What were the strong parties in 18th century Europe?

In an otherwise good piece by a Republican insider about why a Newt Gingrich presidency would be dangerous, Mickey Edwards offers this line:

It is why they argued against creating strong political parties like the ones they had left behind in Europe.

The “it” here is the “confrontational” style of Gingrich that, Edwards says, is more responsible than anything else for the current “dysfunctional” nature of American politics. “They” are the drafters of the US constitution.

No argument here about Gingrich’s dangers, or the incompatibility of strong parties (at least when there are just two) with the US Constitution as it emerged from the Philadelphia Convention. And certainly no argument to be offered here against the dysfunction of the US political system.

I just want to know, because I am not a historian of European parties, what “strong political parties” did the early European settlers of America (neatly conflated here with the constitutional founders) leave behind?

Electoral democracy and disciplined parliamentary parties must have emerged rather earlier than I had been aware previously.

25 thoughts on “What were the strong parties in 18th century Europe?

    • Yes, but in what sense were the English parties of the early 18th century (or even the time of the constitutional convention, periods that Edwards elides) “strong” in the sense he is clearly referring to? This was before the days of the efficient secret, after all.

  1. Machiavelli blamed the Guelph/Ghibelline competition for power for the destruction of the city republics in early medieval Italy and repeated and refined the Roman belief that strong parties will destroy any republic. The Guelphs and Ghibellines were as forgotten as thepopulares and optimates by the time the US was founded.

  2. MSS makes a subtle point but is correct that in the late 18th century there had never been anything resembling modern electoral politics. When 18th century people wrote about “factions”, they meant something closer to armed gangs. That was the main way politics had been conducted to that point, whether we are talking about the Optimates vs. the Populares, the Blues vs. the Greens, the Guelphs vs. the Ghibellines, and even the Whigs and Tories in the seventeenth century.

    There is a sort of exaggerated reverence for the “founders” in the United States that ignores that in most respects these people were living in a completely different world.

  3. I would disagree with Mickey Edwards on this.

    It really depends on a whole variety of factors why a country has strong parties and whether it has weak parties.

    Strong Parties exist because of the structure of a parliamentary democracy which leads to strong party discipline because the Prime Minister can be dismiss by the legislature at any time. Of course one would think, this would lead to a weak Prime Minister, and a strong legislature especially if a Prime Minister cannot call an early election.

    In addition, the Prime Minister also has the power to call for snap elections. The power of dissolution varies from country to country with English speaking countries giving the Prime Minister unlimited right to call for snap elections except in the case of the government looses its majority and the President, Monarch, or Governor-General can refuse a dissolution in such a case, to countries in the middle, in Germany, the government has to fake a loss of confidence, the assembly has to call for a snap election to countries like Sweden where a snap election is allowed, but it is only an extra election, and Norway where no early election is possible.

    The electoral system is another facet that is very important in whether parties are strong and discipline. A country like Israel which uses a system of close-party list treating the country as one nation wide district would have very strong central party system determine by the party bosses. One would think that countries that use open party list system would have parties less strong. Countries that use MMP might be somewhere in between the two. STV, one would think would produce very weak parties as members of the same party are competing against one another for votes, but then the district magnitude for countries using STV is usually no higher than 6 members.

    The U.S will never have strong parties like what they have in Europe because the U.S is not a parliamentary democracy, the executive does not have the power to call for early elections (we have fixed term elections like Norway), nor is a system of close party list proportional representation used, and a primary system which varies from state to state, and that weakens the parties somewhat although some argue it makes the politicians pander to extremes in the primary as more voters decline to state and vote in the primaries leaving only party activists to vote.

    Switzerland does not have strong parties because the executive can’t be forced to resign by the legislature, and nor does the executive have the power to call snap elections, and the electoral system is a free/open party list system.

