The founders of the American Republic rejected Parliamentary style democratic government in favor of the uniquely American construct precisely for the purpose of avoiding the emergence of strong ideologically based political parties.
Political parties, they believed, promoted factionalism and undermined the ability to foster broader community values. The evolution of the so-called “two party” system, while not what they had in mind, at least forced political factions into the kind of broad coalitions necessary to be competitive.
Political parties rose, evolved and disappeared as the political class adapted to changes in the American society, culture and economy. At the core of this process was the absorption of new populist movements as both parties responded to the competitive pressure created by the possible emergence of a third party.
The turn of the Twentieth Century produced Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, the last of the serious challenges to the institutionalized Democrats and Republicans. This is because the two parties, acting often in concert, have acted throughout the Century to subvert external political competition. Party Central Committees, partisan special interests, and courts overseen by party-appointed judges have steadily reframed election law in such a way that the failure to affiliate with one of the two institutionalized political parties subverts an individual’s ability to have meaningful participation in the political process.
This consolidation of power has accelerated rapidly over the past 75 years. Even the mainstream media have reorganized around the duopoly and accepted the notion that a virtual pre-requisite for full voter participation is party affiliation.
I am not suggesting that political parties should not and do not serve an important roll in organizing, promoting, unifying political sentiment. Rather, my position is that control over the electoral process should derive from the wills of individual voters, not party central committees. In other words, I am suggesting that parties should be able to influence outcomes through advocacy rather than manipulation.
It’s no secret that the average American is fed up with Washington, DC and the state of our political dialogue. As evidenced by Congressional approval ratings at an all-time low, hovering around 10%, the representative government we have built in this country has slowly drifted away from the very democratic principles we champion all over the world.
Angst among the electorate has surfaced most dramatically in the form of ‘Tea Parties’ and ‘Occupations,’ generally considered “right-wing” and “left-wing” ideological movements. In each of these cases, the movements were quickly absorbed and exploited by the partisan factions for their own political agenda. Regardless, there is a common grievance that defines not only these two groups, but the electorate as a whole.
Ironically, our political process now serves to amplify rather than temper the extremes. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what the framers of the Constitution sought to accomplish.
In fact, while Jefferson and Hamilton agreed on little, they would both be horrified to discover a Congress in which every resource of the institution is distributed through a binary partisan structure. It is a death of a thousand cuts.
Our lawmakers, their judicial appointees, and the often strident special interest groups behind them have reinforced the power of the left and the right by rewriting election laws state-by-state, concentrating power in the Parties themselves. Unthreatened by the possibility of either an “independent” or a third party threat, those who control the apparatus of each Party are free to ignore the kinds of change in the broader society that previously influenced the evolution of the political parties themselves. Election rules, gerrymandering, campaign finance regulations, and ballot restrictions have created two “sides” of the political spectrum that only exist because the two parties have entrenched themselves by forcing the electorate to divide itself into two increasingly color coded teams.
Naturally, as the two parties have become more and more secure in their institutionalized status they have also become less responsive to calls for change. The result of this intellectual ossification: a dangerous disregard for the very purpose of representative government itself. The political “game” has been disconnected from the governmental purpose to reconcile differences through, often temporary, compromises of strongly divergent views.
Instead, the purpose of the political game is simply to win. Winning means more political jobs for your team. Losing means fewer and lesser jobs for team members and a redoubling of efforts to reframe the public dialogue in an effort to “win” in the next election that is always around the corner.
The changes in our society, driven by technology, over the past twenty years have produced a massive gap between our culture as a whole and our political culture. Ultimately, the political culture must adapt to survive. The two parties are firmly in control and the rules of the game are firmly stacked in their favor. However, the early signs of cracks in their armor are beginning to appear. These cracks have their roots in the manner in which the broader society accesses and shares information.
In California, over 3.6 million of 17 million registered voters have no party preference (“Independents”). In California, these voters were formally known as “Decline-to-State” or “DTS” voters. In all, voters who have declared no preference for any political party now comprise over 21% of all registered voters in California. Further, in 2012, independents will outnumber one of the major parties in 12 of the 53 Congressional districts, 10 of the 40 Senatorial districts, and 22 of the 80 Assembly districts.
Minority and younger voters have been a large part of this growth. Between 1978 and 2009, Latino Independent voters increased from 5% to 21% of all Independent registrations, and Asian or “other” voters increased from 5% to 16%. Additionally, while California’s black population has not been increasing in number, black and “other” minority voters are more likely to register as Independent than Republican. Younger voters are also more likely to register as Independent than older voters. Approximately 25% of all registered Independent voters fall in the 18-to-29 age group, and 60% of all Independent voters are under age 50.
Yet even as California’s electorate increasingly rejects party affiliation, the two major parties continue to dominate National and State-level politics. Currently, Democratic or Republican Party members hold all but one of California’s partisan offices. The only independent, Assemblyman Juan Arambula, was elected as a Democrat and subsequently cut ties with the Democratic Party and re-registered as an independent. Since 1990, independent candidates have appeared on the ballot in less than 0.5% of all races, and only two independent candidates have been elected to office, one of whom was a party incumbent.
But, as the American voters become increasingly dissatisfied with their partisan representatives, non-partisan electoral reforms passed in states like California have the potential to revolutionize the way we elect our representatives and broadened the voters to whom they are accountable.