Friday, May 28, 2010

The Beginning of a Solution (Part III)

There's (at least) one more thing we need to do: we need to stop dividing Congress (and state legislatures) into majority and minority parties.

The soul selects her own society (according to Emily Dickinson, at least), so no matter how the law is written or what is mandated, legislators of like minds will seek each other out. Consider Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, a conservative Democrat who switched parties last December. Some say it was to preserve his chances of reelection in a right-leaning district, a la Arlen Specter; but others say he was simply going the way of many others in Alabama who have switched from Democrat to Republican over the years. As I mentioned in my two previous posts, there are dangers to switching parties and to moderate candidates participating in primaries. Rep. Griffith has a tough contest before he can run for reelection as a Republican. But, considering his views on certain issues and his opposition to the president, if voters hadn't known he had once been a Democrat, would they have been able to tell?

Maybe we can't keep the pundits from "keeping score", noting how many Democrats vote for Republican initiatives and vice versa; maybe we can't replace the primary and caucus system with a complete write-in system that would allow candidates to run without having to declare (or even hold) party affiliation; and maybe we can't all just "get along"; but we can remove the federal government's seal of approval on this centuries-old congressional civil war. Leaving the current system in place perpetuates the "us versus them" mentality, and even legitimizes it. It feeds the notion that, as one West Wing character put it, "being in power means everyone else can take a seat for four years".

That line, "everyone else", actually reminds us that there are more than just Republicans and Democrats in Congress (and in the country). If we stop dividing Congress into a majority and a minority, then not only do we combat the internecine warfare between the major parties, but we also acknowledge the presence of other parties, and of legislators who don't belong to parties. That could be even more important than stopping the bickering between the "top two".

I watched a movie recently that showed a senator chairing a hearing on the news as part of the plot. When the graphic with his name came onscreen, it didn't show the R, D, or I at the end of his name indicating what party he represented. While a future of not having lawmakers and executives identified by their party is a private dream of mine, right now it's simply unrealistic. Pundits love to remind you which senator belongs to which party, especially when he's doing something that his party doesn't like. It's "good television". Maybe that's the problem. We're a nation of theatergoers. While there are people willing to sit through a report on the latest floor vote, the average viewer needs an angle, a bit of drama, something to make it more exciting. That's why you'll see more grandstanding on C-SPAN lately (assuming you watch C-SPAN, that is).

Partisanism is the biggest problem with politics today. It's hardly a metaphor to say that Congress has drawn battle lines, with the two sides choosing leaders. Whichever side has the most members decides who heads the committees, which bills and amendments are considered, and when the votes are taken. Should the "winning" side have all the privileges? You may think so; but this is not a game, no matter how gleefully we may watch the other side fall. Leadership shouldn't be awarded to a particular representative just because the opposition didn't have enough good candidates in other parts of the country. And then there are the independent members of Congress who must depend on the largesse of the two major parties to earn a leadership position. This is not democracy in action.

Suppose, instead, we had a Congress without majority or minority leaders, where the committees weren't divided into ranks, and where the votes weren't tallied and reported as a "victory or defeat" for one side or the other. I wrote recently about racism, and how the government unwittingly perpetuates by requiring we list our race on the official Census. The government is its own entity, its own personality. It doesn't see race the way we do; it doesn't recognize it at all. It recognizes only one type of American: the free one. Forcing the government to acknowledge another type, any other type, is wrong. That principle is just as true for partisanism as it is for racism.

I've posted twice before about George Washington's warning to the nation about what would happen if political parties were allowed to rise in this country. He said it would lead to deep divisions, to "revenge ... dissension ... [and a form of] frightful despotism" as the parties traded their time in power with each other. We shouldn't have a legislature divided. Some say division is good, calling it "competition" or "opposition". With 535 members, I think Congress has enough competition and opposition. And, as I said before, representatives and senators will seek out likeminded colleagues regardless of the official divisions. It shouldn't be official, though. Congress is a battleground; it shouldn't be. The only war our leaders should wage should be for the future of the country, and not for the future of their party.

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