Are Political Parties ‘Private’?

2016Primariesby Jon N. Hall7/9/16
Are U.S. political parties “private” organizations, or are they public? The answer to that question may be at the heart of what is wrong with American politics, and there doesn’t seem to be an agreed upon answer to it. Some say political parties are “semi-public,” which sounds a bit like being “semi-private.”

In his The Parties in Court: American Political Parties under the Constitution (2013), Robert C. Wigton writes:

Political parties have long occupied an uncertain place in American constitutional law. Parties were not mentioned in the Constitution and developed largely outside the constitutional system. As a consequence, they have grown to possess attributes of both public and private organizations and undertake activities associated with both types of organizations.

If American political parties have evolved into hybrid entities, then another question arises: should the parties be entirely private? If not, should the parties have absolute autonomy in any area? If there is an area in which political parties should have self-determination, it is in deciding who their candidates for office are, especially their nominees for U.S. president.

If the parties are a mix of private and public, that’s surely due to the slew of state laws that regulate the parties. It is the states that make requirements on the parties to conduct primaries, caucuses, and conventions to determine who the delegates are to the parties’ national presidential nominating conventions. The states even presume to dictate (i.e. bind) how those delegates will vote. Such laws may well be unconstitutional.

On April 9, Cato Institute ran “Political Parties Belong to Their Members” by Roger Pilon, who writes: “Principled Republicans have been dismayed by the way this primary season has gone, rightly believing that their party has been hijacked by people having little or no connection with the party or its principles as articulated over the years in party platforms.” Pilon concludes that if the GOP convention delegates succeed in nominating a true Republican, “perhaps the first order of business should be to work with the states toward restoring the principle that political parties are private entities, not extensions of the government, and how they run their affairs are for their members alone to decide.” (Agreed, but who are these “members”?)

What occasioned Pilon’s blog was an article that appeared the previous day in the Wall Street Journal, “The Case for a Really Open GOP Convention” by Kimberly Strassel. The article is a profile of Eric O’Keefe:

The veteran Republican grass-roots activist sees a contested convention as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the delegates of a private political party to assert their power. The results of the GOP primaries are hardly representative of the party’s will, Mr. O’Keefe says, because state parties have been wrecked by domineering state legislatures. Why should Republicans bow down, for instance, to the results of state-mandated open primaries that allow liberal and independent voters to bum-rush what is supposed to be a private poll?

“There’s nothing that special or even good about the government-run primary process,” Mr. O’Keefe says. Relishing the opportunity for Republican delegates to stand up for themselves, he is gearing up a campaign to educate and encourage them to exercise their prerogatives at the convention and to ignore specious insistence that they follow some imaginary obligations.

Kevin Williamson’s March 2 article at National Review, “Why Democrats Aren’t Democratic (and Republicans Shouldn’t Be),” should be read by “conservatives” who think that our political parties should be regulated:

One of the harebrained progressive reforms foisted upon our republic is the so-called open primary, which amounts to something close to the abolition of political parties as such. If anybody can vote in the Republican primary — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, independent, etc. — then membership in the party does not mean very much, and, hence, the party itself does not mean very much. […]

The political parties are not public agencies. We have constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, and the parties ought to be able to simply reject a candidate. They might not be able to simply select a nominee, but they could exercise, with complete propriety, a veto power. Under such a system, Trump would be free to run for president in any manner he saw fit, but not under the Republican banner, unless the Republican party itself consented.

Okay, but who are these people who “consent”? Indeed, what precisely is the Republican Party? How does one become a member of it?

Those are not idle questions. How you answer them would likely indicate what you think about the parties’ status as “private.” Some might think one is a Republican if one registers as a Republican in those states that have party registration; one could then say one is a “card-carrying Republican.” But anyone can register in any party. Some believe that voting in a Republican primary makes you a Republican. But anyone can do that. Some might contend that to be a real member of the GOP means you have to contribute to the cause, as in money or time.

Such positions on who is a member of the Republican Party are mistaken; party members are the apparatus, the people in the organization. Party members are also the delegates who attend the national convention to nominate their presidential nominee. Delegates should come from the party’s organization only, not be elected, nor chosen by candidates. If parties aren’t “private” enough to be able to choose their members and delegates, then parties are farce.

Why do the states have this plethora of laws governing the parties? The main reason is ballot access. The states need some mechanism to keep everyone and his idiot uncle from running for office. So they create hurdles to get on the ballot; perfectly reasonable. But in the case of our two major parties, and especially with regard to the presidency, some slack needs to be cut. The two major parties are the only parties since before the War Between the States that have provided us with presidents; the states should not be making them jump through hoops to grant them places on their ballots for their presidential nominees. The two major parties should be granted automatic ballot access without having to go through the rigors and expense of primaries or signature gathering.

