Political parties have always struck me as a necessary evil. Individual candidates have a tough time raising money and promoting themselves throughout their riding, district, province, state or country. So instead, they create or join an organization of likeminded people with the idea being that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A party can raise more money, distribute it to candidates who need it most and build a brand that makes it easier for people to know who to vote for. For a long time, it's seemed like an effective shorthand way to lock up support from voters and represent their interests.
The challenge comes after the election, when political parties gain power or try to. For a party to preserve its brand, politicians from that party are expected to toe the line on most issues, which often means checking your own opinion, experience or values at the door if those who control the party decide another position is in the best interest of the party's base, powerbrokers, or its perceived prospects in the next election. If you're a Republican in the US, you usually need to support gun rights, low taxes and be against abortion rights, for instance. If you're a Liberal in Canada, you're expected to support universal health care. If you decide to be a maverick, you face retribution the next time you try to run. Either you play as a team or you go home.
In other words, the dark side of partisan politics is that it often stifles democracy. You often end up with parties that demand allegiance to parties over the will of the electorate. So that even if, say, a clear majority of voters support gay marriage, if a party that opposes gay marriage takes power because the economy happened to be in a shambles, people's will on the marriage issue gets sidelined in the interest of party unity or uniformity.
Another negative consequence of partisan politics is being played out right now in the 2012 GOP primaries. Republican Presidential candidates increasingly need to romance (ass-kiss) their far-right base to win the nomination to the point where Americans may end up with a radical Republican nominee who is to the right of 95 percent of all voters. While this is great news for Barack Obama's re-election prospects, it denies the majority of middle-of-the-roaders a real choice.
We need to take a serious look at whether partisan politics is still the best way to send people to represent us in government. Some political parties have begun experimenting with online voting to choose their leaders. That certainly comes closer to mitigating the backroom wheeling and dealing, but the party tenticles are still wrapped around the entire process and, ultimately, the pressure to toe the party line remains. Maybe we need a tiered system where we choose from a progressively smaller and smaller range of candidates in each riding until one of them garners 50%+1 in that riding. Then let everyone we voted for across the country or state or province get together and form a government that best represents those representatives and, by extension, the people who elected them. It may be a messier process and longer one, but it may make politics more honest and less beholden to fringe voters.