Autopoietic Political Parties

From a systems theoretical view, it’s interesting what has happened to the Republican Party recently. Political parties are autopoietic systems; like all autopoietic systems, they produce themselves by drawing boundaries between themselves and their environments. The raison d’être of any system is to stay alive, to maintain the distinction between itself and everything else. When the boundary dissolves, the system is done.  A system must constantly reproduce the difference–recreate the boundary–between the inner and outer sides of the two-sided form.

Every kind of system creates its own kind of distinction. Political systems draw a distinction been “the government” (the party currently in power) and “the opposition” (the party that wants to be in power). A party must become the government in order to start making collectively binding decisions. In one-party states like China, the “opposition” consists of domestic and foreign  opponents or critics of the party; however, in this sense the “opposition” to the Chinese Communist Party is different because it cannot easily switch places with the Party and start to govern. There would have to be a revolution.

Government and opposition are symmetrical because they can switch places and go on doing the same kind of thing–making collectively binding decisions for a country. The government strings together a series of collectively binding decisions. One decision needs to open up a space for another decision, just as in conversation one utterance opens up a space for another utterance.  If the utterance is understood as information, even if “misunderstood” from the perspective the speaker, it can be followed up a response and the conversation can continue. As long as the government stays in power, it can continue making collectively binding decisions.

But a political party, whether in power or out of power, is not a political system. Rather, the political system is the distinction between government and opposition; it is a two-sided form. A political party is an organization, a kind of social system, but it’s not the political system itself. The party in power can switch–Republicans can be voted out and Democrats voted in, and vice versa–but  collectively binding decisions keep being made when the other party party takes over. There is no break in this operation at all.

But during primary campaigns, when Republicans run against Republican and Democrats run against Democrats, it’s not about making collectively binding decisions as a government party; it is about a candidate winning the primary. When candidates don’t understand this, the attack the opposing political party rather than their own competitors within their party.

This mistake led the losing Republican candidates to spend months attacking Obama and Clinton but leaving Trump alone. In one recent hilarious debate, Marco Rubio was being mocked by Chris Christie, but Rubio, like he was a malfunctioning robot, kept repeating a memorized speech attacking Obama. In Rubio’s mind, Obama was the threat, not Christie or Trump.

Furthermore, Rubio and the other guys on the stage didn’t seem to realize that Trump had successfully fractured their party. A political party is not a static entity; it’s an autopoietic system that changes all the time.



  1. True. Of late one is seeing this play out against Trump with the old hard line Republic Establishment portraying Trump as a non-conservative. This sense that they’ve drawn a circle with conservative ideology, and place Trump outside the circle of communication. Yet, the people outside the Establishement are communicating from another system now, and telling the establishment: we no longer hear you. So Trump is speaking or his system is communicating to the vast dis-establishment base.


  2. To what degree does Sanders, if not himself–the following that has grown around him, constitute a virus of like kind for the Democratic Party?


  3. That’s a good question. I see both Sanders and Trump as third-party candidates who decided they couldn’t win as third-party candidates. I don’t know if I like the virus metaphor that I used before. It might be more accurate to say that Trump and Sanders (and their followers) have destabilized the two major parties and now the parties have to restabilize themselves. If autopoietic systems are operationally closed, there’s no way to anything from the environment to get “inside” the system; however, elements in the environment can and do destabilize systems. For instance, the economy destabilizes politics, and politics must restabilize itself. Also the “stability” is always dynamic; it’s not stasis.

    What do you think?


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