Year after year, through nearly two decades and ten national elections, American voters have grown angrier and more frustrated with a government that they theoretically control. After all, they are citizens, not subjects, and they live in a democracy. The presidents and the members of Congress with whom they are so disappointed are the very men and women they themselves have chosen. Yet when national elections are held, these voters go to the polls and repeatedly cast their votes for "something different," for "change," for what golfers call a "mulligan," a do-over. A government that once met, and solved, enormous challenges, overcoming the inevitable disagreements between competing philosophies, no longer does so. Differences have hardened into polarization, and simple party identification has been overtaken by a rigid partisanship. Presidents, governors, and state legislators engage actively in partisan combat, but the Congress, where the problem is worst and the effects most damaging, has become utterly dysfunctional, unable to come together on almost any issue of national importance. There are many causes for this evolution, but at its root the problem is systemic. As I will show in these pages, we have been unable to overcome the effects of these changes because we conduct our elections, and our leaders attempt to govern, in a political system that makes common effort almost impossible to achieve.
Voters are resilient: like Charlie Brown, determined to kick his football knowing full well that Lucy will probably once again pull it away, they persist in trying to fix a government that seems to now be intractably, and dangerously, unable to come to agreement on almost anything. Some years voters hand power to Democrats and some years they elect Republicans; they try candidates who have long and impressive business or government resumes, or they may choose candidates who substitute youth, dynamism, or "new ideas" for the experience they lack. But whichever choice the voters make, our government no longer seems to work as it once did. One group of elected leaders may adopt policies that another group might not have enacted, federal spending may go up or down, taxes may rise or fall, and our national budget priorities may change, but beneath it all American government today functions not as a collective enterprise of citizens working together to solve our common problems, but as a never-ending battle between two warring tribes.
The damage is greatest in the Congress, which, with 435 members in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate, requires a degree of good faith cooperation and compromise that no longer exists. But it is also true in the White House where, no matter who is president, teams of legislative and political advisers map political strategies to attack opponents rather than seek common ground across party lines. And it is true as well among the governors and legislators in the states, with minority party members sometimes fleeing their states altogether to prevent legislative action because neither party is able or willing to hammer out necessary compromise. This is not a problem that can be laid at the feet of one political party or one set of public officials; it is the result of a fundamental flaw in the way we conduct our elections and in the way those who are elected must subsequently govern. That flaw — the attempt to govern a diverse nation with a system based on a partisan war for control — has grown steadily worse in recent decades. In the world of the twenty-first century, it has worsened to a degree that seriously threatens our system of self-government.
I first presented the argument I will make here in an annual "big ideas" issue of the Atlantic; it was the magazine's editors who gave that article the title "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans." Too often our elected leaders seem to think of themselves not as trustees for America's future but as members of a political club whose principal obligation is to defeat other Americans who do not share an allegiance to the same club. As a result, after every election we discover yet again that our political "leaders" don't lead; they quarrel, slinging verbal and legislative missiles at each other and threatening to punish any deserters who cross over to the other side. What we thought was a democratic government made up of leaders committed to the national good has turned into a new form of contact sport, an attempt to score more points than the other team by any means possible. Meanwhile, our bridges grow old and collapse, our banks and investment houses pursue policies that cripple our economy, and we become ever more dependent on Chinese money and Middle Eastern oil.
This persistent partisan dysfunction has been analyzed, dissected, hashed, and rehashed for more than a decade, and countless books, articles, blogs, and broadcasts have assessed blame and offered prescriptions. All of them are wrong. They blame the people we elect
("Where are all the leaders?") or the people who elect them (too apathetic, too profligate, too penurious), the money that is spent on political campaigns (which is, in fact, a significant part of the problem but not the root of it), the media, the appalling lack of civics education in our public and private primary and secondary schools and in our universities, and the failure to teach critical thinking. Each of those things is a contributing factor, but each one ignores the cancer at the heart of our democracy.
Most political commentators today (except those who themselves fuel the partisan wars) complain endlessly about the polarization that has become evident in the American political system, and there is considerable evidence that Americans have tended in recent years to sort themselves into communities of like-minded souls. Conservatives dominate some regions of the country, liberals others. In many cases, we and our friends tend to read the same opinion articles, vote similarly, and seldom engage in serious conversation with people whose political views differ from our own. But it is not this political segregation that is driving the dysfunction in Washington. For one thing, it is wrong to conclude that those politically segregated groups are necessarily extreme. Even a separateness that inhibits serious consideration of divergent viewpoints does not mean that the voters within these camps are mindlessly hostile to alternatives or compromise. As University of Chicago professor Geoffrey Stone has pointed out, 40 to 45 percent of Americans "are more or less moderate in their views." The nation's leading political pollster, Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, has made a similar point, noting that while both major parties contain significant numbers of philosophical hard-liners, the vast majority of voters are more moderate (and thus, one might suppose, amenable to compromises that might break through the partisan gridlock).
