I am not much energized by the partisan and polarized politics plaguing and poisoning the public discourse in America (that is my alliterative analysis, I know some would say what we observe is democracy at work). I keep wondering if there is some kind of change that can be made to the system to make it more effective in solving America’s problems. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it all, but I found Mickey Edwards The Parties Vs. The People to be an interesting read because it offers some ideas for changing the way we do things.
Mickey Edwards is a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma (he is a former congressman, he is I think still a Republican). The subtitle of his book, How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, tells us his theme. Edwards too has found partisanship and polarization to have moved to an unhealthy level in our country. He has set out in this book to address what he sees as a leading cause of the problem with American politics: the two major political parties (two private clubs or organizations is how Edwards characterizes them) have too much power in America. His book title suggests the Democrat and Republican Parties (two private organizations) are taking away the constitutionally guaranteed power of the people by creating a system in which only the two Parties have all the power. The parties run (and rig) the elections and run both houses of congress as well.
“Ours is a system that has become focused not on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations.” (Kindle 365-66)
As Edwards sees it politicians have forgotten their loyalty is to the United States of America and instead have replaced this with a loyalty to a political party. When congressmen and women take office, they swear an allegiance to uphold the Constitution.
“The oath of office requires loyalty to the Constitution—not to the president, to a political party, or to any outside organization demanding fealty. No man or woman should enter Congress with divided loyalties. It is time for every candidate to refuse to sign any pledge, or take any oath, other than to ‘fully discharge the duties upon which they are about to enter. So help me God.’” (Kindle Loc. 2282-85)
Edwards says those driving partisan politics in America demand their candidates to swear allegiance to the party’s platform (for example, those who are forced to take Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes). Edwards sees this as compromising the congressman making them incapable of governing in a democracy because their loyalty is first to their political party and only secondly to America as a nation.
Litmus tests of loyalty are regularly administered to congressional candidates to pressure them to remain 100% loyal to the party or the president or some outside organization. This is a conflict of interest in Edward’s view. Those elected to congress are there to serve the public interest not their party’s interest. Thus Edwards is working to change Republicans and Democrats into Americans. The polarized, partisan politics are not serving our nation well. But the parties have become institutionalized and exist now to preserve their power.
“We Americans believe in choice. In almost every facet of our lives, from soups to soaps to stereos, we expect, and demand, multiple options. How strange it is that in the area that counts far more than any of these and that determines how much we will pay in taxes, what government services we will receive, and even whether our sons or daughters or husbands or wives or brothers or sisters will be sent off to fight and possibly die on a foreign battlefield, we allow two private organizations whose principal goal is the gaining and keeping of power (Republican and Democratic party leaders generally support their club’s nominees, almost regardless of their political beliefs) to tell us that on election day we are allowed to choose between only the two people they have told us we must choose between.” (Kindle Loc. 760-65)
The two politic parties have taken control of American politics and thus of the American government. Party control of politics is not what the founding fathers wished for our nation.
“But the government is working just as we’ve designed it to work, not for debate and deliberation but as a vehicle for partisan advantage-seeking. It takes no genius to understand why things are the way they are: we have created a political system that rewards intransigence. Democracy requires divergence and honors dissent, but what we have today is not mere divergence and does not deserve the label “dissent”; it’s a nasty battle for dominance, and it’s often the dominance not of an idea or a great principle but of a private club that demands undeviating fealty.” (Kindle Loc. 2463-67)
Edwards works with organizations trying to change the lock the two parties have on American government.
“But here’s the thing: the leaders of those clubs will not voluntarily surrender the enormous power we have allowed them to accumulate. They can draw congressional districts to suit themselves, they can keep potential candidates off the ballot, and they can tell elected members of Congress that their views don’t matter. In what way, exactly, does this resemble “democracy”? Do the holders of such powers ever willingly relinquish them? So egregious is the hold parties have over our election and governing systems that when they execute their closed primaries to choose their preferred candidates (and to keep others off the ballot), it is we, through our tax dollars, who pay for them to limit our choices.” (Kindle Loc. 2491-96)’
Edwards’ book is not merely descriptive, it is a call to Americans to take their government back from the hands of political parties and professionals.
“It is time to break free of the power these private clubs exercise over us and to tell them that they can no longer be in charge of drawing congressional district lines; that they can no longer keep potential candidates off the ballot just because they haven’t been blessed by party activists; that they must allow divergent ideas to be debated and voted upon; and that they must pay for their own club events. We need that money for our schools and roads and health care expenses.” (Kindle Loc. 2498-2501)
Edwards does not oppose political parties and continues to belong to one. His criticism is that the two major political parties have taken over our system and reshaped it to maintain their party’s power. Edwards says the Founding Fathers didn’t create the two party system nor was our democracy designed to operate effectively with two adversarial powers who each want to maintain their power.