If our political system is broke, fix it or forget it
It was not too long ago that people would complain that there was no substantive distinction between the Republican and Democratic parties. The usual voter refrain was, “There is no difference between the parties, so I just vote for the best man.” (Of course, that was before the time when it was considered acceptable for the “best woman” to seek election.) Calling to mind the old adage “be careful what you wish for, because you may get it,” there are today clear and significant differences between the Democratic and Republican parties; and the results border on disaster.
As a result, it may be that political parties have lost their reason for being. This is not the first time that the value of political parties has been questioned. None other than George Washington warned in his farewell message to the country, “Political parties may now and then answer popular ends, but they are likely . . . to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
The framers of the Constitution made no reference to political parties; indeed most of the Founding Fathers feared the rise of political parties because of their potential to subvert the ideas and ideals of the revolution. It was Thomas Jefferson (left) who once said, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” In referring to political parties Alexander Hamilton suggested their objective “is what will please, not what will benefit the people.” Concerning political parties he wrote, “In such a government there can be nothing but temporary expedient, fickleness, and folly.”
The “Common Cause” becomes “Common Folly”
Scores of books have been written that outline the abuse of democracy that the political party system can reap, yet for most of the 20th century (once the strict control of party members began to weaken) political parties served the country well. That was when the Republicans and Democrats were united in a “common cause.” The common cause was to do what was best for America. This created a spirit of cooperation and compromise to achieve common goals. Yes, it was a time of vociferous and heated debate, but most of the vitriol revolved around how something should be done, not what should be done.
While this gave the impression that there was no difference between the parties, it is what allowed President Eisenhower and the Democratic Senate leader Lyndon Johnson to work together as “partners” in developing strategies for the Cold War. It created an environment for Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to work together to break the partisan gridlock to solve a funding crisis in Social Security. Even President Clinton and Newt Gingrich were able to work together to resolve the last budget crisis.
This “partnership” between the Republicans and Democrats was possible because they believed in a common cause that allowed them to move – if somewhat acrimoniously –toward the center to resolve issues. They accepted that no one person or party had a monopoly on what was right and were open to compromise that incorporated the best of both. As we are witnessing today, that is no longer the case.
Polarizing Views can Create Irreconcilable Positions
Those who have taken control of the Republican and Democratic parties see those who disagree with their political tenets as not just wrong, but actually illegitimate. This attitude allows them to challenge not only the positions of those who disagree, but even their patriotism and right to hold office. Rather than focus on a common cause and move toward the center to seek honest compromise, those in control of the political parties exacerbate differences that drive the parties and the country apart; often the motivation for this attitude is personal gain. In the past, leadership in the political parties was dominated by pragmatists, while today they have been replaced with ideologues who view dialogue as tantamount to treason.
The attitudes and toxic nature of party politics is driving the country apart, not bringing it together. In essence this is creating three Americas: those “true believers” on the left and on the right and the vast majority of those in the middle who have no real voice in the political process.
The Republican Party seems to be most infected with this mindset of intolerance to even the slightest diversity of ideas or to a compromise of any sort with the infidel of non-believers. The core of the Republican Party does believe that there are two sides to any issue, but those two sides are: right and wrong. They countenance no in between. They act as though there should only be a one-party system and a one-belief test for acceptance. If an individual wants to run under the banner of the Republican Party the litmus test is that you must eat it all or eat nothing at all. There is no room for reason or reflection. The proof of this is that those who are true believers, i.e. Palin, Bachmann and Huckabee, rise to the top of the Republican Party not based on their experience or talent, but solely on their unequivocal dedication to the party line.
The problem with this approach is that it allows the hard-core party faithful to determine – via the party convention or closed primary system – just who will be on the ballot and this disenfranchises the vast majority of the population from having a real say in the election of their leaders. And, it excludes from the process many with high qualifications and established records of leadership.
There is no better example of this than Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah. Senator Bennett who – despite a highly respected career as a staunch conservative – was denied reelection, not by the voters of Utah, but by the Republican party in Utah that sought to punish his sin of working with Democrats to find a health care compromise; they did this by not allowing his name to be on the ballot. Alaska offers another telling example of the flawed political party system. Lisa Murkowski was a highly popular Republican senator from Alaska who, while a solid conservative, was credited with bringing more federal funds to her state than any other senator. And yet, because she did not adhere 100 percent to the party line, she was ousted in a closed (only Republicans could vote) primary. (Much to the credit of Alaskan citizens Murkowski won the election via write-in.) There are scores of other examples to prove the point of failed party politics, but the real prize goes to the Republicans of Delaware when, willing to accept only “purity of belief,” they nominated a “witch” as their candidate for the senate. Much more of this and the party will be over!
And the Moral of the Story …
If we want better government, we need a better way to select that government. What is needed is a more transparent, open and effective way for new leaders to emerge and for all citizens to be able to participate in the selection process.
While the Constitution does protect the right of political parties to exist, there is nothing that requires their existence. It may not be possible to eliminate political parties, but it is possible to reduce their undemocratic stranglehold on the electoral process. To do so would require changing the elector process. Yes, we have done pretty well using the same system for over 200 years, but that does not make it sacrosanct; and that does not mean it can’t be changed or improved. Crucial to enjoying a democratic government is a democratic electoral process and many would suggest that the current system (especially as it is functioning today) is not all that democratic.
A number of democracies around the world (and even a few states in the US) have successfully adopted what is called an “open primary and electoral system.” Under this system any candidate – regardless of party affiliation – can qualify for the election. If, after the election, no one has received a majority of votes, then a second round that includes the top two or three candidates is held to determine a winner.
This system could be used for at all levels of electoral office. Of course, such an approach is not without its problems and questions, but one thing is clear and that is that the power of political parties to control who gets to run, who gets to vote and who gets to win would be reduced. And, that would make it a better party for everyone. It has been a good party, but if we don’t do something to make it better, someone may just turn out the lights.