George Washington, political prophet

On George Washington’s birthday, February 22, it is the custom in the United States Senate to read aloud his Farewell Address.   This year those words must have stung those who heard it, since Washington seemed to be describing with great precision the state of American politics.  It is as if the Father of Our Country took his children to the woodshed. [Read more...]

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?

On voting for a third party candidate

In a comment on the “It’s Romney” post, which sparked a discussion on whether voting for a third party candidate is “throwing your vote away,” Todd made an interesting and rather compelling argument that I think deserves a post of its own:

I feel like the people who mock third-party candidates are akin to those who play chess by refusing to consider anything but the current move. That is to say, they rule out any long-term strategy by focusing solely on the short term. I.e. “What is the best move you can make now to improve things immediately after that move?” But, of course, that isn’t always the best strategy, either in politics or chess.

In the world of economics, we speak with our purchases. You can hate on McDonald’s all day long, mocking them to your friends and on Facebook, but if you still eat there, if you still pay them, McDonald’s doesn’t really care.

It’s the same with politics. To the degree that political parties and politicians hear anything from the average person, they hear our vote (I’m cynical enough to realize that what they really listen to is money, but that’s a different topic). So if you go on and on in blog comments about how Romney isn’t all that conservative, he wasn’t the best possible candidate, and so on … and then you still vote for Romney, here’s what the Republican Party will hear: you liked Romney.

Don’t be too surprised, then, if you get more candidates like Romney in the Republican Party. Because they know that, even though you claim to like fiscal (or whatever) conservatism, you’ll still vote for the Republican, regardless. There’s no market force, as it were, to push the party in the direction of actual fiscal conservatism — they’ll get what they want from you, either way.

Yes, denying them your vote and voting third-party might lead to a temporal gain for the other major party you really don’t like. But, if the third-party votes are significant enough — if the GOP sees that it can’t actually count on your vote no matter how lousy the candidate — then they might actually have to deal with that by straightening up their act.

Such a chastened party might then actually run a candidate you approve of. But you’d have to play the long game to find out.

And most voters refuse to play the long game.

First of all, do you agree, and, if not, how would you answer him?  Second, what ARE some third parties with candidates that might be worth voting for?  I know of the Libertarians, the Greens, and the Constitution Party.  Can anyone speak to their candidates, or have they been chosen yet?  I heard Roseanne Barr is running for the Green Party nomination.  When voting to make a point, do the candidates matter since you don’t have to worry about their actually getting elected?  And are there some better third parties than those?  (And by my count, there are more than three.)  Is there a Distributivist Party, a Monarchist Party, a Two Kingdoms Party?  I realize that if such parties exist, they aren’t likely to get on the state ballot.  There is that bi-partisan party whose candidates will be selected via the internet.   If any of you are sold on some other party, feel free to make your case.

Political dysfunction

Robert J. Samuelson on why are political divisions are growing, even as most Americans get along with each other pretty well, despite their political differences:

It’s not that the public has become sharply polarized. In 2010, 42 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 35 percent moderates and 20 percent liberals, reports Gallup. In 1992, the figures were 43, 36 and 17 percent. So there’s a widening disconnect between the polarized political system and the less-polarized public. There are at least four reasons for this.

First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist “bases” for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger). But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans’ positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often “too liberal.”

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to “save the planet,” “protect the unborn,” “reclaim the Constitution.” When goals become moral imperatives, there’s no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they’re immoral. They’re cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.

Third, cable television and the Internet impose entertainment values on politics. Constant chatter reigns. Conflict and shock language prevail; analysis is boring.

Finally, politicians overpromise. The federal budget has run deficits in all but five years since 1961. The main reason: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise spending and cut taxes. To obscure their own expediency, both parties blame the other.

Politicians have always assailed one another. But the totality of these changes has altered the system’s character. Many players have an interest in perpetuating disagreements and differences. Advocacy groups and their allies derive psychic rewards (a sense of superiority) and political benefits (more members and contributions) from demonizing their adversaries. Cable TV needs combat, not comity.

The impulse is not to govern from the center, which still represents most Americans, but from “the base.” President Obama’s health-care “reform” was a good example. Strongly favored by Democrats, it was consistently opposed by about half of Americans. To be fair, George W. Bush governed the same way.

The result is mass discontent. Overwrought expectations are regularly disappointed. Liberal and conservative bases feel abused because their agendas are rarely entirely enacted. They are too radical or unrealistic. The center feels frustrated that the bases’ disproportionate power impedes action on long-standing problems (budgets, immigration, energy). Can next week’s election resolve this stalemate? It seems doubtful.

via Robert J. Samuelson – The dysfunction of American politics.


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