As Stone told the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011, "Understanding polarization requires a closer look at how Congress is constituted. In 1970, 47 percent of the members of the U.S. Senate were regarded as moderate. Today, that figure is 5 percent, and it is even lower in the House of Representatives. The decline of moderate views in Congress suggests a kind of dysfunction: a dramatic gap between the views and attitudes of the American people and the commonalities and differences that exist among our citizens, on the one hand, and what we wind up with in our elected representatives, on the other. Something is going wrong in our politics."
Precisely. The dysfunction that has almost paralyzed our federal government has its roots not in the people, not in any fundamental flaw in our constitutional processes, but in the political party framework through which our elected officials gain their offices and within which they govern.
It is not my goal, therefore, to take the easy path of simply blaming "polarization," the most common description of the problems that plague our political life. To the extent that to be polarized is to inhabit the extreme reaches of a viewpoint, it is clear that the greater the degree of polarization — the more voters there are on the far right and the far left — the harder it will be to come together in the national interest. Zealots do not compromise. But most experts agree with Kohut and Stone that while a number of Americans reside on the political fringe, a great many more do not. It should be relatively simple to say to those who do, "Howl at the moon if you wish ... but in the meantime the rest of us will govern the country." But if such a large voting population is amenable to a search for common ground, why is that common ground so hard to reach? It's because the problem is not the extent of polarization but the extent of partisanship, and the two are not the same thing. As I will argue in this book, it is the party system — Democrats against Republicans, not liberals against conservatives — that is at the heart of our political mess.
Consider the important issues with which the nation has grappled just since the beginning of the Obama presidency. When the Obama administration proposed to address deteriorating conditions in the economy by an infusion of federal spending, virtually no Democrats found the proposal unacceptable and virtually no Republicans found it acceptable. When Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts drafted a plan to increase oversight of financial institutions, Republicans were united on one side, Democrats on the other. Plans to reframe the government's role in health care pitted a solid phalanx of Republicans against an equally cohesive army of Democrats. Budget deliberations fell apart because Democrats were almost uniformly lined up in supporting higher tax rates for citizens who earn more than $250,000 annually per couple and Republicans were equally unified on the other side. The same thing happened with consideration of the president's nominations for seats on the Supreme Court. In a sane world, in which the men and women we elect to Congress apply their own research and intelligence to the important decisions that confront them, we would expect some number of Republicans to vote with Democrats and some Democrats to line up with Republicans. But on the big issues, the ones that matter most, solid blocs face other solid blocs, unmovable, unflinching in their loyalty to the party "team." And that is because of the framework within which our politics unfolds. As we will see, party leaders control important committee assignments, provide or withhold money for reelection campaigns, and advance or block team members' legislative priorities; in our political system, one often pays a significant price for exercising independent judgment.
This book is not about the symptoms of our dysfunction but about the system in which our government functions. A brief analogy: baseball teams that play in extraspacious stadiums, with great distances between home plate and the outfield walls, consciously develop strategies to accommodate that reality. They forgo trying to build teams that are dependent on home-run hitters and instead develop lineups made up of players who are adept at hitting singles and stealing bases; these teams also don't feel the need to find pitchers who are good at inducing opposing batters to hit ground balls because most fly balls are likely to remain in the ballpark. On the other hand, teams that play in smaller stadiums, where home runs are easier to hit, fill their lineups with power hitters; but because visiting teams likewise will find it easier to hit home runs, the small-stadium team will try to sign pitchers who are adept at inducing opposing batters to hit ground balls. In other words, the system within which one plays affects the outcome. That's true in politics, too. If the game of government rewards intransigence and punishes compromise, we shouldn't be surprised if we get a lot of intransigence and not much compromise. Incentives work: if the greatest incentives are to behave badly, we will get bad behavior. If our government continues to fail us — and it will — then we need to change the incentives, change the architecture of the field on which we play.
In the world of political science, many academics have argued that strong political parties, dominated by strong party leaders, are essential to democratic governance. As long ago as the 1950s, a number of prominent voices within the American Political Science Association were urging greater party homogeneity based on the belief that efficiency and accountability — the power to enact one's preferences and the corresponding ability of voters to know who to blame if things didn't work out — are the principal requirements of a governing system. This is, in fact, a transposition to America of European- style parliamentary systems, in which voters, in essence, elect ideologies, not representatives, and it is a convenient formula, subject to the easy measurements that the academic world requires. But it leaves little room for legislators to serve as the voice of those who have elected them (thus ignoring the Founders' clear intention that members of Congress be familiar with the interests of the voters they represent and that the voters likewise be familiar with the candidates who seek their votes). The parliamentary model leaves little room for the fair interplay of competing interests. In parliamentary systems, voters choose to hand great power to a single political faction, with the voters' only recourse being the periodic ability to remove that faction from power; the American model of representative democracy, which is very different, is designed to give voice to a multiplicity of factions and to allow for competing views to be weighed, often resulting in compromises designed to balance interests. It is precisely for that reason that the rigid partisanship which today inhibits compromise is so destructive.
