Balance of powers vs. balance of parties

In his column on attempts to the reform the filibuster, Ezra Klein points out that the Founders built into the Constitution a balance of competing arms of the government that would check and balance each other.  What we have now, however, is a system of competing political parties that check and balance each other.

It’s true the Founding Fathers wanted to make legislating hard. That’s why they divided power among three branches. It’s why senators used to be directly appointed by state legislatures. It’s why the House, the Senate and the president have staggered elections, so it usually takes a big win in two or more consecutive elections for a party to secure control of all three branches.

But the Founders didn’t want it to be this hard. They considered requiring a supermajority to pass legislation and rejected the idea. “Its real operation,” Alexander Hamilton wrote of such a requirement, “is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.” Sound familiar?

The Founders also opposed political parties — though they went on to start a couple — and couldn’t have foreseen how highly disciplined parties would subvert the political system they designed. Instead of the branches competing against one another, as they envisioned, we now have two parties competing uniformly across all branches.

via Is this the end for the filibuster?.

Parliamentary systems require political parties.  The leader of the majority party becomes the Prime Minister.  Such forms of government work best when there are a number of parties that can then form coalitions and alliances.  I suppose our political parties were copied from those of England.

America’s constitution, however, does not require parties, and our national founders warned against them.

What would happen if we were to abolish all political parties?  As it is, the role of parties in elections has shrunk considerably with SuperPacs and independent campaign fundraising.  Why not turn that into a virtue?

Individual candidates and politicians would still form factions, caucuses, and interest-groups.  But these alliances would be fluid, varying from issue to issue.  There would still be individuals who ran as conservatives, liberals, and other ideologies in the legislature, and there might be organizations that supported them.  But a  Senator with libertarian sympathies could vote with  liberal colleagues on drug laws and conservative colleagues on free market issues.  Pro-life coalitions could include both religious conservatives and social-justice liberals.

I know it will be said, political parties are inevitable.  And, arguably, they once were.  But what do political parties do now in the age of the internet, political action committees, open primaries, and grass roots activism?  They serve as the gatekeepers of who gets to be on the ballot in the presidential campaigns.  But their political conventions have become mostly irrelevant.  Surely another mechanism could be put into place, such as a series of primary elections, beginning on the local level and continuing onto the state, regional, and national levels.  Couldn’t this re-vitalize our democracy and our representative form of government?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I believe it was George Carlin who said that people are fine in numbers of two or three, but beyond that they start wearing armbands and taking sides.

    Alliances are inevitable, be they fueled by a common enemy, a common idea, or a sacrifice of principle for pragmatism. And the irony is that the collective assembly for the purpose of power can be the most individually selfish action to undertake (For example, take “I’m voting with party X because party Y’s candidate is somebody I don’t like,” even if that individual is opposed to party X on a number of issues)

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I believe it was George Carlin who said that people are fine in numbers of two or three, but beyond that they start wearing armbands and taking sides.

    Alliances are inevitable, be they fueled by a common enemy, a common idea, or a sacrifice of principle for pragmatism. And the irony is that the collective assembly for the purpose of power can be the most individually selfish action to undertake (For example, take “I’m voting with party X because party Y’s candidate is somebody I don’t like,” even if that individual is opposed to party X on a number of issues)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    It’s worth noting that filibusters date back at least to the early 1800s, when members of the Founders were still in Congress, so Klein’s argument pretty much falls flat.

    And abolish parties? Nah. We at least have a system where–unlike most parliamentary systems–individual legislators are free to vote their conscience without their leader declaring a “conscience vote.”

    Rather, we simply need to remind ourselves that, for all its faults, our system has provided a huge amount of freedoms, and maybe we ought not tinker with it and abuse it the way we’ve been doing the past 50 to 80 years.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    It’s worth noting that filibusters date back at least to the early 1800s, when members of the Founders were still in Congress, so Klein’s argument pretty much falls flat.

    And abolish parties? Nah. We at least have a system where–unlike most parliamentary systems–individual legislators are free to vote their conscience without their leader declaring a “conscience vote.”

    Rather, we simply need to remind ourselves that, for all its faults, our system has provided a huge amount of freedoms, and maybe we ought not tinker with it and abuse it the way we’ve been doing the past 50 to 80 years.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    But you know we’re never going to abolish, or even restrict, political parties. To do so would require passing a law, and who’s going to pass that law? Yeah.

    I suppose some work could be done at the state level, though, if there were a popular ballot initiative. But even that would likely never happen.

    Bike Bubba (@2):

    It’s worth noting that filibusters date back at least to the early 1800s, when members of the Founders were still in Congress, so Klein’s argument pretty much falls flat.

