Angry and frustrated, American voters went to the polls in November 2010 to “take back” their country. Just as they had done in 2008. And 2006. And repeatedly for decades, whether it was Republicans or Democrats from whom they were taking the country back. No matter who was put in charge, things didn’t get better. They won’t this time, either; spending levels may go down, taxes may go up, budgets will change, but American government will go on the way it has, not as a collective enterprise but as a battle between warring tribes.
If we are truly a democracy—if voters get to size up candidates for a public office and choose the one they want—why don’t the elections seem to change anything? Because we elect our leaders, and they then 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. When Democrat Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House, the leader of the lawmaking branch of government, she said her priority was to … elect more Democrats. After Republican victories in 2010, the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said his goal was to … prevent the Democratic president’s reelection. With the country at war and the economy in recession, our government leaders’ first thoughts have been of party advantage.
This is not an accident. Ours is a system focused not on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations. Party activists control access to the ballot through closed party primaries and conventions; partisan leaders design congressional districts. Once elected to Congress, our representatives are divided into warring camps. Partisans decide what bills to take up, what witnesses to hear, what amendments to allow.
Many Americans assume that’s just how democracy works, that this is how it’s always been, that it’s the system the Founders created. But what we have today is a far cry from what the Founders intended. George Washington and James Madison both warned of the dangers posed by political parties. Defenders of the party system argue that parties—including Madison’s own—arose almost immediately after the nation was founded. But those were not parties in the modern sense: they were factions uniting on a few major issues, not marching in lockstep on every issue, large and small. And while some defend the party system as a necessary provider of cues to voters who otherwise might not know how to vote, the Internet and mass media now make it possible for voters to educate themselves about candidates for office.
What we have today is not a legacy of 1789 but an outdated relic of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Progressives pushed for the adoption of primary elections. By 1916, all but a handful of states had instituted the “direct primary” system, under which a party candidate was selected by a public vote, rather than by party leaders in backroom deals. But the primaries, and the nominating conventions, were open only to party members. This reform was supposed to give citizens a bigger role in the election process. Instead, the influence of party leaders has been supplanted by that of a subset of party activists who are often highly ideological and largely uninterested in finding common ground. In Delaware in 2010, a mere 30,000 of that state’s nearly 1 million people kept Mike Castle, a popular congressman and former governor, off the general-election ballot. In Utah, 3,500 people meeting in a closed convention deprived the rest of the state’s 3 million residents of an opportunity to consider reelecting their longtime senator Robert Bennett. For most of the voters who go to the polls in November, the names on the ballot have been reduced to only those candidates the political parties will allow them to choose between. Americans demand a multiplicity of options in almost every other aspect of our lives. And yet we allow small bands of activists to limit our choices of people to represent us in making the nation’s laws.
I am not calling for a magical political “center”: many of the most important steps forward in our history have not come from the center at all, including women’s suffrage and the civil-rights movement, and even our founding rebellion against the British crown. Nor am I pleading for consensus: consensus is not possible in a diverse nation of 300 million people (compromise is the essential ingredient in legislative decision-making). And I’m not pushing for harmony: democracy depends on vigorous debate among competing views. The problem is not division but partisanship—advantage-seeking by private clubs whose central goal is to win political power. There are different ways to conduct elections and manage our government—and strengthen the democratic process. Here are some suggestions designed to turn our political system on its head, so that people, not parties, control our government.
Break the power of partisans to keep candidates off the general-election ballot.
State and local governments have abdicated their responsibility to oversee America’s election process. Not only have they turned the job over to political parties, but they take money from taxpayers to pay for these party functions. Because activists who demand loyalty and see compromising as selling out dominate party primaries and conventions, candidates who seek their permission to be on the November ballot find themselves under great pressure to take hard-line positions. This tendency toward rigidity—and the party system that enables it—is at the root of today’s political dysfunction.