Great, short explanation of what elections are about:

The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele.

That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.

That’s Garry Wills, talking about people who advocate third parties (my emphasis in the quote, though). See, too, Jamelle Bouie’s follow-up.

I would quibble a bit with Wills about electoral history (it’s unlikely that either Teddy Roosevelt or Ross Perot delivered elections to the Democrats in 1912 and 1992), and I wouldn’t exactly characterize the groups that make up the parties in the same words that Wills uses, but in terms of what’s at stake in elections, he’s making a very important point. A combination of liberal individualism and good-government progressivism has made it unfashionable in the U.S. political culture to talk about groups. But not only do groups exist, but they are important components of political parties.

One has to be careful about this. All of us belong to many, many groups, after all. Which ones matter politically is in part our own choice, but also in part a consequence of a preexisting political party breakdown.

In other words, even if I decide that my political identity, for me, is tied to my left-handedness or my baseball fandom, since those don’t exist as politically identifying groups, there is no way for me to act on it. If neither left-handers nor the parties think of left-handers as a group, then politically we don’t exist. That’s if I think of myself as just-a-voter; if I become more politically active than that, I can try to convince others to think of their handedness, for example, as a political identity — and that can lead, eventually, to a party alignment.

As Wills points out, noting that parties will be more responsive to some groups than others doesn’t mean that any particular group will get its way at all times. After all, both parties are made up of groups that frequently disagree about policies, and beyond that, politicians are also responsive to median (general-election) voters. It’s complicated — and to seriously engage in politics is to accept the complexity, rather than to retreat to the fantasy of a third party whenever things go the other way.

Elections are not only about choosing between sets of constituencies. We also choose one team of political elites or the other; we choose, more or less, between two sets of policy choices; it’s even true at some level that the individual in the Oval Office can make a difference, although a lot harder to foresee how that will matter. But, yes, we really are choosing between sets of constituencies.