    Did you even glance at the article? Yes, filibusters aren’t anything new, but their prevalance might have changed a wee bit since the early 1800s. That is entirely Klein’s point.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    But you know we’re never going to abolish, or even restrict, political parties. To do so would require passing a law, and who’s going to pass that law? Yeah.

    I suppose some work could be done at the state level, though, if there were a popular ballot initiative. But even that would likely never happen.

    Bike Bubba (@2):

    It’s worth noting that filibusters date back at least to the early 1800s, when members of the Founders were still in Congress, so Klein’s argument pretty much falls flat.

    Did you even glance at the article? Yes, filibusters aren’t anything new, but their prevalance might have changed a wee bit since the early 1800s. That is entirely Klein’s point.

  • http://steadfastlutherans.org/ SAL

    #3 Nebraska has a non-partisan unicameral legislature.

    The 49 members are chosen in non-partisan elections. There aren’t any formal party groupings in the Senate either.

    However informally everyone knows which members of the Senate are Republicans and Democrats, and there are often “party-line” votes despite their being no formal parties.

  • http://steadfastlutherans.org/ SAL

    #3 Nebraska has a non-partisan unicameral legislature.

    The 49 members are chosen in non-partisan elections. There aren’t any formal party groupings in the Senate either.

    However informally everyone knows which members of the Senate are Republicans and Democrats, and there are often “party-line” votes despite their being no formal parties.

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    There is little difference between the ‘Parties’ -and they are fun by elite groups–thus- we get -Lesser of Two Evils-
    I like your takes-
    This one – especially- brought a clear ‘picture’ of how the high ground can be won! :

    ” Pro-life coalitions could include both religious conservatives and social-justice liberals.”

    Carol-CS
    Pres. LA LFL

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    There is little difference between the ‘Parties’ -and they are fun by elite groups–thus- we get -Lesser of Two Evils-
    I like your takes-
    This one – especially- brought a clear ‘picture’ of how the high ground can be won! :

    ” Pro-life coalitions could include both religious conservatives and social-justice liberals.”

    Carol-CS
    Pres. LA LFL

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    they are RUN by elite groups…

    geees-time to watch and NCIS! : – )
    C-CS

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    they are RUN by elite groups…

    geees-time to watch and NCIS! : – )
    C-CS

  • MichaelZ

    Outlawing “parties” would be a violation of our freedom of association, people should be allowed to join forces together and work for (a) common goal(s). Changing it so that parties no longer receive government funding for their events and primaries…that would be a great move.

  • MichaelZ

    Outlawing “parties” would be a violation of our freedom of association, people should be allowed to join forces together and work for (a) common goal(s). Changing it so that parties no longer receive government funding for their events and primaries…that would be a great move.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    The people who won’t hesitate to tell you what kind of food to eat and when and how much, and what sort of toilet paper is correct and which light bulbs are valid, or not…they certainly wouldn’t have any qualms about telling you which political parties are legal and which are not.

    The ‘do-gooders’ are much smarter than the rest of us and their work is never finished.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    The people who won’t hesitate to tell you what kind of food to eat and when and how much, and what sort of toilet paper is correct and which light bulbs are valid, or not…they certainly wouldn’t have any qualms about telling you which political parties are legal and which are not.

    The ‘do-gooders’ are much smarter than the rest of us and their work is never finished.

  • http://steadfastlutherans.org/ SAL

    I’d rather we got rid of the Presidency (executive branch of government) as opposed to getting rid of parties.

    If we got rid of the Presidency then Congress would be back in control of the quarter of the US economy managed/regulated by the executive branch.

  • http://steadfastlutherans.org/ SAL

    I’d rather we got rid of the Presidency (executive branch of government) as opposed to getting rid of parties.

    If we got rid of the Presidency then Congress would be back in control of the quarter of the US economy managed/regulated by the executive branch.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “The ‘do-gooders’ are much smarter than the rest of us and their work is never finished.”

    They are smarter than the folks are being allowed to immigrate at an incredible rate. Those new folks are more consumers for our consumer based economy. An economy based on production needs a different balance.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “The ‘do-gooders’ are much smarter than the rest of us and their work is never finished.”

    They are smarter than the folks are being allowed to immigrate at an incredible rate. Those new folks are more consumers for our consumer based economy. An economy based on production needs a different balance.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Another way to look at the divide:

    Value Creation vs. Value Capture

    It’s easy to see that we live in a natural world that was given to us “for free” and how much of the value we enjoy as a society was not created but extracted from that feedstock of abundance. But it is important to realize that even in the world of discovery and intellectual innovation, there are those who create value, and those who merely extract it.

