What’s Wrong

I promised you a long rambling post about the reason things suck so bad in American politics. So here it is.

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual, and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasional riot and insurrection. [...]

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government, and serve to keep live the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of monarchical cast patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party, but in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose; and there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume. – George Washington’s Farewell Address

I can only think that the Father of our country was taken by a moment of clearly inspired prophecy on this point. I don’t think he anticipated how much the spirit of party would capture “the force of public opinion” itself, but more than anyone else of his age he recognized the basic dangers.

What both Washington and the other founders completely failed to manage was to find a way to mitigate this problem. The First Amendment – probably the most important single guarantor of the future of the democratic process – was also a guarantee that political parties would come to dominate the American political process. Had the Founders properly foreseen this, they perhaps could have taken some steps to mitigate the deleterious effects of the inevitable development of a party system. But, they did not sufficiently do so. To make a long story short, they created – or allowed the states to create – a system that in all but the most unusual circumstances would enable a polarized system with two and only two viable political parties.

There are probably more ways than I am able to count or to address that this polarized system has created mayhem in the American political process. To say that Washington’s worst fears were confirmed is to understate the level to which the parties have consolidated power and “sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities”.

I don’t intend to document these enormities in this post, but lest anyone suppose they don’t exist Rick Perlstein, in his column In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition documents the right-wing sort of the political version through history. Somewhat. Pointing out candidly that if the 1960′s left were as timid as today’s, “we would never have passed a civil rights bill — because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.” But oftentimes timidity in the majority is preferable. Boldness on the part of the party of Dick Cheney (recently, and that of Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam) led to some of the most lamentable excesses in American history. And speaking of the party of LBJ, if you want a retrospective of the left’s political misdeeds that can be laid, at least in part, at the feet of the binary system of American politics… I don’t have one bookmarked and handy but I’m sure you can remember Al Sharpton and Jimmy Hoffa without any help from me. And that’s just recently.

So, how is our two-party system responsible for all these ills? I would have to write a book (attention publishers – I will accept the right kind of advance) to get rigorous about it. But here are the high points.

1) The fact of the two party system. The economics of power prevent the entry of a third or fourth party until an existing party fails. We stage all-or-nothing elections, and hold party-line votes in the legislature meaning that a vote for a third party fails to advance that party’s legislative agenda or to check the legislative agenda of either of the majority parties.

2) Unaccountability. RW (hope you don’t mind me picking on you, buddy) consoled me after the 2004 election that the system still works fine, thank you very much… that there was no danger that power would be systematically abused because the abusers could and would be voted out as soon as they stepped on too many of our toes. So far, he’s right – we do continue to have regular elections with a minimum of malfeasance. And up to a point, the will of the people is expressed and honored. But, as Southpark lovingly lampooned, the will of the people is constrained to choose between “Douchebag” and “S*** Sandwich”. The actual will of the people is – or should be – bigger than any two platforms can contain or express. Furthermore, Dick Cheney need not worry about the consequences of overreach – even if the GOP truly alienated a majority of voters, they automatically get a second chance at re-establishing every ounce of power they had last year, as soon as the next elections roll around. And they can pick up where they left off. Same with Democrats. The worst that can happen to a bad political party is that its equally bad mirror image will get a short turn in the driver’s seat. There is no risk of actually losing the stranglehold it has gained on power.

3) The polarization of agenda and obstruction. The role of the majority party is to muscle an agenda through the legislature, to pack the courts with people who are hoped to support that agenda, and to selectively enforce the laws of the land in a way that advances the agenda. The role of the minority party is to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. As often as “bipartisanship” and “compromise” and “gangs of ‘centrists’ ” are touted in the media, it is a rarity that there is any level of sophistication in terms of advancing the common interests of disparate groups in the process. It is unusual that the in-power majority elects not to pursue the most radical possible version of its agenda, or that obstruction is successful in ways that actually moderate the majority agenda. Instead the casualties of obstruction tend to be small, moderate, and sometimes unequivocally helpful measures – like funding for advance directive counseling.

4) The Universal Echo Chamber. The kinds of craziness that we see so often on shameful public display… the kinds that Rick Perlstein discussed in the linked piece… fester and grow in mutually antagonistic and untrusting echo chambers. The ideal is a variety of interest groups, with a variety of concerns and a variety of well-informed opinions having a national conversation in an effort to enlighten everyone and reach an outcome of a rising tide that lifts all boats. Instead, there are precisely two national conversations, predictable in theme, engineered to appeal to the least common denominator and to encourage ignorance of any facts, philosophies, ideas or ideals that might militate against the political position that informs each. Each side strains at gnats of information that look good on the other side or bad on their own, and swallows camels of falsehood that look good for them or bad for the other side.

5) The media buys in to the charade. Perlstein says, “you never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to ‘debunk’ claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of ‘conservative claims’ to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as ‘extremist’ — out of bounds.” Yeah. But Walter Cronkite was the exception – never the rule. The parties create a distorted picture of reality, and the media reflects those distortions and maybe adds a few of their own.

So, the two party system is to blame. And, since the only alternative to plural parties is a single-party authoritarian regime, the answer must lie in the development of a multiplicity of parties. To represent issues in more shades than just black and white. To serve as a check on the nutty element. To foster collaboration and compromise. To offer real accountability in terms of long-term denial of power to malefactors.

Doing that requires changing the electoral system. And that means changing 50 state constitutions and/or one federal one.

More later. I hope.

5 comments to What’s Wrong

  • (Cross posted from Poli-Tea party.)

    Most of it wouldn’t require constitutional changes. Towns in Vermont and California have passed into law alternative voting systems (sadly they went with IRV, but it proves the principle) and even the federal law requiring representatives be from single-winner districts (which prevents proportional representation in the US house) can be changed with a “simple” change of law, no constitutional changes required.

    Thomas Jefferson was a contemporary of the Marquis de Condorcet, so his ideas were certainly something Jefferson was aware of, and left the door open for.

  • Hi Dale – thank’s for the comment. I posted there as well, but my thoughts are this:

    Yes, IRV can be done on the local/state level without amending constitutions. Proportional representation, on the other hand, is going to require constitutional changes. I think there is a place for both approaches, but eventually – if PR isn’t achieved, the goals I have in mind probably won’t be achieved.

  • I don’t think even PR would require constitutional changes, at least not at the _local_ level; and I think that’s the right place to start.

    Also, I want to make clear I’m not an IRV advocate: I think IRV will result in the same two-party problems as plurality (just look at Australia). For single-winner elections, I favor the truly spoiler-free method of range voting (; which I advocate for on my blog ( I think range (also known as score voting) could go a long way towards eliminating much of the two-party deadlock we see.

  • I have a hard time envisioning that PR could be implemented without constitutional changes, but I’m not an expert. At the local level, something akin – charter changes – seem necessary to me. IRV is fine with me – as is Range Voting. I’m not too picky on the voting method side – anything is better than what we have. I think that a lot of institutional pressure comes from the type of alignment that both the election system and the legislative system promotes. If you can use Range or IRV to get a Green or Libertarian in office – how much does that help, if they vote like Bernie Sanders or Dick Armey – i.e. in a bloc with the “establishment group” – on every issue? I think there is a lot to be said for the temporary coalitions and hard compromises you see under PR.

  • Smijer, I didn’t realize you were advocating PR. But as I noted in my response comment at Poli-tea, working to elect third party and independent candidates from the bottom up and advocating electoral reform should be part of the same overall strategy, imo. I’m looking forward to your follow-up.

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