As a Minnesota Native, I disagreed with almost everything the late Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone tried to do as a politician. But I, along with many of his colleagues on both sides of the isle, respected him for his principled stances on issues he passionately believed in. He was an ideologue who made no apologies for it. He wasn’t afraid to stand against his own party if it meant doing what he believed was the right thing, and the thing he believed his constituents elected him to do. In that way, he reminds me of former US Representative (Texas) Ron Paul, the defacto spiritual leader of the modern libertarian movement.
We need more Paul Wellstones and Ron Pauls in politics.
I don’t mean we necessarily need more who think exactly like them, or who agree with their specific ideology, but we need more politicians who are less concerned with the games of politics than they are with doing things they believe are right. We need politicians who stand up for powerful principals instead of clinging to party loyalty. Ironically, I think we have more people like that on Capitol Hill now more than ever before in my lifetime. It takes a lot for me to admit that, as those who know me know I’m generally cynical about politics, and politicians in general. Even more ironically, those same “trouble-making” politicians have been accused (unfairly in my view) of the very political games many Americans are tired of, and causing the latest government shutdown which ended essentially in a stalemate today.
While political games will always be part of the system, the games played in the latest shutdown spectacle were different than business as usual in the Beltway. Much different. In a way that might not seem obvious, they signal one of the greatest problems with the American political system. Its not what you think I’m going to say…. The shutdown more than anything else highlights the problem with the two-party system. Specifically, the two party system makes principled rebellion a dirty word when in fact it should be celebrated. That is, after all, why this country exists in the first place. If we broke free of the two party duopoly, I think two seemingly contradictory things would begin to be more common in Washington politics: Principled (Ideological) Stances and Cooperation. Let me try to explain why.
An unpleasant fact of politics is that it takes money to win elections. The only real way to get money in our modern system is by being affiliated with a political party. Parties are basically election machines. Once a candidate has its support, all of the components of that machine work together to fundraise, promote, and otherwise support that candidate. The bigger the political stage (i.e. Presidential election vs local city mayor), the more the machine grinds away for the candidate, and the more important it is for the candidate to have a party affiliation. In short, the candidate can’t do it alone without the Party. Its no surprise then, that Party loyalty has become the primary factor in most political gamesmanship in Washington. Whether they say it or not, politicians generally put Party first. To do otherwise is potential (likely) career suicide.
Yet, during the latest shutdown a curious thing happened. Several “Tea Party” Republicans defied the Republican establishment and stood on principle. They’ve been demonized heavily by the media, (TeaBaggers anyone?), other Republicans, and many of my more politically vocal Facebook friends (LOL!), but in truth, they did exactly what they were elected to do. Each of those Republicans had run their election campaigns primarily on the idea that the Affordable Care Act (ACA aka “ObamaCare”) was a terrible law that should be killed. Of course, almost every other (if not all) Republican(s) also think ObamaCare is a terrible law, and have tried to kill it from the beginning. Unfortunately for them, they did not have the majorities necessary to defeat the bill from passing in the first place, or to change portions of it once passed. That’s how many of the Tea Party Republicans got their seats in Congress and the Senate. Although polling has consistently shown that the American public does not like ObamaCare, with the popularity level peaking around 40% in 2012, it has remained the primary platform for the Democrats and President Obama in particular during his administration. With the Democratic majorities, they were able to ram the unpopular bill through and pass it into law. Once passed, they fortified their commitment to keeping it largely in tact. And they’ve had the political upperhand to do so, especially since the Republican Party is so divided between the “established” faction and the Tea Party faction.
So, in this latest battle, what we have are Democrats united on a law that most Americans hate, and having the power to remain so without compromise, partially because they control the Senate, and the Executive Branch (aka the President), but also because the Republican Party, which controls the House is divided into two camps. One camp, the majority of the Republican Party (the Establishment), believes in maintaining power at all costs, and the other camp (Tea Party) is willing to lose all power (Polling has shown the entire Republican Party has been largely blamed for the shutdown) because they believe it is the right thing to do.
You may disagree with me, but all other things being equal, I would rather stand with a minority that has integrity than a majority that cares more about keeping its political power in place.
What does this have to do with the two party system being a problem? My point with all of this is not about whether or not I think ObamaCare is a good law or whether or not the Tea Party has the right plan for America. This shutdown situation could have just as easily happened with any other contentious issue, where the political players are aligned in a similar way. When one party has such tremendous power it can push unpopular laws through, and then hold that power over the other minority power.