    Consider this: when John von Neumann and his team at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton developed the fundamental architectural approach of modern computing, they put their work into the public domain. When Paul Baran developed the fundamental concepts of packet networking that underlie the internet, he did the same thing. So too did Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn with the TCP/IP protocol, and Tim Berners-Lee with HTTP and HTML, the technologies that underly the World Wide Web.

    These pioneers created enormous value, yet they didn’t capture very much of it for themselves. That was left for others who built on what they gave to the world for free.

    On the other side of the ledger, consider the Wall Street mavens who created new instruments to suck value out of the financial system while damaging the economy as a whole, culminating in the 2008 financial crisis that the world is so painfully digging itself out of today.

    Consider the patent trolls who invent nothing, but file patents in legal language so broad that they constitute a drift net in which real inventors who later come up with actual new inventions successfully put into practice can conveniently be caught and shaken down.

    Or consider the whole world of what Umair Haque calls “thin value” – the bait and switch techniques of airlines who lock in customers through frequent flyer programs that fail to provide the benefits they promise, the phone companies that require you to extend your servitude every time you upgrade to a new phone, or the packaged food companies that tout “new and improved” products every time they replace a natural ingredient with cheaper substitutes.

    These examples should be enough to convince you that value creation and value capture are not the same thing. An individual or a company can create enormous value for society but not capture very much of it; an individual or a company can capture a great deal of value without creating very much, or even while destroying economic value. Ideally, those who create value are rewarded for doing so, but it is often the case that those who merely extract value do better financially.

    Why does this matter? It seems to me that as economists and government policy makers think about innovation, they are trying to foster the wrong thing. Innovation often begins with people who have no thought of value capture, who have no idea that what they create will become valuable. Incentives that reward entrepreneurs, for instance, miss the fact that many of the great innovations of modern technology began with people just having fun! Companies begin at a later stage in the economic process.

    http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121112204533-16553-value-creation-vs-value-capture-musings-on-the-new-economy

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Another way to look at the divide:

    Value Creation vs. Value Capture

    It’s easy to see that we live in a natural world that was given to us “for free” and how much of the value we enjoy as a society was not created but extracted from that feedstock of abundance. But it is important to realize that even in the world of discovery and intellectual innovation, there are those who create value, and those who merely extract it.

    Consider this: when John von Neumann and his team at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton developed the fundamental architectural approach of modern computing, they put their work into the public domain. When Paul Baran developed the fundamental concepts of packet networking that underlie the internet, he did the same thing. So too did Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn with the TCP/IP protocol, and Tim Berners-Lee with HTTP and HTML, the technologies that underly the World Wide Web.

    These pioneers created enormous value, yet they didn’t capture very much of it for themselves. That was left for others who built on what they gave to the world for free.

    On the other side of the ledger, consider the Wall Street mavens who created new instruments to suck value out of the financial system while damaging the economy as a whole, culminating in the 2008 financial crisis that the world is so painfully digging itself out of today.

    Consider the patent trolls who invent nothing, but file patents in legal language so broad that they constitute a drift net in which real inventors who later come up with actual new inventions successfully put into practice can conveniently be caught and shaken down.

    Or consider the whole world of what Umair Haque calls “thin value” – the bait and switch techniques of airlines who lock in customers through frequent flyer programs that fail to provide the benefits they promise, the phone companies that require you to extend your servitude every time you upgrade to a new phone, or the packaged food companies that tout “new and improved” products every time they replace a natural ingredient with cheaper substitutes.

    These examples should be enough to convince you that value creation and value capture are not the same thing. An individual or a company can create enormous value for society but not capture very much of it; an individual or a company can capture a great deal of value without creating very much, or even while destroying economic value. Ideally, those who create value are rewarded for doing so, but it is often the case that those who merely extract value do better financially.

    Why does this matter? It seems to me that as economists and government policy makers think about innovation, they are trying to foster the wrong thing. Innovation often begins with people who have no thought of value capture, who have no idea that what they create will become valuable. Incentives that reward entrepreneurs, for instance, miss the fact that many of the great innovations of modern technology began with people just having fun! Companies begin at a later stage in the economic process.

    http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121112204533-16553-value-creation-vs-value-capture-musings-on-the-new-economy

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    tODD; yes, I read the article, and I stand by my assessment. The Founders suspected what government would do, and given where we are now, they’d not be appalled at us, but rather thank God they’d put the filibuster in place.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    tODD; yes, I read the article, and I stand by my assessment. The Founders suspected what government would do, and given where we are now, they’d not be appalled at us, but rather thank God they’d put the filibuster in place.

