Political faction

Political faction

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Encyclopedia
A political faction is a grouping of individuals, such as a political party
Political party
A political party is a political organization that typically seeks to influence government policy, usually by nominating their own candidates and trying to seat them in political office. Parties participate in electoral campaigns, educational outreach or protest actions...

, a trade union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

, or other group with a political purpose. A faction or political party may include fragmented sub-factions, “parties within a party," which may be referred to as power blocs, or voting blocs. The individuals within a faction are united in a common goal or set of common goals. They band together as a way of achieving these goals and advancing their agenda and position within an organization.

Factions are not limited to political parties; they can and frequently do form within any group that has some sort of political aim or purpose.

Etymology and usage


The Latin word factio denoted originally either of the chariot teams that were organised professionally by private companies in ancient Rome, each recognizable by characteristic colour, and arousing supporter hysteria similar to that in modern sports fans. These teams were not unlike gladiator schools, but the lethal nature of that entertainment meant few performers lasted long enough to build up similar crowd loyalty to the "team", while the fighters rarely actually teamed up, but rather fought duels or beasts. In time, political currents could become associated with such a team, although precisely how this happened is unclear. In Byzantine Constantinople, two such chariot factions, blue and green, repeatedly made or broke the claims of candidates to the imperial throne.

Occasionally, the term "faction" is still used more or less as a synonym for political party
Political party
A political party is a political organization that typically seeks to influence government policy, usually by nominating their own candidates and trying to seat them in political office. Parties participate in electoral campaigns, educational outreach or protest actions...

, but "with opprobrious sense, conveying the imputation of selfish or mischievous ends or turbulent or unscrupulous methods", according to the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

. In his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson , often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

 (a Tory) dismissively defined Whig as "the name of a faction". Similarly, in the tenth instalment
Federalist No. 10
Federalist No. 10 is an essay written by James Madison and the tenth of the Federalist Papers, a series arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution. It was published on Friday, November 22, 1787, under the pseudonym Publius, the name under which all the Federalist Papers were...

 of the Federalist Papers
Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 articles or essays promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution. Seventy-seven of the essays were published serially in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet between October 1787 and August 1788...

, James Madison
James Madison
James Madison, Jr. was an American statesman and political theorist. He was the fourth President of the United States and is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for being the primary author of the United States Constitution and at first an opponent of, and then a key author of the United...

 defines a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." In plain English this is a group that pursues self interest at the expense of the common good.

Aims of factions


The aims of a political faction are as diverse as the different types of bodies within which they appear. Typically, however, they include: advancing a particular policy
Policy
A policy is typically described as a principle or rule to guide decisions and achieve rational outcome. The term is not normally used to denote what is actually done, this is normally referred to as either procedure or protocol...

 or policy agenda, preventing the adoption of alternative policies and supporting given individuals to positions of power within the organisation or in the wider political world. A faction can primarily be based around supporting a given person or group, or a single major aim, with little in the way of common agenda otherwise, or it can have a comprehensive and definitive set of policies. Either way, factional politics typically revolve around personality, with a few individuals playing key roles, acting as a magnet for like-minded people, leading the activities of the faction, and acting as a prominent voice for the shared objectives of the faction. Such individuals can be referred to by a variety of names, such as “powerbrokers” or “factional chiefs”.

Organization


Factions differ in the amount of organisation and internal structure they possess. On the left, these may take the form of tendencies
Multi-tendency
Multi-tendency when used in regards to a political organization, especially a left-wing or anarchist one, means that the organization recognizes or at least tolerates members who are affiliated with or identify with a variety of ideologies within the broad stance of the organization...

 or platforms
Platform (European politics)
Platforms, in European politics, are openly organized political factions within left-wing political parties. Examples include the Republican Communist Network, the Workers Unity Platform and the Solidarity Tendency, platforms within the Scottish Socialist Party; the Socialist Workers Platform and...