For some proponents of government, maybe even for a majority of Americans, this might seem like a good thing. It means that Washington politicians are seemingly doing what we want them to do. They’re “getting things done.” They’re passing laws left and right. Americans were largely unhappy with the shutdown because they feel politicians should be cooperating and compromising. I agree that politicians should pass necessary laws. I agree that to do so they must often compromise (unless they have absolute majority) and cooperate. They must build relationships. What the two party system does is corrupt those goals. It allows two behemoths to have overall power over the American people despite most Americans not being aligned entirely with one Party’s platform over the other. The crack in the Republican party that lead to the shutdown ironically probably would not have done so if there were more cracks in both parties that called themselves something else entirely… In short, if there were many parties instead of two, it would be less possible for a small faction to shutdown the government in the first place because it would have never gotten to that point.
Most Americans may lean one way or the other, but they are not Party loyalists. Those they elect are by necessity, but they are not. A recent Gallup poll says that 60% of Americans think a third party is needed and that the current system does not reflect their ideals. The two party system forces Americans to choose between two groups that may preach very different messages, but in practice behave exactly the same. They serve to maintain their own power, not to serve the ideals their platforms espouse. At least until a “radical faction” breaks away, stands on principle (does what they say they will do) and gains the ire of both established groups. From my perspective, this group of politicians willing to risk their political careers because they believe its the right thing to do is what we need more of in Washington, and it makes me tremendously sad that they are getting labeled as “shameful” or “despicable” or even laughably the “radical right wing.” By breaking the two party system apart these smaller voices would simultaneously lose their power, forcing compromise, and more accurately reflect the American people’s ideals in the right proportions.
Imagine for a moment that instead of two entrenched parties, there were many parties in Washington (more than three ideally). If no single party had a greater than 50% majority hold I envision a few things resulting.
Parties could stand for one or two principals instead of having to fit numerous agendas on their platforms. Americans would know exactly what the primary focus of a politician is. In that way, party loyalty would be tightly entwined with the principals the party stands for. Americans would have more choices that more accurately reflect their own ideals and beliefs on how best to most the country forward. Would you prefer to live in a world where you could only pick between vanilla and chocolate? As a lover of combinations of flavors, I would find that terrible. Vanilla with chocolate syrup please! Remember when there were only four channels on TV? Hell on earth. Why do we allow that system to survive in something as important as politics? Politics is how we decide how we want to live our lives as a society. It is the method we use to determine the freedoms we have and don’t have, and the repercussions for defiance of the laws we deem important. Politics is surely more important than ice cream flavors or TV channels. Isn’t it? I can’t even imagine the ideas that could be generated if the two parties lost their duopoly control on the system. Thirty-one flavors for all with never-ending refinement depending on demand!
Compromise between parties would be essential to pass laws in a multi-party system. If no single monstrously large party had a true majority, in order to pass laws politicians would be forced to build relationships with other party members on issues they are in agreement. You would find all kinds combinations of alliances on different issues. As a libertarian, I often find myself agreeing more often with Republicans on fiscal policy (though they don’t usually live up to their rhetoric), but agreeing with Democrats on social issues (but not usually the details of social policy). While I have agreed largely with Tea Party republicans on their ideas about taxes and financial reforms, I disagree with them largely on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, to name a few (although one can be against gay marriage but for a law supporting gay marriage — a nuance lost in our current duopoly). Essentially, none of the two major parties reflects my ideals in any serious way. I’m not an anomaly.
