Political Scientist John Zaller came to Iowa and gave a lecture on Monday night, and I spoke with him on Tuesday.
Zaller gave a brief history of parties in his lecture, as well as explaining their necessary role in democracies.
Originally the Founding Fathers didn’t want parties in the United States. The hope was that educated men would vote on policy and laws after thoughtful consideration. Their decisions would then be made in the best interest of the country, not a party.
“The Electoral College was the main idea for defeating parties,” Zaller said.
The writers of the U.S. Constitution knew and feared that different factions would develop organically, Zaller said. A third branch of government was also meant to be a hinderance to party development.
And when you think about it, with a group of representatives from each of the 13 states in one room, the creation of groups seems unavoidable, even natural. But parties didn’t fit into the America the Founding Fathers had envisioned.
“[They] had built an anti-factional basis into the constitution,” Zaller said.
Today, parties have become a key part of democracy in the United States, and play a large role in political polarization in Washington.
Zaller said parties, in theory, should be good for democracy. They allow people to organize, and should help politicians be more responsive to voters.
But today parties have become a number of separate coalitions, of separate interests, Zaller said.
“Each [group] tries to build a majority, none of which are big enough on their own,” he said.
Thus, the political climate our leaders now participate in is exactly what our Founding Fathers had wanted to avoid.
To read more about the Founding Fathers, check out Willard Sterne Randall’s blog.