Beyond Labels

A 360° Discussion of Foreign, National and Local Policy Issues



The future of political parties

As I recall, the topic we chose for our meeting on Monday, 8 May is the future of political parties in the US. I found some articles on the Wilson Center website by Patrick Liddiard that discuss the recent history of (primarily European) political parties, but that seem relevant to US political parties.

You can find those articles at (discussing the decline in voter identification with political parties since the 1950s and, particularly since the 1970s) and (discussing possible solutions to the decline of political parties).

Here’s another take on the subject, from the Heritage Foundation:

To me, these articles raise several questions about political parties, such as:

What purposes do political parties serve? How do they serve those purposes?

Are political parties a net benefit or a net detriment for governance in general and for democracy in particular?

Have political parties in the US declined as they have in Europe? If so, why?

Assuming the answer to the previous question is “yes”, is there a viable alternative to political parties? MLabor unions? Other civil society institutions? Mass mobilization? Would any of those alternatives contribute more to democracy and effective governance than political parties?

Again assuming political parties in the US have declined and if the available alternatives are likely to be ineffective, should we try to revive political parties? If so, how? Should we try to move away from a political system dominated by two major parties and toward a multi-party system? How would that work in the political context of the US? Or should we try to move away from political parties and partisanship? If so, how would that work?


Last week, we came up with “Indonesia” as the topic for Monday, 10 April. As I recall, we didn’t come up with any specific questions for discussion, however.

One of the things that interested me most when I lived there (1998-2001) was public sector corruption. One of the first studies of the country that I read after arriving in Jakarta was a World Bank paper describing systematic, highly centralized governmental corruption, including more or less fixed prices for buying appointed governmental offices. For example, governorships of resource-rich provinces (those with oil, teak forests, palm oil plantations, minerals, etc.) were much more expensive than those for relatively poor provinces, based on the expectation by the purchaser that he (at the time, it was pretty much always a man) would recover his investment quickly by siphoning off resource revenues for his own account.

There were also particular ministries where the price for buying an office was higher than others. These were known as “wet” ministries because they offered many opportunities for bribes, kickbacks, and the like through the ability to award or withhold various kinds of contracts and the power to hire lots of employees. Examples of “wet” ministries included the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the Ministry of Public Works and Construction, and the Ministry of Investment, but not the Ministry of Finance, where I worked.

The World Bank report pointed out that the distribution of bribes paid to government officials was also systematic: Government officials would share the bribe proceeds up and down the chain of command, with lower-level and higher-level officials according to a well-established sliding scale (the higher the office, the larger portion of bribe proceeds he would receive). This system was created deliberately, by keeping officials’ on-budget salaries low, more or less forcing them to demand bribes. According to the report, government officials saw bribery and other forms of corruption as necessary in order to support themselves and their families, and were willing to share with their colleagues the bribes and kickbacks they received so that the system would continue to function to the benefit of all (and also because Indonesia, particularly Java, was and maybe still is in some ways a feudal society). The report also said that ordinary Indonesians accepted the system because the costs to them were kept low enough to be acceptable.

Following the 1998 financial crisis in Southeast Asia, which hit Indonesia particularly hard, the Suharto regime was overthrown and Indonesia moved toward democracy. That included very rapid and comprehensive decentralization. Local governments were given responsibility for a wide array of functions that had previously been highly centralized. One of the results of that decentralization has been the decentralization of corruption, resulting in a much-expanded roster of government officials expecting bribes and kickbacks for performing their ordinary functions, and a much less predictable system of corruption.

Here’s some information I found about corruption in Indonesia:

An article, based on data from 2006 – 2011 about corruption in Indonesia (

A January 2012 Transparency International report on the causes of corruption in Indonesia (,quality%2C%20and%20weak%20judicial%20independence)(click on the link in this page for the full report)

A few questions occur to me related to this topic:

Why, in the third largest democracy in the world, is corruption still so persistent and widespread? How could it be reduced? Should reducing corruption be a high priority for Indonesia?

If the government budget is kept low by paying low salaries to government officials and the price of corruption to individuals and businesses is acceptable to them, is it really corruption as we understand it?

Does government corruption have other (unacceptable) negative effects, like distortion of economic or other decision-making?

I also found a 2023 Freedom House report { on the state of political rights and civil liberties in Indonesia in 2022. This might raise some other topics for discussion on Monday.

Feb. 10: What is the end game for the war in Ukraine?

At the end of last Monday’s meeting, we proposed that the topic for this coming Monday be what the end game for the war in Ukraine might look like today (It might change over time, depending on what happens in Ukraine, Russia, Germany, the UK, the US, etc.)

Whatever the “end game” turns out to be, what’s likely to be the long-term effect of the war and its possible ending (or temporary suspension) on Russia? on Europe? on the US? on China?

Here are some links to recent articles that might be useful background:

  1. Tom Friedman, “Year 2 of the War in Ukraine is going to get Scary”, New York Times, 5 February (
  2. Steven Erlanger, “When It Comes to Building Its Own Defense, Europe Has Blinked”, New York Times, 4 February (
  3. Ross Douthat, “The Costs of a Long War in Ukraine”, New York Times, 4 February (
  4. Christopher Caldwell, “Russia and Ukraine Have Incentives to Negotiate. The U.S. Has Other Plans.”, New York Times, 7 February (
  5. Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, “Putin’s Last Stand: The Promise and Peril of Russian Defeat”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2023 ([PDF]
  6. Timothy Snyder, “Ukraine Holds the Future”, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2022 ([PDF]

I thought the last two articles in this list were the most interesting (PDF links are provided if you don’t subscribe).

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