Laws would be harder to pass and there would be fewer of them. To some people this may be a terrible prospect. After all, that’s what we send our Representatives and Senators to Washington to do, right? Pass laws!!! I found this article calling the 113th Congress the worst ever because they failed to do anything by passing only 22 laws (as of August 2013). I personally see that as a victory. The worst situation is when one party controls all branches of government. This is when tyranny of the majority happens, and is not what the writers of the constitution envisioned for the democratic process of our Constitutional Republic. My perspective is that each and every law that is passed should be done so as a solemn last resort, and after only careful consideration of what it will and should do, and the consequences that will result. Laws almost always mean limits on liberty, both personal and economic. Very rarely are laws repealed once enacted, and each new law forces Americans to alter their lives in very real and serious ways. There should be public debate and transparency with each law considered. They should never be passed frivolously, and always only* according to the Constitution. They should never be passed because one party has a majority and does so anyway in defiance of the public’s wishes. This couldn’t happen in a multi-party system. Additionally, the public should have full access to the reasoning behind the law and the possible unintended consequences of its enactment. If politicians were forced to focus on fewer laws, I believe that would be a step in the right direction for engaging the American people on exactly what they’re doing on our dime. As a bonus wish, I’d also require all bills to be single issue focused (aka no “pork”) and short (Have you read the Constitution… the longest Amendment is the 12th and has 403 words, the equivalent of little more than ½ a page single spaced in Word with 12 point font. ObamaCare had reportedly 2700 pages!), and all laws should have a sunset date (of no more than 5 years from enactment)*.
Unfortunately, changing the two party system is an uphill battle. The current party system exists not because it was what the Founders envisioned (President Washington belonged to no party), but because of a systematic power-grab of the two major parties over 150 years of politics. Throughout our nation’s history, parties have changed both in name and in their ideals, but in the modern age, change seems unlikely to gain a foothold primarily because of laws that exist in many states and federally that make it all but impossible for third (or more) parties to gain any traction in elections. The issues are complex and vast, and vary from state to state, but in summary, a third party gaining traction in a national election has little to do with their ideas not aligning with a large number of voters and more to do with the two big parties liking the system to stay that way.
The current election system is, to put it bluntly, rigged to prop up the parties in power, and squash all attempts to add other voices to the political dialogue. As a result, most Americans find themselves picking the lesser of two evils during elections, or trying to pick the candidate they align on with most issues. Rarely do Americans pick a third party. The main reason for that is they “want their vote to count.” This pattern only perpetuates the cycle of Republicans and Democrats maintaining control, further entrenching them into our psyche, and defining the dialogue. Its no secret that I consider myself libertarian (small ‘l’) or classical liberal. I didn’t really know what that was until less than ten years ago. Up until the last election, I found myself falling into the trap as well. I didn’t want to waste my vote, so I picked the candidate that I thought was “kinda close” on the issues that I felt were most important. During the last election, I finally decided that I couldn’t do that any longer. I’d rather have my vote wasted than vote for a candidate that I find impossible to live with. So for the first time ever, I did not vote for a major party candidate. Obviously, my guy lost, but I slept easy at night knowing I followed my conscience. I would love if more Americans didn’t have to choose the lesser of two evils in order for their voice to be heard. Paul Wellstone once said, “I would just feel like a shill if I didn’t vote for what I thought was right. I just couldn’t do it.” If we could tear down the two party duopoly, I think we’d finally get to the point where most Americans wouldn’t have to feel like shills. We could all stand on principle, and debate each issue on its own merit instead of fall in line behind our tribal tendencies to defend “our side” against “them.” And we’d be more inclined to reach across the aisle to find common interests with people who mostly align with another party. Events like the government shutdown would be things of the past because cooperation would be a requirement for achieving any result on The Hill, but at the same time, politicians would be closely aligned with very specific agendas and ideologies that would take precedence over party loyalty purely due to necessity. We’d find a lot more Paul Wellstones and Ron Pauls — men and women with integrity unafraid to show that what they stand for is what they will act upon, but while simultaneously allowing many more voices and ideas to be front and center in the debate. Tearing down the two party system will create a new system that more closely resembles what America stands for and is — a melting pot of all the different cultures and best ideas of the world where we cooperate and work with people everyday who believe differently from us on some issues. That’s the American dream realized. Our political system should reflect that.
As with all of my posts, this blog serves as a forum for me to work out my ideas, and are never meant to stand the test of time or be forever set in stone. I tend to write my posts on the fly with little preparation, although I usually have thought a lot about a topic for a while. I have a life to live and don’t spend hours writing my posts (usually). In a way, my blog serves as a place where I publish rough drafts of my ideas that I will refine over time. As a result, sometimes clarity of idea can be lost. What makes sense in my brain isn’t always translated well to the page on the first (or sometimes second, third, etc) go-round. This is why I have this blog in part… to improve that communication skill, and to see the progression of my ideas. I rely on comments and questions from you to help me plug up holes in either my thinking, or my communication of my thinking. I’m sure this blog will be my most contentious yet. Please, have at it!
*Edits added after original publication to increase clarity.