The terms ‘democracy’ and ‘multi-party state’ have almost become synonymous. China, for example, is notorious for being a ‘single party state’, which is a (slightly) more polite way of saying ‘authoritarian regime’ or ‘dictatorship’. Since China’s political system is ubiquitously painted as either bad or outright atrocious, it must mean that a multiple party system is the correct answer. Indeed almost all democracies have multiple parties, including the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia, Israel, Japan, etc. However, the notion that ‘party’ is the defining attribute of a democracy is deeply problematic.
On the eve of the Ontario provincial election here in Canada (which I cannot participate because I missed the deadline to mail in my vote and I am currently out-of-province), we are faced with possibly the lowest voter turn-out in our entire history. This is a grim realization since the current record holder, an abysmal 48%, was set just three years ago in the last Ontario election. To quote this Maclean’s article, would-be voters have “changed the channel” a long time ago. This is because a fundamental aspect of the nature of democratic politics is revealed and amplified by the advance of technology: the most important priority for any politician is to get elected, and the most important priority of any political party is to form government. Ideally, the best way to achieve these priorities is to be good at your job and for your party to be the one to best serve the interests of your citizens. Unfortunately, with the help of modern technology and statistical methods, this is no longer the case. As is painfully underlined in the Eric Cantor case, often the most effective method to stay elected and stay in power is to pander to the loudest, most driven minorities in the electorate at the expense of alienating everyone else.
The fundamental problem is that political parties, small in number, cannot collectively represent every possible person. This is further exacerbated by the unspoken dogma that political parties cannot agree with each other on anything. For a person, it may be perfectly reasonable to be simultaneously pro-abortion but pro-immigration reform, but in the USA such a person would necessarily have to choose between the two issues: since Republicans are pro-abortion and anti-immigration reform, while Democrats are pro-choice and pro-immigration reform. In this case, whoever wins, the person loses.
The tendency for politicians and political parties to serve their own interests even when these do not align with the best interests of the population seems like a major hurdle that no current democracy is equipped to address.
Another problem with political parties is their tendency to be slow to evolve ideologically. For instance, the very notion of ‘left, center, right’ model of thinking in politics may be extremely outdated. Even at a more refined level, it is possible that political parties and their ‘core’ ideologies will simply become irrelevant given sufficient time, but the political parties do not die because they are designed to self-preserve. The very idea that we both Canada and the US have basically the same political parties since 150 years ago is perplexing. In some sense, our politics are stuck in the 19th century.