    Also in the 18th century, there was no such thing as the secret ballot (invented by the Australians in the late 1800’s), concepts like proportional representation (first used in Belgium in 1899), and even universal suffrage (Finland in 1907 women could vote, and run as candidates.

    • I’d agree with the general remarks by Suaprazzodi on what institutional factors lead to “strong” parties. However, clearly Edwards is referring only to the US context. That is, he is comparing across time in one country, rather than across countries. And there can be little doubt that US parties, as voting agents in Congress, are “stronger” now than in decades gone by. Yet the USA has not changed to a parliamentary system, nor has it adopted a new electoral system. So clearly other factors affect the strength of parties.

      Many of the features of the US executive-legislative structure–bicameralism, the presidential veto, and the filibuster–are far more problematic in an era of stronger party discipline than they were in an earlier era when more members were voting across party lines. That’s where the dysfunction comes in.

      Were the US to have multiparty politics (with or without a change towards proportional representation), it is likely that deadlock, polarization, and other forms of dysfunction would be lessened. It would then be possible to build legislative coalitions that combined one of the two main parties with smaller parties either on its own fringe or in the center, but without having to cross over the center to take in the main party on the other side of the divide.

      In addition, some issues would likely take in legislative coalitions from across the “center” because a multiparty system allows for multi-dimensionality to be reflected more readily (e.g. Greens and the pro-business wing of the current Republican party could find some common ground, as could otherwise right-wing Libertarians and aspects of the current Democratic party).

      This is what I had in mind with my comment that the US political system is dysfunctional with just two “strong” parties. It could be far less so with a moderate increase in the number of parties, even if each of these was “strong” in the sense of having a clear programmatic niche.

  4. For an idea of what the US would look like with proportional representation for the legislature, but no other constitutional alterations to its system, Latin America is a good guide. That Latin American example is one reason why I don’t think proportional representation with a presidential system is a good concept.

    However, I think people are reading too much into some of Edwards remarks. It really was a subset of “the sainted founders didn’t want this blah blah blah so we shouldn’t do that etc.” type of commentary you get all the time in the US. In fact one unique (and to me positive) feature of Gingrich’s career is that he actually got the the Republican Party to enter the 1994 elections with a manifesto, or legislative program, and then after the election actually enforced it, getting most of it through the House, removing senior members who were obviously not taken with the manifesto commitments, and so on. Pelosi did something similar on a much smaller and weaker scale twelve years later.

    Obviously there is room to disagree with the content of the program, but it was a huge step forward in the U.S. for the notion of politicians having to spell out in some detail how they would govern and being expected to deliver, and I think it was unfortunate for it becoming a flash in the pan instead of becoming a feature of the unwritten American constitutional arrangements.

  5. It seems to me that the Speaker of the U.S House is becoming a de-facto Prime Minister in many ways.

    I agree that proportional representation under a Presidentalist system would lead to some problems. It would be problematic. A parliamentary system with PR is easier to manage because voters are discipline in somewhat of a way to vote for one of the two leading parties because one of those two will be Prime Minister and the small parties are just satellite parties.
    The Prime Minister also has the power to call for snap elections in most parliamentary democracies. The threat of dissolution would discipline most small parties and not wag the tail of the dog.

    Israel tried electing the Prime Minister, and it was thought it would make the executive smaller, but it made it weaker, encouraging the fragmentation of the party system even more which is why the experiment was abandon.

    I think the U.S would use a moderate system of PR with small multi-member districts, either an open party list system or STV. I would find using an MMP system hard to implement because the constitution would have to be amended to allow for an at-large nation-wide district perhaps as small as 25% to as large as 50%. It is possible to do it at the state level, but then the size of Congress would have to be doubled in size in order to get Proportional Representation of Representatives of Wyoming. That is not going to happen.

    The party system should not fragment too much. The U.S party system could fragment along regional lines with FPTP like Canada, India, and the United Kingdom as examples. This country has had cases of regionalism in it’s past.

