Harry Neuwirth writes from Salem, Oregon.
Old institutions die hard, especially when they stand guard at the gates of law and privilege and the power they confer. Two political parties have long controlled the process of nominating and electing presidential candidates as well as endorsing people to run for lesser office on their ticket. It's clear that such control tends to restrict philosophical insight, thereby failing to attract into elective office persons of high ability who can neither accommodate themselves to party rule nor rise independently to a competitive level in the face of tightly constrained candidacy and election.
The disease of party was diagnosed at the outset by many of our nations Founders -- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson among them -- and their prognosis has proven keenly accurate. Political parties have had an immensely negative influence upon the political life of the republic that those courageous men planned and fought for. No surprise to students of history, ill-defined parties had always been divisive among the privileged echelons ruling over the repressed people of our Mother Country. James Madison in Federalist Number Thirty Seven, referring to the Constitutional Convention, observed that:
. . . the convention must have enjoyed, in a very singular way, an exemption from the pestilential influence of party animosities -- the disease most incident to deliberative bodies, and most apt to contaminate their proceedings. . . .
Prescience born of informed hindsight.
Powerful evidence of childishness in today's party affiliation is dramatically exposed at the president's annual State of the Union Message to Congress. Television cameras whirring, grown men and women, elected leaders of the mightiest nation on earth, sitting on their hands in choreographed pique over presidential statements that stray from their party line; rising in organized applause in praise of statements that conform. Not to be outdone, the chosen leader of the lower house, elected to provide that august body with maturity and experienced guidance in the momentous affairs that daily confront them, up on the podium echoing the puerile antics of her children on the floor: Sour disapproval, saccharine support.
"Parties," from the French "partir": "to divide," have always done just that. But this was to be a nation of free people coming together as sovereign individuals, not apparatchiks; a gift for generations of descendants to perpetuate and defend. Liberty of thought, not segregation by prejudice.
Yet the party system was already gestating during George Washington's elections, coming to life during the election of John Adams, surviving and growing ever since. The travesties inspired by party domination in the intervening years are compelling evidence in the case for change: Disenfranchised states and Super Delegates are recent examples of "partir," the smoke filled rooms of the good old days wholesome by comparison. But how to implement substantive change in the face of tradition, of established authority? And change to what?
The likelihood of ending the party system in our lifetimes seems unlikely. But there could be hope for a surge of people who have given serious thought to the fundamentals of America willingly dropping their affiliation to become members of an independent, mature middle to rationalize the political life of the nation. Grown-ups, whose objectives include driving the existing parties toward a restructuring of their own in the face of that burgeoning independent force threatening to undermine their dominance. The power of independence unleashed!
But who would draw up the bylaws for independence; who would be its chairman; where would they meet and how often? How would they maintain independence?
Fortunately we have the technical means to circumvent the need for frequent face-to-face meetings, powerful chairmanships, extensive bylaws, and much else that burdens vested interest. We should remember that the party system emerged during horse and buggy days when it took weeks to communicate coast to coast. Now we send messages from Bangor to Honolulu in seconds.
This organization shall consist of independent, eligible voters of the United States of America who share a desire to improve the political environment of the nation!
Meetings would likely be impromptu, held on the internet, by mail, by cell phone; in parlors and family rooms; in church fellowship rooms and barrooms; in locker rooms and tea rooms with the fundamental purpose of defining concerns and solutions, not necessarily to elevate specific candidates or platforms. Temporary chairmanships would accrue to persons displaying wisdom and a grasp of fundamentals; candidacies devolving upon persons displaying judgment and understanding of the issues of the day along with integrity and the ability to articulate solutions. Raising funds, drawn from a natural constituency having defined itself during the run up to the election, would remain a challenge. The purpose of such activity might be described as an unselfish attempt to push the dynamics of American elections toward greater independence and integrity, election to office being a secondary concern, introduction of a third dynamic a primary one.
Specialty groups would no doubt form around topics such as inflation, domestic energy policy, education, medical care, foreign policy. Such groups might send their findings out to the electorate with self-raised funds, identifying themselves to a constituency who might respond to them not as candidates or office holders but simply as mature fellow citizens.
We have long lived with the endlessly repeated promise of reduced government interference in our lives by existing parties and their candidates as we watched government grow in cost and intrusiveness while the patrons of party prospered at the expense of taxpayers and the small business community.
Once upon a time we fought a ponderous war of independence. We now live in a nimble age when we need only pick up our electronic wands and wave a new independence into existence. Political-party has been a liability for two hundred years, living a charmed life. From the horse-and-buggy on muddy roads to wide-bodied jets and freeways we've watched as aspirants to authority have clawed their way upward in political party hierarchies leaving their convictions in their trail. The solution is not necessarily to eliminate that party system but to energize the ever-growing army of thoughtful independents who have agonized silently in our midst. To join them we have only to change our registration to independent as we heighten our citizenship awareness. Then we need to persuade our state legislators with our independent votes to open state primary elections to allow independents to vote in party primaries wherever that is not already the case.
Perhaps we should reconsider whether our marvelous 21st century electronic devices -- the internet most prominent among them -- are destructive of democracy or might actually become a constructive force for independence; might serve as an educational forum contributing to the well-being of the nation and its citizens. Such an aroused sense of independence might even serve as a challenge to the under-performing public schools to elevate the importance of citizenship in the standard curriculum. *
"Let us recollect that peace or war will not always be left to our option; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation, or hope to extinguish the ambition of others." --Alexander Hamilton