Skip to Content

Popular Constitutionalism and Political Parties

Parties as Platforms for Popular Constitutionalism

The major parties in the contemporary U.S. are ideologically polarized and, currently, come closer now than they often have in the past to acting with parliamentary levels of discipline. (Well, alright, maybe only the Republicans are currently capable of acting with a high level of intra-party discipline, to the detriment of Senate comity and federal budget policy.)

We can complain about how (asymmetric) ideological polarization between the two parties is detrimental to democratic politics, to policy-making, to the state of political discourse, and so on. Certainly, extreme, hostage-taking antics from hyperpartisans did no one any favors during what is now apparently only the first of many debt ceiling battles, back in 2010. But for better worse, the parties are now closer to being ideological coalitions, rather than sectional congeries, or uneasy alliances of groups with interests that sometimes overlap and sometimes conflict.

What the major parties are not are “factions,” which James Madison worried about at length in the Federalist. Madison comes from a long line of political theorists worried about groups within larger communities using power to enrich themselves at the expense of the public good. But ideological parties are not factional parties in this sense; instead they seek to advance particular agendas or visions of how the economy should be structued and regulated, whether and how certain rights or liberties should be enforced, how the country should conduct its foreign relations, and so on. There can be better or worse approaches to these questions – that is to say, some ideologies are to be preferred over others. But both parties today pursue ideologies at the national level. In glib terms, the Republicans favor austerity, while the Democrats favor social provision; the Republicans favor national unity, while the Democrats favor cultural pluralism, and so on. These are not, however, “factional” agendas that are pursued simply or solely for the sake a partiular sub-group. For examples of that kind of behavior we have to look to the past – for example, to the antebellum Democrats, dominated by a powerful southern pro-slavery wing. Nowadays, although individual party politicians strive to serve their local constituencies (of course!), they do so in concert with a broader ideological agenda that has implications for the nation as a whole.

Popular constitutionalists should, I think, embrace partisan politics. They should not join the discordant and ultimately futile chorus of those who decry parties as divisive or (gasp!) “negative.” Politics consists of disagreement, and political disagreement can run deep – hence party polarization. For the purposes of popular constitutionalists, who want to democratize the interpretation of cosntitutional meaning, modern parties offer powerful tools for advancing new constructions of constitutional meaning and giving them force and efficacy in the social world. The Republicans – at least insofar as they are substantially constrained by various internal factions such as the Tea Party – are currently in a better position to do this than the Democrats, who remain somewhat less of an ideological party and more of a “big tent” party.

It’s important to note that embracing parties in the pursuit of constitutional change means abandoning, or at least devoting less energy to, the “traditional” process of constitutional amendment that is outlined in Article V. Such a shift should, I think, be welcomed – but that’s a topic for another post.