. Most factions are very loose organisations, having no definitive list of members, but some factions, have a formal internal structure, with membership lists, regular meetings, official positions – such as negotiators, conveners, whips
Whip (politics)
A whip is an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. Whips are a party's "enforcers", who typically offer inducements and threaten punishments for party members to ensure that they vote according to the official party policy...

, and organizers, – and a definitive policy position on every issue affecting the broader organisation. Such factions will typically be binding; that is, they rely upon all members casting their votes in accordance with the pre-ordained official stance of the faction.

Operation of factions


In political organisations that are democratic in structure, factions rely heavily on securing enough votes to win important ballots. This process is sometimes referred to as “doing the numbers”. Having the numbers will allow the faction to push policies it supports and elect its members to powerful positions within the broader organisation.

If one faction develops within an organisation, there will usually be at least one other that develops in opposition to it. Opposing factions will try to match each others’ level of organisation and internal discipline, but will also engage in negotiations and trade-offs to ensure that the organisation’s activities are not compromised and that every group has a chance to obtain at least some of its goals.

Key to the operation of an organised faction is the existence of a power base. This will typically be some office, division or branch of the broader organisation over which the faction has effective control. Sometimes a power base may be an external or affiliated organisation that is involved with the broader organisation in some way.

A power base serves several key functions:
  • It acts as a recruitment center for new members, and promotes homogeneity within the membership (crucial for maintaining factional cohesion);
  • It can be used as an organising center for factional events and activities;
  • It functions as a springboard, advancing the career of selected factional members and allowing them to gain skills that will increase their effectiveness and clout.

Effects of factions


The existence of a factional system can have serious negative consequences for a political organisation. If factional strife becomes intensive and public, the organisation may suffer from perceptions of disunity. Taken one step further, if the conflict is particularly severe, it may cause ruptures within the organisation that seriously impede its effectiveness, leading to break-up or collapse of the organisation.

To avoid harm to the organisation, factional operations are usually conducted under strong secrecy and with minimal public scrutiny. This, however, can lead to the proliferation of unethical behaviour. Warfare between the factions may lead to tactics such as ballot box-stuffing, stack-outs, membership fraud, and other generally fraudulent conduct. Individuals who abandon a faction may be subject to intense personal vendetta
Feud
A feud , referred to in more extreme cases as a blood feud, vendetta, faida, or private war, is a long-running argument or fight between parties—often groups of people, especially families or clans. Feuds begin because one party perceives itself to have been attacked, insulted or wronged by another...

s where their former comrades go about sabotaging their careers. A climate of intense factional conflict can also motivate individuals to focus on attacking their factional enemies rather than furthering the broader organisation.

Despite this, the benefits of factional systems are often overlooked. It is often incomprehensible to outsiders why members of a broader organisation would engage in factionalism. This stems from the assumption that the natural factional relationship is one of conflict and strife, when in fact, factions are often able to engage in productive co-operation.

In any political organization there are likely to be many highly opinionated and passionate people. The existence of a factional system allows its operations to be more predictable and stable. Compromise and give-and-take between factions allows the organisation to operate without having to satisfy the whims of many different, uncompromising individuals who might otherwise cause a split. So, somewhat counter-intuitively, factionalism can actually promote organisational harmony.

Factions also help to broaden and diversify the organisation’s appeal. A person who might otherwise find the organisation’s goals unattractive might be persuaded to support a faction within it whose goals are closer to their own. Just as a democratic government
Government
Government refers to the legislators, administrators, and arbitrators in the administrative bureaucracy who control a state at a given time, and to the system of government by which they are organized...

 is often invigorated by a strong opposition, so having a number of distinct points-of-view with an organisation can energise it and allow it to perform its role more effectively. It is also highly unlikely that any sizeable political organisation is wholly united in purpose, so arguably factions simply represent a way of managing pre-existing differences within the organisation.

Sources

  • Etymology on line
  • Pauly-Wissowa
    Pauly-Wissowa
    The Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, commonly called the Pauly–Wissowa or simply RE, is a German encyclopedia of classical scholarship. With its supplements it comprises over eighty volumes....

    article on "Factions"