“They serve to Organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force--to put in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprizing minority of the Community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public Administration the Mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the Organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modefied by mutual interests. However combinations or Associations of the above description may now & then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the Power of the People, & to usurp for themselves the reins of Government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” - George Washington’s Farewell Address September 19, 1796
Believe it or not, every year since its centennial in 1896 President Washington’s Farewell Address has been read in the Senate, as part of the celebration of the first President’s birthday on February 22. Barry Goldwater read it in 1957. Delaware Senator Chris Coons read it this year. In it Washington famously exhorted the new nation to “steer clear of permanent Alliances” with foreign powers, and foresaw the rift that would tear the country apart a little over half a century later. We would do well to heed the entire address today, but no part is as prescient, or as vital, as the short passage quoted above on the dangers inherent in political parties.
That old American Cincinnatus was largely correct should be fairly obvious by now, if it wasn’t already. Party control over national elections extends back almost to the moment Washington finished speaking that September day in, appropriately enough, Philadelphia. But the current election has offered ample evidence that cunning and unprincipled men (and women) have indeed usurped for themselves the reins of Government.
Through the four day Republican convention and two days of the Democrat convention a few things have become abundantly clear. First, that both parties have at least a very large minority, if not an actual majority, of members unhappy with the nominated candidates. Secondly, that only intense top-down pressure from the respective party apparatchiks, brought to bear on revolting delegates, was able to form any sort of semblance of agreement to present to voters. Lastly, that pressure consists largely of the threat of withdrawing party monies from candidates in state races, so bucking the system requires either an already established national brand (i.e., Senator Cruz) or a moral fortitude largely, and sadly, absent (looking at you, Senator Sanders).
For most of us, the behind-the-scenes party machinations are largely unimportant. The important thing is that those machinations have left the citizenry with a pair of choices which, if polling is to be believed, have left a large segment of the voting population regardless of party affiliation unhappy and ready to search for an alternative. But here again the factional system of our politics leaves a thoughtful voter unsatisfied since, as we all know, “it’s a two party system” and “third” or optional parties are underrepresented both in media and on ballots. A call to vote Libertarian or Green in a Presidential election offers little other than a means by which to adhere to personal principle or cast a protest vote against the two main options. It may very well be true that I’ll sleep better at night for the next four years knowing I didn’t vote for the eventual winner, whoever it is, but my vote won’t have helped alter the course of the country in a direction I wish it to take.
Political parties are largely like government generally in that they are self-fulfilling prophecies: if they succeed more money is needed to continue the good works, and if they fail more money is needed to counteract the shortcomings. They keep the various factions of voters energized against one another in order to ensure support, with both sides merely jockeying for control of the levers of power. The party in the minority, knowing in their hearts that governing is hard and that the government isn’t actually particularly capable of solving any of the issues the majority party ran on, rests easy knowing that sooner or later the controlling party will fail enough that the voters will switch horses again. Those politicians unlucky or dumb enough to actually lose as incumbents know they have jobs to fall back on lobbying their former colleagues for businesses or industries, typically with one or more former colleagues on the Board of Directors. All the while, all of them constantly raise money for the Party for the next round of elections.
What’s the solution to this, you ask? How can a cancer so metastasized be removed without killing the patient? Some ideas, such as the public funding of elections, are merely ruses dressed in populist language to entrench the current system further. Similarly, voting for an “outsider” won’t work when the outsider is really just an insider who hasn’t bothered to run for office yet. Restoring the electoral control of the Senate invested in state legislatures by the Constitution originally seems an obvious place to start, by repealing the 17th Amendment. But amending the Constitution is (intentionally) hard, and the Senate is unlikely to relinquish the power of being incumbent easily. The only real way to change the current system is, unfortunately, a better educated voting citizenry. What’s needed is the recognition by the electorate that massively powerful political parties are not in most of our best interests. What’s needed is a return to the idea that the elected officials with the most influence on our lives are those closest to us; the system of government in which far away Washington D.C. actually has little sway on our lives. Only at that point will it no longer be profitable for parties to do things like nationalize House races. Ultimately who the citizens of a far away state elect as their Representative shouldn’t really have much effect on your life.
Which brings us back to George Washington. There is another short statement in his Farewell Address, towards the end, that we may do well to heed:
“How far in the discharge of my Official duties, I have been guided by the principles which have been delineated, the public Records and other evidences of my conduct must witness to You and to the world. To myself, the assurance of my own conscience is, that I have at least believed myself to be guided by them.”
The character of the people we elect for office matters. Their view of government, of what it can and cannot, should and should not, do, matters. But that the right people are elected is, ultimately, our responsibility.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.