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The Parties Versus the PeopleHow to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans
By Mickey Edwards
Yale University PressCopyright © 2012 Mickey Edwards
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmerican Tribalism
We have strayed far from the political system the Founders envisioned. Sean Wilentz, in The Rise of American Democracy, notes that James Madison worried that "the arts of electioneering would poison the very fountains of liberty." Madison understood that in the end, democracy is not about policy but about processit's about how we select our leaders, how we deliberate, how we decideand it is the process itself that has broken down. The partisan poison that has seeped into American politicsand American governanceis not only eroding belief in the democratic process, it is proving to be a danger to the very idea of participatory self-government. Democracy, after all, is not a spectator sportit requires active citizen participationbut partisanship, which is not a conflict over principle but a combat between private organizations, each seeking political advantage, is creating a system which stirs not confidence but rage. Peter Shane, a professor at Ohio State University, wrote a book he called Madison's Nightmare. His particular focus was on the growing power of the executive branch and the diminished power of the "peoples' branch," but the title was apt: if the dead can have nightmares, James Madison and the rest of America's founders are having an uneasy afterlife as they observe what we have done to the political system they left us. They had many disagreements among themselves, but they all agreed on the inherent danger in political parties. While it's true that parties came into being early in the nation's history, they were nothing like the ones we have today; their members were united on some major issues, but not on everything all the time. Ironically, there is diversity within Republican and Democratic ranks in today's Congress, too, but the system in which they are forced to operate enforces conformity, not independent thinking. As Alan Abramowitz of Emory University points out, our system of government was not designed to function with the kind of partisan division that exists today; instead, the Founders saw political parties as "dangerous fomenters of conflict." Today we have become accustomed to seeing straight party-line votes on everything from tax issues and spending issues to judicial and executive branch appointments. It is not the existence of parties but the excessive loyalty members of Congress feel to the parties they belong to, and the great power we have given parties over our elections and our governance, that have led us to the crisis we are in today, unable to come together even on the most urgent questions, and even with the nation's well-being at stake.
How we got to this point is not hard to understand. As the American political party system took root throughout the 1800s, it became harder and harder for a democratically minded people to accept the idea that small groups of insidersparty bossesshould be able to gather in the back rooms of private clubs to determine who should carry the party's banner in the next election, whether for mayor, governor, or the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. In a democracy, the reformers argued, the people themselves should be empowered to make those decisions. The result was a campaign by members of the Progressive movement, culminating in the early 1900s, to have party nominees chosen in primary elections in which all registered party members could participate. By 1916 all but a handful of states had instituted the "direct primary" system, in which each party's candidate was selected by public vote rather than by party leaders in backroom deals. But the primaries, and the nominating conventions, were open to party members only. This reform was supposed to give citizens a bigger role in the election process. Instead, the influence of party bosses has now been supplanted by that of a subset of party activists who show little interest in finding common ground with those who hold different views.
In the Progressive Party platform of 1912, the goal was spelled out clearly. "This country belongs to the people who inhabit it.... Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people. From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people." Declaring itself "unhampered by tradition ... undismayed by the magnitude of the task," the party, in its very first platform plank, called for "direct primaries for the nomination of State and National officers." On that goal, against great odds, the Progressives won; the result was a major improvement over the system of boss rule, and it was certainly far more democratic. But it presupposed that the results of those primaries, or of party conventions in the states that chose that hybrid system (less democratic but also less elitist), would provide an accurate reflection of the preferences of the larger electorate. As Francis Barry points out in his 2009 book, The Scandal of Reform: Grand Failures of New York's Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship, that has not always been the case; in fact, those reforms have had a profound, and sometimes negative, effect on the democratic process. As the system has evolved, partisan primaries have become powerful magnets for the most committed, and most ideological, voters. Conservatives and liberals alike use the closed primary system to move their parties farther toward the positions of the far right and far left and ever more distant from what political scientists call the "median voter."
