Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One Year Later

It was one year ago today that I first posted in this blog. Much has changed in that time. The president has given two State of the Union addresses, as well as countless television and live appearances, attempting to gain the public's confidence for his health care, energy, education, and economic initiatives. The public's response has been ... mixed. The Tea Parties went from a half-joking suggestion by a CNBC analyst to a nationwide phenomenon. Conservatism, considered by some to be officially "dead" this time last year, has seen an almost unparalleled rebirth, with conservative candidates winning governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, and a Republican winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts for the first time in over half a century. And despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, hardly anything can be said to have happened in Washington this last year.

Some blame the lack of action on "obstructionist Republicans", applying the epithet "the Party of No" to the GOP. It's a strange accusation, given how gleefully Democrats embraced that label a few short years ago. On the other hand, given how many Democrats are in Congress and how few Republicans there are, how could you possibly blame the inaction on the GOP? No Republican president in history, even George W. Bush, had as much trouble pushing his agenda through a Democratic Congress, and Republicans have never had as large a majority in Congress as Democrats currently hold. And yet, it's hard to recall a time when Congress has been this gridlocked.

Maybe there's just an unusual amount of acrimony in the country. It would explain some of the vehemence behind the Tea Party movement, certainly. But is this really as bad as it's ever been? After all, there was a time when politicians in Washington challenged each other to duels with pistols. Maybe Republicans are better at getting things done than Democrats. It would explain why more Republicans have served two-term presidencies than Democrats. But it wouldn't explain how they lost both houses of Congress in successive elections. However, we have another Congressional election coming up later this year, and indications are good that Republicans will regain a significant number of seats.

What accounts for it all? I don't usually look for simple answers to complex questions, but I believe I've found one, anyway. In the United States, a larger number of people consider themselves Democrats than Republicans, and more independents than either. Given that Democrats are typically seen as liberal and Republicans are generally conservative, you probably would think that conservatism would be at the bottom of the ideological spectrum and liberalism near the top. However, a recent Newsweek poll shows the opposite is true. While only 22% of respondents consider themselves Republican, 35% Democrat, and 39% Independent, a somewhat surprising 39% characterized themselves as either somewhat or very Conservative. 36% described themselves as Moderate, and only 20% as Liberal. If you go by the numbers, then there are almost twice as many conservatives in this country as liberals, which not only means the U.S. is still very much a "center-right" country, but also that neither political party is the current "favorite".

I'm an independent; I sometimes described myself as anti-partisan because I believe even having political parties is detrimental to the country's health. When you see numbers like the ones above, you have to wonder why people even bother joining parties, since clearly which one you join can't be considered a reliable indicator of your own ideology. It's like a curtain that's been drawn across the country, painting a picture of a liberal party on the left, a conservative party on the right, and a wide swath of moderates right up the middle. When an election like the one in 2008 occurs and the left-leaning party decisively sweeps the right out of power, it's easy to think the middle has joined the left. It's not the case, however; and the greatest evidence we have of that is when the government tries to lead the country to the left and the country pulls steadily rightward. When that happens, you don't get a country that drives up the middle; you get a country that stands perfectly still, like ours now stands.

In a post last march, I echoed the sentiments of George Washington, the first president of this country and the last one to never join a political party. He warned in his farewell address to the nation that "[t]he 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." As long as there have been political parties, in this or any other country, there has been rivalry between them. Competition is good, but rivalry helps no one but the ticket-sellers. It only gets worse as time passes and the players get more entrenched in their battles with each other. Senator Evan Bayh may not have been right when he decided to retire from Congress, but he was certainly right to abandon the partisan warfare before it consumed him.

I posted a poll last fall/winter in which I asked how many would support a Constitutional amendment banning political parties. At the time, I was having trouble thinking of a solution, short of replacing every single politician in Washington at the same time, and I thought banning parties would make a good start. Even as I typed out the possible responses to the poll, though, I knew generally what the results would be: Yes, 5%; No, I like political parties, 10%; No, people should be allowed to form political parties whether I like them or not, 78%; and Not Sure, 5% (percentages approximated). The vast majority of respondents support free speech and free assembly; which is heartening, I suppose. I didn't really expect anything else.

Partisanism remains a problem, though; and even if parties were eliminated, it still wouldn't cancel the old, entrenched rivalries. People would still remember that President Obama and Speaker Pelosi were Democrats, once upon a time, and they'd still remember that Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin were Republicans. So what good would it do? I'll tell you.

For one thing, it would draw back the curtain that covers the land. No more would we have to scratch our heads over how a center-right country could elect an all-Democratic leadership; no more Blue Dog Democrats or Republicans In Name Only (RINO's); no more Majority Leaders and Minority Leaders in the House and Senate, all trying to keep their caucuses "in line" for the votes; and certainly no more 24-hour news coverage of how many seats Republicans can expect to win or lose in November. Our leaders could focus on the issues themselves and not worry about how it would affect their primary results. No more Arlen Specters or Joe Liebermans being "muscled out" by angry members of their own parties.

For another thing, it would allow a new generation of leaders to arise who are defined solely based on how they vote, and not by the little letter that's attached to the end of their name. Imagine looking at a candidate and not asking yourself, "Is he really a Republican, or is he just calling himself that?" Imagine a whole country at the polls voting based on the issues and not on which party the candidates have pandered to the most? We could replace that painted curtain with a transparent one that allows the country to decide based on what really matters to them, and not on a "damaged brand name".

I'm no longer talking about eliminating the parties altogether. I now feel the best first step to take is changing the way we conduct elections. Why should a ballot indicate whether a candidate is Republican or Democrat? Or Green or Libertarian or Communist, for that matter? Why is a candidate's political party always attached to his or her name? Why is it more important than their memberships in the Rotary Club or the NRA or MoveOn.org? If the RNC and the DNC want to continue endorsing candidates, then let them; but when voters go to the polls, they should go armed only with the knowledge they have gained for themselves. If they can't remember who the Republican is or who the Democrat is and they don't want to risk voting for the "wrong" candidate, then they can take that risk or leave it; but it shouldn't be up to the registrar to tell the voters what they should have learned for themselves before entering the booth.

Setting aside for the moment how practical it is or isn't, would you support altering election laws so that candidates' party affiliations and identifications are removed from the ballot? Would you support changing the ways that state and federal governments operate so they are no longer divided into "Majority" and "Minority" parties? If you believe it would make things any better in Washington and the country, then vote yes.

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