    Perhaps a U.S state should try experimenting with PR, and see how it works. The states are the laboratories for the Federal Government. It seems quite boring that they are have the same system as the Federal government except that the State Senates are no different than State Assemblies.

    Costa Rica seems to do quite well with PR and Presidentalist, albeit it’s assembly is very small at 57 members, and the district magnitude is quite high. Chile had used a very proportionate system of PR, but then it had a military coup, and the military designed a two-seat PR system which it still has.

    I think the problems with PR in Latin America is not the electoral system per se, but regionalism of the party list. People usually blame Italy for the ills and the problems of proportional representation, but those problems are not the system itself, but the regionalism of it’s politics, even a FPTP system would create the same problems and maybe make it worse. It is not always the electoral system that is to blame, it may be other factors.

    Nobody ever asks, why did most Latin American countries make the decision to elect representatives using Proportional Representation? What is the history behind the move toward it? What was the original system before the move to PR?

    • It is a very big error to say the US Speaker is becoming a de-facto PM, because he or she is most certainly not the executive. Enough said.

  6. Latin America did not always have PR as its dominant electoral system. If anything the dominance of PR is relatively recent. PR cannot therefore be the principal explanation for the historic instability in the continent. While the Chilean coup can partly be explained by external factors, there was also the internal factor of a presidential electoral system that almost guaranteed minority presidents because the congress conducted the runoff and invariably elected the plurality candidate.

  7. With my implied criticism of proportional representation in Latin America, I wasn’t referring to military coups. I was referring more to the legislatures becoming bazaars of patronage, filled with lots of essentially fake parties that the executive winds up buying off (often through bribing the pols) to get their program through. And I was thinking mostly of Brazil. Arguably the American political system has enough tendencies in that direction already, but I don’t think they would be helped by keeping the legislature free of the responsibility -and accountability- of having to produce a majority for a functioning government, while letting lots of small parties in. Many of these parties would turn out to be essentially fronts for patronage grabs.

    In any case, I don’t that determining the executive, by which I mean whoever hires and fires the heads of the departments, with a single election that will at some point boil down to two candidates, and combining it with a multiparty system for the legislature is a good idea. Presidential systems tend naturally to two party systems since to control the executive parties wind up getting roped into semi-permanent coalitions of one sort or another.

    For the United States, as Suaprozzi points out, for the House of Representatives the constitutional requirement to apportion representatives among the states places a strict limit on the number of representatives per district in most cases. The average number of representatives per state is eight. But in fact only 18 states have more than eight representatives. So if the U.S. were to try this, without getting rid of the statewide basis for representation as well it would be almost forced into using small multimember districts, for which STV would be the most appropriate system. And I frankly think American culture, plus the fact that the President, Governors, Mayors, and probably U.S. Senators would still be elected in essentially two candidate elections, plus things like automatic ballot spots for incumbents and control of the electoral machinery by people appointed by the two existing parties, would keep the U.S. as the two party system it is now.

  8. “Nobody ever asks, why did most Latin American countries make the decision to elect representatives using Proportional Representation?”

    I suspect that, at a world level, PR is largely the default; usually, non-PR systems only survive where they have a strong tradition. Attending that most Latin American countries are “new democracies”, with constitutions enacted a few decades ago, it is natural that they have choosen PR.

    • Most Latin American countries were already PR before their current constitutions, however.

      Miguel’s story is still broadly accurate, nonetheless, in that by the early 20th century, PR was indeed the default electoral-system form almost everywhere but the English-speaking world. And the starting point, for those that adopted PR, was nowhere single-seat districts. Most Latin American countries already had multi-seat districts with some form of minority (at least second party) representation guaranteed. Vestiges of these early systems remain in the Senate electoral systems of Argentina and Mexico (and, until recently, Bolivia). So it was not a great leap to go from these systems of minority representation to PR.

