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Erik Moberg ã:
A Theory of Democratic Politics
 
 

3 - THE ROLE OF POLITICAL PARTIES

When exemplifying influential power in part 2 I mentioned unions, firms, and individuals, but not political parties. The reason is that political parties, although they certainly have influential power, are very special, or even unique, organizations. Political parties play a fundamental role in the theory presented here.

What makes the political parties special and unique is that they are directly engaged in the competition for the legal power positions, and there are several expressions of this basic contention in the political science literature. Schattschneider, for instance, wrote as follows (1942, p 35): "A political party is first of all an organized attempt to get power. Power is here defined as control of the government. That is the objective of party organization. The fact that the party aims at control of the government as a whole distingusihes it from pressure groups." A few lines later (p 36) Schattschneider adds that "Since control of a government is one of the most important things imaginable, it follows that a real party is one of the most significant organizations in society." Many years later Sartori (1976, p 63) wrote in a similar vein that "A party is any political group identified by an official label that presents at elections, and is capable of placing through elections ... , candidates for public office". These conceptions of Schattschneider and Sartori correspond well to the party concept used here, and political parties are thus more directly attached to the legal power structure than any other type of organizations.

Because of this role of political parties people holding legal power positions usually belong to a party, and are thereby also controlled by that party to some extent. This control can however vary considerably from being very strong to being quite weak. This is significant since the more control a party has over its representatives in the legal decision-making bodies, the more the party as such can be considered as an actor in its own right in the political game. This also means, in other words, that strong party discipline has the important effect of reducing the number of actors in the political game considerably.

Let us consider, as a theoretical extreme, a country in which the political parties are absolutely cohesive and disciplined. In such a case the party's control of its representatives in the executive and legislature is perfect. Whenever the party wants its representatives to behave in a certain way, for example to vote in a specific manner, they will do so. Although the representatives have all the legal power they are completely in the hands of the party with its overriding influential power. In such a situation it is quite reasonable to consider the party as a unitary actor. An illustrative example, which comes close to this extreme, is given by Key (1964, p 337) when he describes the old-fashioned machine organization of political parties in US cities as follows: "The classic machine took a clearly hierarchical form, with a boss at the head of an organization of workers held together by the spoils of politics and capable of determining the party's nominations and of exerting a mighty influence in elections as well. In its most fully developed form the urban machine became the government in that many major decisions, as well as minor matters, were decided by the party functionaries who managed their puppets in public office."

The other extreme, as theoretical as the former one, is a country in which there are no political parties at all. Such a country, it should first be noted, is perfectly possible since parties, although they are defined as organizations engaged in the political competition for positions in the legal structure, are nonetheless not necessary. A situation in which individuals compete for the legal power positions by themselves, without belonging to any organization, is perfectly thinkable. In such a situation there are obviously no party actors, but rather a considerable number of individual actors.

In reality we do perhaps not find any extremes like the ones just described but there are certainly cases approaching the one extreme or the other. Thus there are countries in which the parties are very well consolidated, cohesive and disciplined. There are also countries in which the parties are very loosely organized and which thus are rather close to the second extreme. There are also countries in the middle field between the two extremes. In the following I will present hypotheses about the constitutional conditions for these different patterns.

The observation that the influential power of political parties is of a special, interesting and consequential kind is certainly not new in the political science literature. In particular it has been noted that well consolidated political parties, at least to a large extent, may cancel or nullify the intended effects of constitutional rules. In his book Political Parties Maurice Duverger (1964, p 393 ff) has, for instance, a whole section on the subject where he writes, among other things, that "The degree of separation of powers is much more dependent on the party system than on the provisions of the Constitution. Thus the single party brings in its train a very close concentration of powers, even if the Constitution officially prescribes a marked separation: the party binds very closely together the various organs of government." This, of course, is a variation of the theme that the party structure is relevant for the functioning of the legal decision-making system.