George Washington certainly got it right about political parties:
All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
–Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796
What he’s saying (or at least what I’m interpreting) is that, while political parties are sometimes established for good ends and can serve the interests of the overall populace, political parties are likely to ultimately turn to serving the ends of the party, not the electorate. While our first president was talking about the national level, I’m seeing traces of this at the local level as the city I live in gears up for mayoral and city council elections—with party primaries in June.
The first annoyance is that campaigning for the primaries started way back in March, maybe even February. Maybe better to say the primary (singular) rather than primaries (plural) because it really is all about the Democrats running for mayor and for the council. There is almost zero coverage of the Republicans or the Independent running because the Democrats are 1) dominant in the region and 2) actually need the primary to winnow their slate. So, they’ve been at it since they could first file their candidacy. There have been two or three debates for candidates already, never mind the fact that there’s still some time before candidates need to register with the city to run. What this means is one of the parties is already setting the terms of the debate, before all candidates have registered. Many letters to the editor in local papers are encouraging people to vote in the primary (Virginia has an open primary, so anyone can vote in either primary, but not both) because it is when the election will be decided. I find this an affront to the practice of elections, but I seem to be in the minority.
The second annoyance is that debates are all about the party, and getting the party elected to the council. There’s very little discussion about what’s best for the city or for the people, rather, it’s about what’s best for the party. What this means is that candidates are focused on core party priorities, rather than trying to determine what is best for the city, even if it isn’t a key plank of the party. While there’s some difference in opinion amongst the candidates, the range of ideas is rather narrow. For example, there is no discussion about whether taxes (especially property taxes) are too high, but there is some discussion about whether there should be dedicated funds for affordable housing in the budget. To their credit, there is a debate over how to pay our police and fire service better, or at least more in line with surrounding jurisdictions, but I think that debate is really being forced by one of the incumbents who is a former firefighter himself.
The third annoyance is that, once we get through the primary race, there’s going to be an absurd amount of state and national-level party funds coming in for the election. Fine, no problem with putting your dollars behind a political party or a particular campaign because you agree with what’s being said, but when the national party is pulling the purse strings, the local issues get obscured. It is, in my opinion, a violation of the principle of subsidiarity, in which issues should be resolved at the lowest possible administrative level. A corollary of that principle is that the more local you get, the less political issues are. People in a neighborhood ought to be able to resolve common issues without reference to a national political party for guidance. Likewise, in my opinion, city counselors should not necessarily be tied to a political party because the national level politics may or may not be aligned with what the local issues are. As President Washington said, the party takes advantage of the mechanism that got it into power in the first place, and perverts it to perpetuate staying in power.
I would much rather see local elections either be sorted out through caucusing, where at least the candidates need to connect with the electors on issues of importance, or be completely non-partisan so that you don’t have the higher leadership of any political party dictating the issues and terms of the debate for particular jurisdictions. Either one is probably too much to hope for, especially in this neck of the woods where national politics is part of the air we breathe.