      The pattern is further enhanced by consideration of one of the very few countries in the region that had a system of single-seat districts as of the early 20th century, Mexico. To this day Mexico still does not have a PR system. It uses MMM.

  9. On Chile, while it is factually correct that the congress always chose as president the candidate with the most popular votes, it only once faced a situation in which (a) the race was close, and (b) the front-runner might have been unacceptable to a majority. That was, of course, 1970. Although it confirmed Salvador Allende (36% of the vote to 34% for the Christian Democrat runner-up), it did so only after extracting a humiliating statement of adherence to the constitution and attempting to impose various other conditions. So it is not as though they just picked the front-runner by default. And we will never know what they might have done if they had been allowed to select the third-place candidate, who might have been more broadly acceptable to the center-right majorities in congress. (The Christian Democratic candidate was from the left wing of his party, and the more traditional right-wing forces were in bitter competition with Christian Democracy for hegemony over the non-socialist majority of the electorate.)

    In Bolivia, where a similar system was used for decades, congress often selected the runner-up and once selected the number three. Bolivia’s constitution allowed congress to select any of the top three, whereas Chile’s restricted the congressional “runoff” to the top two. Moreover, Bolivia’s elections were generally far closer.

    None of this has much to do with strong parties in Europe in the 18th century, or America today, but in the spirit of the Chanukah season, I’ll let this thread enjoy its resistance to assimilation.

  10. Ed, what you say about Brazil is a good 15-20 years out of date. The party system now has a clear programmatic cleavage, thanks to the rise of the Worker’s Party and the Lula presidency.

    Yes, the PMDB and some other parties remain patronage-based, but the system is as a whole really does not fit the description you offer.

    As for the average size of a US House delegation, Ed makes good points. However, we should also increase the size of the House! And, regardless, there is no reason why you could not have state-by-state MMP in states with three or more representatives, while letting the smaller states use other systems (whether 2-seat PR, or 1-seat IRV, or even continuing plurality).

  11. Why did almost some/all primarily English speaking countries stuck with plurality/majoritarian system, and made no move toward Proportional Representation? Was it the fear of instability?

    One cannot say almost all, half of the 6 primarily English speaking nations. NZ, Ireland, and Australia are the English speaking countries that use some form of PR, whereas Canada, UK (except Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and their local governments), and the U.S do not.

  12. Aside from the cases Suaprozzodi mentions, most countries that have ever used plurality still do.

    On the other hand, most countries that adopted PR after using some other electoral system were not plurality countries, but instead used two-round systems of some sort, or multi-seat districts with a rule other than winner-take-all.

  13. > “were not plurality countries”

    Slight correction: were not single-seat [*] plurality countries. MNTV is, technically, still plurality. But MSS is quite correct in making the point (also noted by Andrew McLaren Carstairs, 1984) that countries saw a smoother and easier transition from either (a) filling one single seat in two or more ballots, or (b) filling two or more seats in one single ballot (or, a fortiori, filling two or more seats in two or more ballots – eg, Italy’s pre-PR system, with a 25% support quorum as well!), to a PR system, than when they were accustomed to filling one single seat in one single ballot. [**] [***]

    [*] I’m going to be pedantic and distinguish “single-member” from “single-seat” (of which it is a subset). The US Senate is, and the West Australian and Victorian upper houses before 1986 and 2005 were, “single-seat” but not “single-member” – ie, one seat of two for each constituency faces election in rotation. To really gild the lily, the South Australian upper house before 1974 had 4-member districts with 2 seats coming up for election in rotation… and it was *still* winner-take-all!

    [**] Having said that, the UK had a number of multi-seaters – most voting by MNTV but some by LtdV and even a few with STV – until 1949.