For years now I’ve contended that convention delegates should just ignore the primaries and vote their consciences. But commenters counter with blather about “democracy,” as though the general election will not afford them the right to exercise their franchise. They feel that not only must they be able to decide who wins the game, but also who gets to play the game. This is all progressive thinking. Progressives understand that many voters will always vote their self-interest, not the interest of the country. And so the voters give us more Big Government to dole out even more free stuff. Progressives think there can never be too much “democracy,” even in a republic.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (657 views)

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8 Responses to Are Political Parties ‘Private’?

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Government exists to benefit its constituents at the expense of everyone else. The advantage of democracy is that the people at large (at least in theory) aren’t being looted by the favored few. (Now they’re all looting each other in the belief that they benefit from the shared looting. And indeed, some do, but it’s determined as much by political pull as voting strength.) So the parties as elites will simply mean some form of thieving aristocracy. Of course, we already have this in Versailles-on-the-Potomac anyway.


    Jon here gives a far more balanced presentation of the issues surrounding modern American political parties than he has in the past, which is definitely progress. Let’s take the last issue Jon raises first:

    “Progressives understand that many voters will always vote their self-interest, not the interest of the country. And so the voters give us more Big Government to dole out even more free stuff.”

    But of course when the American Republic was established the voters were never supposed to be able to vote themselves an income extorted from their fellow citizens. The fact is that America is both a republic and a democracy: the people are supposed to be able to elect the government of their choice, but that government is then supposed to be so chained and fettered that substantial evils such as income redistribution are impossible. We might also say that America is supposed to be a democracy, but a limited democracy since unlimited democracy is no better than any other form of unlimited government. I believe if this point were better understood we might avoid much confusion.

    However, the major point at issue here is whether the political parties are (or should be) public or private. We can approach the problem from two angles: (1) Who exactly are we referring to when we say “The Republican Party”? or (2) What should be the function of political parties in a free state?

    I’ve actually covered this second question in some detail in The Party of the State where my purpose was to show how this function changes as a free nation gradually devolves into tyranny as is happening today. For our discussion here, unless we reject entirely the notion of popular government and believe that leaders should be selected by some elite group – the only practical alternative to popular elections – then the proper purpose of any party must be to elect representatives who will carry out the will of the people in devising public policy (within Constitutional limits, of course).

    If this is so, then two consequences immediately follow: the parties must able to place their nominees on the public ballots for any general election, and they must be subject to the will of the people who join them. In other words, the parties function much like representative government itself: because it’s unwieldy for people to govern themselves directly, they assign (that is, elect) representatives to work their will.

    This also answers (1) above, one of the questions that Jon posed: who are the members of a party? They are the voters who register as members of the party and whose will the party is supposed to carry out – indeed, the whole purpose of having a party is for it to carry out the will of the voters.

    This is getting a bit long, so as to the question of state regulation and control I shall try to be brief: since the parties get their candidates placed on the public election ballots, the states must ultimately have control of the process by which this is done, bearing in mind the principles previously set forth. So-called “open” primaries are obviously a problem as Jon points out, but the solution is not to eliminate the primaries but rather to close them to all but voters registered as party members. Caucuses should be eliminated also.

    Other reforms including perhaps some changes to the conventions should be considered, but one thing is clear: political parties are not private entities like General Motors, Harvard University, or the Rotarians. They serve a distinctly public purpose and so must be subject to public control.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Note that party primaries were opened to blacks in the 1940s by court order, long before other forms of integration were imposed, precisely because of their role in selecting candidates for election. (And especially because in many places, such as most of the South, one party’s primary was tantamount to the election.)

      One problem in getting rid of open primaries is that many states require them, and they probably can’t be gotten rid of by one party (the California jungle primary is an excellent example). Another is that many states don’t even have partisan voter registration. This is especially common in the South.

  3. oldguy says:

    Tell me who pays for the primary elections and I will give you your answer.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      A very good point. Primaries are generally held, and paid for, by the government rather than the parties. Caucuses and conventions are paid for by the parties.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      It would seem that political parties share similarities to baseball teams. The teams are private but they often play in public facilities paid for by the taxpayers and run by the city or county.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        There’s more similarity than that. The emotional feeling of a favored team in a major series is very similar to that of one’s preferred party in a major election (and they’re all major these days). But the teams disappoint their fans less after winning than the parties do.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I’m sure if George Carlin were alive today, he could find even more similarities between major league baseball and political parties. Let’s see…

          + Both are involved in stealing, whether second base or public monies

          + Both have “managers” who are often less powerful than the star players (Think Trump/Priebus)

          + One is a kid’s game played by adults. The other is an adult game played by juveniles.

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