Viable System Model of Political Parties


  • Allenna Leonard Complementary Set


Viable System Model, political parties, governance





Allenna Leonard, Ph.D.

34 Palmerston Square

Toronto, Ontario M6G 2S7









Political parties exist in western democracies as a means of reducing variety by formalizing factions and allowing for a more manageable choice for voters. I will be using the system in the United States as an example although comparisons with parliamentary systems will be noted at times.


Political parties are nested hierarchies that proceed from the national committee level down through the state and county/municipality. The rules that govern them range from the formal, such as the rules established by the Federal Election Commission to the informal and sometimes quirky such as the “we don’t want nobody that nobody sent”. Party discipline is far broader and far looser in the United States than it is in a parliamentary system.  Voters usually indicate a party preference when they register to vote although about a third of the electorate now counts itself as ‘independent’.  Depending on the state, independents may or may not be restricted to voting in the general election.  Joining a political party is as easy as checking a box.  In contrast, in parliamentary systems, a minority of voters join a party by paying a subscription fee which allows them to attend the party caucus that nominates candidates for that party.  Party discipline is much stricter in the parliamentary system where the leader and his or her advisors determine the position on a vote and an office holder who votes against the position can be expelled from the party unless the special circumstance of the free vote is in force. In the United States, all votes are free votes. Party discipline is enforced by the party whip but the means used is persuasion, augmented by arm-twisting, horse trading and the occasional threat.


The activities of the five systems of the VSM are not evenly distributed throughout the recursion levels.  For example, the party platform does appear in System Five, but aspects may be ignored or repudiated by individual candidates often without heavy consequences. Most System Four activities are concentrated on winning the next election, although shorter and longer term planning is done and issues are debated for possible inclusion in the platform or for legislative or judicial initiatives. Public relations and strategy also appear here. Systems Three and Three Star adjust resources among activities depending on election cycle calendar and other priorities with System Two coordinating whatever is applicable at the particular recursion level.  System One activities include, again depending on the election cycle calendar, voter registration, candidate training, and fund raising.  All may involve incumbent officeholders and candidates although the particular campaigns are separate organizations.


The VSM analysis will show some strengths and weaknesses of the present system and some possibilities for coordination with like-minded issue groups.


Author Biography

Allenna Leonard, Complementary Set

Allenna Leonard consults and facilitates internationally, in organizational cybernetics, primarily but not exclusively the models and processes developed by Stafford Beer. She is past-president of the American Society for Cybernetics



How to Cite

Leonard, A. (2016). Viable System Model of Political Parties. Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2015 Berlin, Germany, 1(1). Retrieved from