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.
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?