In one sense the party solidarity that has developed in recent years differs from the model that many political scientists advocated: they equated party strength with strong party leaders who would dictate to their followers what was expected of them and use various carrot-and-stick tools to ensure compliance. Today's party strength is bottom-up: although during the Newt Gingrich Speakership — the one that most closely followed the blueprint the academics desired — the Speaker was a bully and called the shots, in today's Congress, considerably more power rests with the party caucus. Party leaders may or may not prevail in determining who will run under the party label; instead, party activists will make that decision. Many academics argue that parties today are weak, but that is because they equate "party" with "party leader." These are different things. Party leaders may be strong (Gingrich) or constrained (current Speaker John Boehner), but the ability of party primaries, party-controlled redistricting, and caucus-enforced party solidarity to shape the political landscape is indisputable.
What follows in this book is a different way of looking at things. It's about etiology, not observable effect. I will not shock anybody with my assertion that our political system is broken, at times seemingly beyond repair. That the system is annoyingly unresponsive to our frustrations, and that our leaders often seem unwilling to try very hard to address the nation's problems (and appear incapable of doing so even when they do try), seem self-evident. Political columnist Mary Curtis has written that the people want their representatives "to grow up ... they wish leaders would spend as much time figuring out how to solve the country's problems as they do plotting to be king of the playground." Except in times of national emergency — and not always then — common effort seems beyond us. The essentials of a pluralistic democracy — reasoned debate and a probing examination of policy options — have been replaced by unreasoned and uncivil squabbles.
In this book I intend to look at why the people we elect spend so much time "plotting to be king of the playground." It's not because they're stupid or uncaring — it's because of the field on which they play and the rules that govern the game. We have engendered a political system in which the necessary and inevitable "interest-based factions" the Founders anticipated, understood, and worried about have been supplanted by permanent factions whose primary focus is on gaining and retaining political power.
In the Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued for ratification of the Constitution largely on the grounds that it would provide a bulwark against the fractious spirit that had "tainted" the previous workings of government. He described the evil against which he hoped to inoculate the new government as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest" who would be adverse to "the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." It is a perfect description of the political parties that have come to dominate the politics of the twenty-first century.
It is my aim in this book to describe how to end the parties' control over the process by which we govern ourselves. My goal is not necessarily to create a more moderate or more centrist Congress, though that might be one of the end results of the reforms I propose, and this might actually be a more accurate reflection of the electorate. At the same time, changing our system to guarantee that neither women nor African-Americans would be denied the right to participate in the election process was not the work of centrists; it was a radical reform. So were the efforts to mandate that workers be paid a living wage. I am not proposing a system that would drive serious reform out of the discussion.
Nor is this book about increasing voter turnout, though that, too, might result from the reforms I propose. Professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University convincingly argues, with the support of considerable research, that among "engaged" voters — voters who pay attention and participate — those who prefer Republicans are farther to the right than they used to be, and those who favor Democrats are farther to the left than in the past. Abramowitz also finds that among those who are most engaged, more than half identify
strongly with a specific political party. Although he does not make this point, clearly it is those "engaged" voters who participate in our current system of closed party primaries; and if those primaries determine our available choices in the November elections, we will thus likely have more conservative, or more liberal, elected officials than if we can increase the number of choices available to the voters — and thereby make participation more attractive to voters who prefer neither extreme. That, not a mere increase in the number of voters, should be the goal.
Finally, I am not objecting to the fact that the Congress does not move more swiftly than it does nor that it does not pass more legislation. Peter Baker of the New York Times, referring to what he called a "standstill nation," wrote that "it's useful to remember that the founders devised the system to be difficult, dividing power between states and the federal government, then further dividing the federal government into three branches, then further dividing the legislative branch into two houses. The idea, James Madison wrote, was to keep factions from gaining too much power ... and to be sure, gridlock is in the eyes of the beholder ... one person's obstructionism is another's principled opposition." When a government is contemplating taking more from its citizens in taxes, or eliminating its support for the suffering, or sending its citizens to war, or permitting police to track a citizen's every movement without a search warrant or an assertion of "probable cause," moving too speedily or doing too much can pose a great danger; taking time for thoughtful deliberation is an indispensable virtue. Vigorous conflict over competing values, principles, and policies is a strength, not a weakness, of democracy. This book is not about avoiding dissent but about avoiding conflict that is based on party rather than principle.
My aim is to open up the process to give American voters more choice and more voice, and to eliminate the partisan forces that limit options and dilute representation. I wish to restore democracy to our democracy. That is not as hard a task as it may seem: a few simple changes are all that's required. In these pages I will describe what those changes are and how to make them happen.
Author's original footnotes have been omitted from this excerpt.
Excerpted from The Parties Versus the People by Mickey Edwards. Copyright 2012 by Mickey Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.