime in which several forms are combined in such a way as to promote the various aspects of the common good, to each of which each political form is related in special fashion.{12} Modern democracies can be described as mixed regimes with a predominance of the democratic element (at least according to constitutional law; for, so far as actual practice is concerned, the oligarchic element predominates in some of them).

To sum up: the association of democracy with nondemocratic principles may be expedient or necessary in two senses: (a) from the standpoint of the entirety of the common good, which in most cases is served better by a balanced combination of forms than by the exclusive reign of one form, and (b) from the standpoint of democracy itself, which may be well served by a nondemocratic principle acting as a check on its enemies.

{12} Pol. 2. 6. 1265b33, trans. Jowett: "Some, indeed, say that the best constitution is a combination of all existing forms, and they praise the Lacedemonian because it is made up of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy, the king forming the monarchy, and the council of elders the oligarchy, while the democratic element is represented by the Ephors: for the Ephors are selected from the people." Thomas Aquinas Sum. theol. i-ii. 105. 1, trans. A. C. Pegis (the title of the article is Whether the old law enjoined fitting precepts concerning rulers?): "Two points are to be observed concerning the right ordering of rulers in a state or nation. One is that all should take some share in the government, for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring, as is stated in Politics 2 [6. 1270b17]. The other point is to be observed in respect of the kinds of government, or the different ways in which the constitutions are established. For whereas these differ in kind, as the Philosopher states, nevertheless, the first place is held by the kingdom, where the power of government is vested in one, and aristocracy, which signifies government by the best, where the power of government is vested in a few. Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, wherein one is given the power to preside over all, while under him are others having governing powers. And yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rulers are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e., government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers. Such was the form of government established by the divine Law. For Moses and his successors governed the people in such a way that each of them was ruler over all; so that there was a kind of kingdom. Moreover, seventy-two men were chosen, who were elders in virtue, for it is written (Deut. I, 15): I took out of your tribes men wise and honorable, and appointed them rulers; so that there was an element of aristocracy. But it was a democratic government in so far as the rulers were chosen from all the people, for it is written (Exod. XVIII, 21): Provide out of all the people wise men, etc.; and, again, in so far as they were chosen by the people. Hence it is written (Deut. I, 13): Let me have from among you wise men, etc. Consequently, it is evident that the ordering of the rulers was well provided for by the Law." A thorough exposition of Aquinas' theory of the mixed regime is found in the admirable book of Marcel Demongeot, Le meilleur régime politique selon Saint Thomas (Paris: André Blot, 1929).

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