At the same time, as the government expanded into more areas of our lives and inevitably grew more controversial, it also became much more complex, with the issues and the arguments increasingly difficult for any but experts to understand. The growing force of money in political campaigns has also caused many citizens to conclude that their own limited ability to participate in the decisions would make little difference, making it hardly worth the effort required to vote. Except in unusual circumstances, such as the 2008 presidential campaign of a young African-American candidate and widespread disaffection with an outgoing Republican presidency, the great mass of eligible voters has chosen not to participate in party primaries, which have thus become reflections not of public choice, as the Progressives had intended, but of ever narrower and ever more ideological agendas. "Party" has become a synonym for rigid, uncompromising, narrow "faction." And we are paying a very steep price for it.
To picture just how dysfunctional our political system has become, imagine how you and your neighbors would set about the task of solving some important problem in your community. Suppose, for instance, that a new neighborhood organization has been established for the specific purpose of improving the schools in your town, and that you and your neighbors have come together out of a common concern for the children in your community, whose lives will be largely shaped by the education they receive. Assume that you and your neighbors are already working to ensure that only highly qualified teachers are hired and are actively encouraging the students' parents to enforce good study habits at home. But there is still more that the community can do. The children need ample and well-lighted classroom space, a large supply of up-to-date textbooks, modern computer equipment, a well-equipped science laboratory, an adequate physical education facility, and so on. In other words, you will be faced with a serious challenge, and how well you meet that challenge will have a noticeable impact on your community, including, perhaps, your own children.
Now imagine how you would go about meeting that challenge. When your new organization meets to address these important goals, you will consider many things. What equipment is needed? What space is needed? Does that require a new building? If so, where should it be located? Who should design it and build it? How can the necessary resources be accumulated? Can some person or some organization be found to donate the computers, books, and gym equipment? As you attempt to meet these important community goals, people in the group will be invited to make suggestions, to ask questions, to discuss options. But there is one thing you will probably not do: you will probably not divide the organization into separate partisan camps, with Republicans in one group and Democrats in another. There will probably be no attempt to choose task force leaders or remove members from the organization on the basis of membership in one or the other political club.
And yet when our actual elected officials consider whether to spend more on medical research or public education, to repair our aging bridges and highways, or to send our children to fight in foreign wars, or when they consider whether to take more or less from us in the form of federal taxes, that is precisely what they do: they begin by dividing into rival camps on the very day they are sworn into office. It is their differencestheir partisan affiliationsand not their commonality as Americans that shapes the process. Compromise, an absolutely indispensable ingredient in a highly diverse nation of more than 320 million people, is seen as "sell-out"; rigid uniformity is praised (many members of the United States Senate brag about voting with their party 90 or 95 percent of the time). The scarlet letter "A" on Hester Prynne's dress was no greater a mark of opprobrium in the eyes of her fictional contemporaries than the wearing of an imagined red letter "R" or "D" attached to a member of a rival political party.
The political parties' "main fear," New York Times columnist David Brooks has written, "is that they will lose their identity and cohesion if their members compromise with the larger world. They erect clear and rigid boundaries separating themselves from their enemies. In a hostile world, they erect rules and pledges and become hypervigilant about deviationism. They are more interested in protecting their special interests than converting outsiders. They slowly encase themselves in an epistemic cocoon."
Just as in the tragic turf wars between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story, members of the other political club are seen as enemies to be slain, if only figuratively, at the ballot box and in battles over public policy decisions. When that happensand it is now the normthe tragedy is not theirs but ours.
