Lee Drutman wrote for Vox's Big Idea series on the precarious balance between healthy and unhealthy partisanship.
As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider famously observed in his 1942 book, Party Government, “Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” It is unthinkable, because without competing parties, voters lack meaningful choices. Partisan conflict is necessary for democracy, because one-party politics is not democracy. It’s totalitarianism.
Competition gives parties incentives to respond to voters. And losing parties keep winning parties accountable by threatening to take away their supporters.
Parties mobilize and engage citizens to win elections, in the process bringing many otherwise apathetic citizens into politics. They bind disparate citizens together in a common purpose, providing a shared sense of collective energy necessary for a functioning democracy. Absent parties to structure and organize politics, democracy would crumble under chaos or apathy.
But the good things that parties accomplish come with side effects. To unite people, parties must also divide, by offering a common enemy to everyone on their side. As psychologists have long known, in-group loyalty and out-group hostility are two sides of the same coin. And under certain circumstances, particularly ones of high stress and high threat, and usually with active goading from above, out-group hostility can easily take on very dark and destructive forces.
Here’s the paradox: We can’t have democracy without partisanship. But when partisanship overwhelms everything, it becomes increasingly difficult for democracy to function.