    [***] Quaere whether the use of publicly-run, largely open (at least, party “supporters” can’t be blackballed at the discretion of the party’s officials) primary elections means the US counts as “single-ballot” plurality. Certainly a close-run presidential primary (like 2008) then general election seems not a million kilometres (or 144,000 miles) removed from its French counterpart. Me, I’d class the US as a party-based (outside Louisiana) version of Runoff, with an analagous relationship to the French version as, say, Finnish open-list PR has to SNTV

  14. “Me, I’d class the US as a party-based (outside Louisiana) version of Runoff, with an analagous relationship to the French version as, say, Finnish open-list PR has to SNTV”

    I wouldn’t, for three reasons:

    1. Though it may seem that every American is “born a little Democrat or born a little Republican”, actually over a third of the electorate is registered in neither party. No real runoff system requires a third of the electorate to sit out the first round. Turnouts for primaries are always much lower than in the general election.

    2. Incumbents in the U.S. rarely get primary challenges. This essentially give the incumbent a free pass into the “runoff” most of the time, which I think the incumbent presidents of France and Brazil would dream about. In fact, the de facto requirement that any challenger to the incumbent run in two, very expensive elections, the first against other challengers and the second against the incumbent, is probably one of the reasons behind the high incumbent reelection rate in the U.S.

    3. The Democratic and Republican candidate selection processes are weird things, essentially a candidate selection process of private political organizations that receive public subsidies and are subject to legislative interference. But enough survives from the pre-quasi-public days to diminish the electoral element. The obvious example is the crazy quilt of rolling primaries and caucuses that makes up the presidential selection process, which no sane person would duplicate as a first round in a two round election. But in down ballot races in New York, for example, the local party bosses just pick whoever will run the election for special (by) elections, with primaries used for normal elections, and not surprisingly there seems to have been an increase in incumbents resigning mid-term, ensuring their successor will be picked in a special election.

    I think the American electoral system at this point is so sui generis is that it should be classed in its own category, the American electoral system.

  15. I don’t consider MNTV to be a plurality system, even if it does use the plurality allocation rule, Tom, so your correction is unnecessary.

    I do, however, fully agree with your (no more pedantic) point about “single-seat” vs. “single-member”.

    On the US system, I am in general agreement with Ed, especially his point #1, and most especially that point’s second sentence.

  16. I’m glad this discussion was mentioned, as this gives me a good place to ask a question. Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction (http://tinyurl.com/o2zvysh) argues that the Galactic Senate in the Star Wars’ prequel trilogy is a very problematic depiction of a legislature, perhaps most importantly in that it seems to omit parties. But it seems to me like he’s missing something: it looks to me like the Galactic Senate is an example of an Ambassadorial rather than a Senatorial assembly (Doria 2006 The Paradox of Federal Bicameralism). A Senatorial chamber being one that is either directly or indirectly elected, but for a fixed term and not recallable; an ambassadorial chamber is one where the representatives are more ambassadors of member states of some con/federal union, and can be recalled – sometimes even the appointing member state leaders themselves may take part directly. Examples of ambassadorial chambers include the German Bundesrat, the EU’s Council of Ministers and European Council, and the American Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Ambassadorial chambers have been the standard, and as far as I know, universal, model used by CONfederations (perhaps by definition, I won’t get into that now), but have become rarer since the invention of Federalism by the 1787 Philadelphia Convention.

    My question is, have parties ever existed in such chambers?

    A related question is to MSS: you mentioned electoral politics as something that didn’t really exist before the 19th century. But don’t we know from Cox (2008?) that parties have incentives to form within legislatures, whether or not they are elected democratically?

    • Well, I suppose the UN general assembly has regional blocs, and that seats are allocated proportionately (or in rotation) among these blocs. Hence Saudi Arabia chairing the human rights commission and other such eyebrow-raisers.
      Around the time of the 1994 Beijing Women’s Conference there was talk of the “Catholic/ Latin American” and the “Islamic” blocks forming a coalition to oppose pro-abortion resolutions. (THE ECONOMIST ran a cartoon of the Pope in a turban and the Ayatollah in a biretta).

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