Paul Pillar

Liberate Us from the Parties

Mickey Edwards, the former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, has in the current Atlantic a worthy set of recommendations to try to reduce the paralyzing partisan gridlock that infects American politics as a whole but especially the work of Congress. The posturing and bitterness over deficit reduction is only the most recent example. As Edwards puts it, our leaders have to try to govern “in a system that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable, a system in which the campaign season never ends and the struggle for party advantage trumps all other considerations.”

It is a system in which political parties have become too entrenched and too much a part of the institutional framework. In brief, they have become too powerful. The freedom to form and to join political parties and to use them as vehicles for aggregating, articulating and pursuing competing interests is unquestionably a major element of representative democracy. But in any list of what is dysfunctional in American democracy today, the most prominent entries would involve competition between, identification with and loyalty toward the major political parties.

Edwards reminds us of the Founding Fathers' antipathy toward parties and factions. He attributes the start of the growth of all-powerful parties to the introduction of closed primaries (and closed conventions) as means for choosing candidates. As Fareed Zakaria points out in a piece that also endorses Edwards's ideas, the evolution of American parties from their former more diverse, big-tent character to more ideologically pure entities—making them more like European parties—is what some political scientists hoped would happen. But the result is “abysmal,” says Zakaria, because unlike the parliamentary systems in which many of those European parties compete and enact their agendas before being judged again by the voters, the American system involves overlapping authorities of different institutions where nothing can get done unless the parties cooperate.

I believe there is another relevant difference from most of the European political systems that helps to explain not only the partisan impasses in the United States but also the bitterness and incivility that often goes with them. In countries with more deeply rooted class consciousness than America, even ideological purity does not keep partisans from accepting those in different parties with different viewpoints as legitimate parts of the political order, who are doing an able job of representing different interests. A person on the right looks at a political opponent on the left and does not see someone who is necessarily misguided or wrong, let alone evil, but rather as someone who is simply representing a different segment of society and a different set of interests. In America, where the sense of class and segmented society is weaker, opponents in the other party are more often seen as misguided and wrong, and maybe even evil. As the columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly observed, this outlook is especially to be found today within the Republican Party, some members of which regard Barack Obama's presence in the White House as somehow not entirely legitimate or entirely American. And that outlook leads to giving higher priority to the fortunes of the party than to the broader national interest.

Edwards's two biggest recommendations are to take the selection of general election candidates out of the hands of party members alone (such as through primaries that select the two top vote-getters without regard to party affiliation), and to attack gerrymandering by having nonpartisan commissions draw Congressional district boundaries. He also has some lesser recommendations involving procedures within Congress. The destructive partisan attitudes that are so much in evidence today are too deeply rooted to be eliminated quickly through procedural reforms, but implementation of Edwards's ideas would go a long way toward making the American political system more effective.