The bitter partisanship that envelops our modern politics is a natural result of a political system that cedes so much power to self-serving private clubs, but while its most obvious effect is the difficulty in finding the common ground necessary to create sound public policy, it has had other damaging ramifications as well. Ours is a system in which it is possible for one party to hold 40 percent of the seats in the United States Senate and 49 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives (because of partisan redistricting, those legislative "minorities" may actually represent a majority of American voters) and yet have no real power to affect policy outcomes. Members of the majority party in Congress not only determine the legislative agenda, they also control all committees and subcommittees; the chair, always a member of the majority party, no matter how narrow the majority, has the sole power to determine what bills will be considered and whose opinions will be solicited during committee hearings. In the House of Representatives, members of the minority party usually have only that degree of input that the majority allows. As a result, winning control of the Congress, and even of state legislatures (where congressional districts are shaped) becomes essential. In such a system, members of the other party become not merely rivals but enemies. Civility, a basic requirement for democratic dialogue, disappears in a tidal wave of acrimony and insult.
While partisanship is certainly not the only cause of the incivility that has poisoned public discourse (the declining standards of the broadcast media, which fuel conflict in pursuit of ratings, and the tendency of Americans to shut themselves off from views they disagree withwell-documented in Bill Bishop's important work, The Big Sortalso share a large part of the blame), the focus invariably centers on the political arena, where the choices about government policy are made. The inability to come together on bipartisan approaches to solving national problems also stirs frustration, anger, discontent, and a lack of confidence in American government and its constitutional system, as those important problems persist and grow worse year by year. While members of the various Tea Party organizations and the activists of Occupy Wall Street might be focused on different parts of the probleman overwhelming national indebtedness and failure to enforce immigration laws, perhaps, for the Tea Party; tax inequities and disproportionate influence in the political system for the Occupiersthey have at their root a common genesis: important problems that go unaddressed because our political system has devolved into a ceaseless campaign in which our elected officials are always playing to the audience that their campaign strategists believe will be most likely to shape the next election's outcome. In such a scenario, members of Congressand presidentsplay to their parties' base, which is increasingly made up of the most rigidly ideological and uncompromising segments of the electorate.
Ironically, as our leaders wage their continuing war over party advantage, the American people themselves are headed in the opposite direction. In April 2010 USA Today reported on a nationwide poll that found that "a majority disapprove of both political parties." More Americans now consider themselves Independents than either Republicans or Democrats, with more than four in ten voters registered as Independent, Unaffiliated, or Unenrolled. When a little-known Republican state legislator, Scott Brown, won the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Edward Kennedy for more than four decades, observers outside the state were stunned; not only had the Senate seat been Ted Kennedy's, but the state had not elected a Republican to the Senate since Edward Brooke won his race for a second term in 1973, thirty-seven years earlier. But Massachusetts is no longer a predominantly Democratic state; today the number of Massachusetts residents registered as Unenrolled (that is, Independents) is greater than the number registered in either the Republican or Democratic party.
This rejection of our political partiesand their constant partisan warfarehas been growing for years. As early as November 2006, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that fully 42 percent of voters nationwide considered themselves Independents. Between 1987 and 2004, the number of Independent voters in Florida quadrupled. Another survey of twenty-seven states plus the District of Columbia found that the number of Independents in those states had doubled. Independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in Alaska, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. The lead story in USA Today on April 20, 2010, was headlined "Frustrated Voters Cut Tie with Democrats, Republicans" and began this way: "The nation's fastest-growing political party is 'none of the above' ... more Americans are registering 'unaffiliated' rather than signing up with one of the two major parties." The story went on to report that in at least half of the twenty-eight states in which voters register by party, the number of Independent voters had increased faster than that of either Democrats or Republicans in the previous two years. In Arizona, the number of Independent voters had increased by nearly one-third between 2008 and 2010. A 2010 Gallup poll found that both major parties are now viewed unfavorably by most Americans. "People no longer want to be associated with a party," New Hampshire's elections director, Gary Bartlett, told a reporter for USA Today. Some observers have pointed out that many of those who now call themselves Independents are not without political leanings toward one party or another, but even among those who may be more likely to vote for a Republican or a Democrat the party tie has been severely weakened: they are no longer part of the party "base"; they can no longer be depended on for their vote. Their votes are up for grabs, and that's the way it should be.
Excerpted from The Parties Versus the People by Mickey Edwards Copyright © 2012 by Mickey Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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