  • DonS

    We have gone a long way to minimize the impact of political parties as it is. The two major parties select their presidential candidates by primary, rather than convention. Many states have adopted “open” primaries, with cross-over voting. Independent voters make up 30% of the electorate, and some states don’t even register voters by party.

    At the same time, “nonpartisan” elections often end up being fought between the parties, with the actual party identification of each candidate being known to the voters. Why is this? Because party identification is a shorthand way for voters to know which way a candidate will tend to lean on a host of issues, and voters want this information. Sound bite ads mislead or are intentionally vague about what a candidate will do in a particular situation (i.e. raise taxes or cut spending?), and voters want to be able to categorize the candidate. To pass a law “outlawing” political parties would seem to be about as unconstitutional an infringement on free speech and freedom of association rights as could be imagined, though I expect that we will continue to see efforts to weaken their political advantages in the electoral process.

  • DonS

    We have gone a long way to minimize the impact of political parties as it is. The two major parties select their presidential candidates by primary, rather than convention. Many states have adopted “open” primaries, with cross-over voting. Independent voters make up 30% of the electorate, and some states don’t even register voters by party.

    At the same time, “nonpartisan” elections often end up being fought between the parties, with the actual party identification of each candidate being known to the voters. Why is this? Because party identification is a shorthand way for voters to know which way a candidate will tend to lean on a host of issues, and voters want this information. Sound bite ads mislead or are intentionally vague about what a candidate will do in a particular situation (i.e. raise taxes or cut spending?), and voters want to be able to categorize the candidate. To pass a law “outlawing” political parties would seem to be about as unconstitutional an infringement on free speech and freedom of association rights as could be imagined, though I expect that we will continue to see efforts to weaken their political advantages in the electoral process.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@13), how do party primaries “minimize the impact of political parties”, exactly?

    Sound bite ads mislead or are intentionally vague about what a candidate will do in a particular situation (i.e. raise taxes or cut spending?), and voters want to be able to categorize the candidate.

    Please. If voters want to pigeonhole a candidate into one of two possible options, it’s not because they want information. It’s because they want to be able to vote with the least amount of thinking possible, with the least amount of information (literally, a simple dichotomy as your voting rubric).

    Hate to break it to you, but party identification is also misleading and often tells you almost nothing about what a candidate will do in a particular situation.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@13), how do party primaries “minimize the impact of political parties”, exactly?

    Sound bite ads mislead or are intentionally vague about what a candidate will do in a particular situation (i.e. raise taxes or cut spending?), and voters want to be able to categorize the candidate.

    Please. If voters want to pigeonhole a candidate into one of two possible options, it’s not because they want information. It’s because they want to be able to vote with the least amount of thinking possible, with the least amount of information (literally, a simple dichotomy as your voting rubric).

    Hate to break it to you, but party identification is also misleading and often tells you almost nothing about what a candidate will do in a particular situation.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 14: party primaries allow the voters to nominate the party candidate. The old system was to nominate at the convention, in the “smoke-filled room”. The decline of the party convention is also a decline in the direct power of the political party.

    I’m not sure what the rest of your point is. Yes, party identification is not a guarantee of lockstep political views, but it surely is a strong indication of how most politicians claiming allegiance to one or the other of the two major political parties are going to come down on most issues.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 14: party primaries allow the voters to nominate the party candidate. The old system was to nominate at the convention, in the “smoke-filled room”. The decline of the party convention is also a decline in the direct power of the political party.

    I’m not sure what the rest of your point is. Yes, party identification is not a guarantee of lockstep political views, but it surely is a strong indication of how most politicians claiming allegiance to one or the other of the two major political parties are going to come down on most issues.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com tODD

    DonS (@15), you seem to be missing the point that they are party primaries. So they kinda don’t serve to minimize the impact of political parties. At all. They are the very epitome of them.

    Yes, party identification is not a guarantee of lockstep political views, but it surely is a strong indication of how most politicians claiming allegiance to one or the other of the two major political parties are going to come down on most issues.

    Right. Like how Bush was all about shrinking the federal government and balancing the budget. Or how Obama was weak on anti-terrorism, but big on civil liberties. Pbbbbblt.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com tODD

    DonS (@15), you seem to be missing the point that they are party primaries. So they kinda don’t serve to minimize the impact of political parties. At all. They are the very epitome of them.

    Yes, party identification is not a guarantee of lockstep political views, but it surely is a strong indication of how most politicians claiming allegiance to one or the other of the two major political parties are going to come down on most issues.

    Right. Like how Bush was all about shrinking the federal government and balancing the budget. Or how Obama was weak on anti-terrorism, but big on civil liberties. Pbbbbblt.