Why Parties Matter: Political Competition and Democracy in the American South, by John H. Aldrich and John D. Griffin

When it comes to winning votes, variety is the spice of life, writes Angelia Wilson

March 19, 2018
American Civil War monument
Source: Getty

Are political parties essential to democracy? Increasingly, experts on politics are returning to such fundamental questions. To what extent does party loyalty determine a legislator’s voting record? Are elections determined largely by party investment in a candidate or the strength of party organisation in a particular region?

With the rise of Momentum, Bernie’s Bros, Trumpanistas and less successfully branded versions of populism, voters are also asking, “Do parties matter?”

In their new book, John Aldrich and John Griffin articulate a timely case for Why Parties Matter, since any hope of a functioning democracy depends upon party competition. Where there is only one party, or one organised institutional voice in the public square, there are abuses of power. Party competition leads to a more responsive and more effective governing body.

To illustrate this, Aldrich and Griffin offer a meticulous historical analysis of politics in the American South. They focus on four eras – the pre-Civil War Democratic-Whig era; post Reconstruction; the Jim Crow era; and the contemporary South – to compare party competition in the South and the North. In the Jim Crow South, for example, the Democratic Party was the “only game in town”, in something akin to “a one-party authoritarian state”. Through legal manoeuvring and unmitigated violence, middle-class whites were able to solidify power. When democracy isn’t competitive, the authors argue, the dominant party can suffer a decline in electoral support without losing office. (On this point, of course, Theresa May would be the expert.)

Over time, with increasing party competition, Southern Members of Congress became as responsive to the needs of their constituents as those from the North. Using a range of comparative measures such as education, income and life expectancy, the authors demonstrate that the two groups of representatives are now similarly effective in delivering goods and services to constituents.

My students are often surprised to learn that the Democratic Party was once strong in the South. Of course, those were very different Democrats from the centrist party we see now on the national stage. Over the past 50 years, the GOP has defined Southern politics. Or, perhaps more precisely, the Southern-based Christian Right has defined the Republican national agenda. Either way, significant evidence suggests the rise again of a one-party South.

The authors dismiss this possibility by noting that, in the most populous Southern states, “Republicans need to be mindful of Democrats as potential competitors”. Moreover, shifting racial demographics threaten the long-term power of the white-focused GOP. At current rates, Georgia and Mississippi could be majority-minority states within the next decade. These factors reassure Aldrich and Griffin that party competition and democracy are safe in the South.

Why Parties Matter skilfully confirms that one-party rule will lead to abuse of power and that political competition is necessary for responsive, effective democracy. Of course, if a two-party system is good for democracy, one might ask whether a multi-party system would be even better. Alternatively, one might worry about the outcome of two-party democracy in the US. With the country so deeply polarised, relations between the current two parties (however divided themselves) look less like a functioning democracy and more like a civil war.

Angelia R. Wilson is professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

Why Parties Matter: Political Competition and Democracy in the American South
By John H. Aldrich and John D. Griffin
University of Chicago Press
304pp, £26.50
ISBN 9780226495378
Published 2 February 2018

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