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Analysis: What is a political party anyway?

Defend Truth


Analysis: What is a political party anyway?

The “marriage” between the Democratic Alliance and the Independent Democrats announced on Sunday gives us a chance to contemplate what, exactly, a political party is, what does it do and why do we seem to want them so much anyway.

One definition of a political party is that it is an organisation that, through electoral campaigns, seeks to gain the power to govern, generally by being elected to government offices. And then, by means of educational outreach or  sometimes protest actions, hold on to that power.

Political parties often – though not always – have an explicit ideology or vision about the way a country’s society and its economy should be organised. Often these views take the shape of a written manifesto or platform that outlines specific goals and plans, although American political parties, especially, have less precisely articulated platforms. Instead, they seek to gain control by appealing to voters from the centre of the political spectrum.

Often, to gain and retain power, parties build coalitions among seemingly disparate interests against other coalitions. Although Mao Zedong cautioned that, “The revolution is not a tea party” (not to be confused with the American Tea Party “rebellion”), it is also true that social, economic or political revolutions are advocated and carried out by political parties.

Depending on the specific electoral and representational arrangements of a national political system – i.e., proportional, party list, first-past-the-post elections – a political system can end up nurturing two-party or multi-party systems. Political systems often evolve by taking into account and representing different ethnic, racial, religious and geographical differences. Sometimes political arrangements can even exacerbate such divisions, as in Belgium and India.

At the first generation after the founding of the American republic, its first president, George Washington, warned against allowing parties to exist. Even as the various members of his cabinet had already lined up to support two very different ideas about the role, size and power of that country’s new government, in his so-called “Farewell Address” Washington clung to his non-partisan ideal, like a latter-day Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer-leader.

At the end of his second term, Washington warned his countrymen of the dangers of politics.

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

“It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”

Hmm…does that sound vaguely familiar?

Washington may have been an idealist in some ways, but he was also a social realist. He clearly understood that the urge to divide up in support of different parties or ideals (based both on self-interest and larger, altruistic goals) is a near-fundamental human trait. Untrammelled, it could easily lead his nation on a slide to authoritarianism. (We’ll leave the question of the role and nature of the vanguard party whose goal was political power, but not necessarily through the ballot box for next semester.)

Historians point to the predominance of political parties through history in all kinds of polities. The members of the Periclean Athenian assembly, the senators of the Roman Republic, the biblical Sanhedrin all divided between supporters of more populist versus more patrician (or theocratic) agendas or between narrower sectarian or (arguably) broader national interests.

In medieval times as well, in the small northern Italian city-states, the Guelphs and Ghibellines respectively supported the secular ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor versus the temporal interests of the Papacy, or was it the other way around? The Daily Maverick must admit its understanding of this ancient struggle has never been totally clear – and can’t quite remember if Romeo and Juliet were somehow tangled up in this quarrel as well. Or not.

Anyway, a key point to remember is that in any political system, political parties do not remain static or unchanging. Rather, parties come into being in response to social, economic and political tensions of a nation and the hopes, fears and desires of its people. Parties can fall into insignificance as issues become less important, or they can evolve and stake out positions on emerging ones, create a new coalition of interests or even dramatically alter or adjust their positions to score political pre-eminence.

Consider America’s political evolution. From the 1830s onward, within a broader consensus on national expansion and federal support for that century’s high-tech infrastructure like canals, harbours and railroads, the Whig and Democratic parties alternated power – the Whigs supported national economic growth to forestall that inevitable national debate over slavery, while the Democrats accepted the reality of slavery, but pressed for national expansion to occupy everyone’s attention.

But, as broader popular opposition to slavery grew, this opposition found its political expression first in the newly conceived Free Soil Party and then the Republican Party. The Whigs and their equivocations quickly became history. But party positions, unlike diamonds, are not forever. The Republicans and Democrats have effectively switched positions on the centrality of the federal government on economic management over time, with the Democratic Party now the advocate for the bigger federal role. As recently as the 1920s, the Republicans had a lock on the votes of African Americans, a legacy of the Republicans’ pursuit of the Civil War and the end of slavery, 60 years earlier. But the Great Depression changed all that, making the Democrats the advocates for measures such as Social Security that helped build a broad coalition that lasted until the turmoil of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

Or consider Great Britain’s political evolution. For more than 100 years, the Tories and Whigs alternated power, as the Tories (or Conservatives) more aggressively supported imperial growth as the creature of rising industrial interests, while the Whigs generally represented the interests of the more traditional, rural-based gentry and upper-class. But as the country’s voting population became more inclusive, the newer Liberal Party became the key opposition to the Conservatives And once nearly all male Britons had the vote, the Labour Party quickly came to occupy the leftward side of British politics. The Liberals, eventually reborn as the Liberal-Democrats and now under Nicolas Clegg, have only in the past several months been able to recapture any sort of political traction.

Half-a-world away in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party arose after World War II to gain the support of farmers, small businessmen, and government and corporate salaried workers for the grand bargain with the US over Japanese economic growth policies and the US-Japanese defence alliance. They thoroughly monopolised the political centre and dominated the leftist, union-supported Socialists and Communist Party opposition. Only in the past several years, has a new group, the new Democratic Party, gained power with the virtual collapse of the socialists and growing popular disdain over the corruption and ineptitude of the long-governing LDP.

In France, a dominant Gaullist party, despite several name changes, has ruled the centre since the late 1950s – in opposition to miscellaneous rightist and leftist parties – while in Germany, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats seem to alternate power, depending on which party can garner the support of one of the smaller parties that hold the balance.

Political parties take their cue from the larger political realities of their societies. Sometimes they lead, sometimes they follow – and sometimes they just become a footnote in a history book somewhere.

By J Brooks Spector

For further reading, try Basic Readings in US Democracy, and the Democratic and Republican party websites.


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