Gordon L. Anderson, Past President, LEA Minnesota (2007-2011), owner of Integral Society blog. (The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the members of LEA)
Today political parties have become the vehicles of political power for special and moneyed interests, displacing a consensus of the governed. They have subverted processes of legislation through pork, omnibus legislation, and negotiations between party leadership and government officials. The legislators, once elected, usually become accountable to their party leadership and vote in partisan blocks, rubber-stamping party-negotiated legislation without meaningful citizen feedback.
In drafting the Constitution, the US Founders worked hard to prevent moneyed interests from gaining control of the government. They did this through sets of checks and balances on the process of legislation designed to only produce laws that reflected both a consensus of the people in the House of Representatives and a consensus of the States in the Senate.1The original Constitution directed the states to appoint two Senators each to represent them. In this way, both the interests of the states and the expertise of their seasoned experts in governance had to agree with something the people desired. This arrangement was abolished by the 17th Amendment, which removed this check, by having citizens vote for senators. This removed the representation of the states in their own federation and allowed political parties that vied for citizen allegiance to escape a check on the tribalism they produced by seasoned Senators representing State interests. But the Founders failed to check the power of political parties as vehicles for moneyed and special interests to usurp power.
In his 1796 Farewell Address, composed with the help of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, George Washington lamented that the Constitution did not constrain the power of political parties:
All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.George Washington, Farewell Address.
Citizen Consciousness vs. Partisan Interests
Unfortunately for present-day Americans, the Founder’s fears of how parties could acquire “unjust dominion” have now come true. The US republican form of democracy required a majority to have a moral citizen-consciousness at least at the level described in Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” in which you are minimally required to act in ways that do not harm others.2Encyclopedia Britannica, “Categorial Imperative.” “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end and never as only a means.” This imperative does not go as far as the “Golden Rule,” advising we should serve others, but it reflects a respect for the rights of others that political parties do not have.
Ben Franklin argued that parents and religious leaders would have to provide the spiritual nourishment required to “keep the Republic.”3One story has Benjamin Franklin telling a woman, “we have given you a Republic if you can keep it.” Franklin also reportedly told his daughter that she needed spiritual nourishment every week, but she could attend any church or synagogue, believing this would provide the necessary moral values of citizenship. The religions of the day advocated personal responsibility. It follows that if people cannot manage themselves, they will not be able to manage a collective enterprise like a government. Those at lower levels of moral development, who cannot manage themselves, will try to use governments and other social institutions for personal benefit.
Political parties are organizations motivated by interests, not morals. Like gangs and feudal lords, they will use strategic thinking and force to obtain their own ends, regardless of the cost to others or the society as a whole. They do not view others as “ends in themselves.” Political parties, like some religions, want to impose their views and doctrines on others and will go to extremes to bend laws and constitutional processes to get their way.
The Broken Process
Vigilant citizens have little impact on today’s legislation, which is drafted almost entirely by elites with conflicts of interest: party leadership and administrative officials. One of the most succinct descriptions of the partisan process was described by William Graham Sumner in an 1883 lecture titled The Forgotten Man, where A and B get together and decide what C will do for D:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X… What I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. he is the man who never is thought of…. I call him the forgotten man… He works, he votes, generally, he prays—but he always pays…”4William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays. Edited by Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918.)
“D” is the welfare recipient, the pharmaceutical company, or some other concern, “A” and “B” are political parties engaged in “across the aisle” legislation. “C” is the responsible taxpaying citizen who is left out of the legislative process, but pays for it all. That is not democracy, but a government of, by, and for elite interests to the exclusion of the citizens. The political parties have become the vehicle for these interests through the power they have usurped, the checks and balances they have circumvented, and the legally corrupt legislative processes they have invented.
Improving the Process
An improved First Amendment to the US Constitution would be to forbid the establishment by the government not just of religion, but any group and its interests, including political parties. The establishment clause of the First Amendment was intended to prevent any religion from becoming the official religion. This would prevent government funding of religion, the government imposing its laws, like sharia law, and government power used to censor or prosecute heretics. At the founding, religions were the primary identity groups in America, and the First Amendment guaranteed their freedom to exist but forbade any from unfair control over others. However, after the founding, political parties and other groups with vested interests quickly arose to exert pressure on legislators. Through association in a group, they would supplant the political power of individual citizens. Political parties said they were not religions, but a political ideology underpinning a party is, for all practical purposes, no different than a set of doctrines underpinning a religion. The “establishment” of a political party has a similar effect on a government as the establishment of religion.
The interest of any group is unlikely to represent “a consensus of the governed,” and if it did represent a consensus of the governed, there would be no need to subvert the legislative process put into place by the founders. Washington’s Farewell Address presented a major systemic problem the Constitution did not anticipate. To fix this problem, the First Amendment should treat all associations and groups as religious groups. Here is how I think it could have been written to prevent the establishment of political parties, corporations, non-profits, and other political pressure groups:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, political party, corporation, non-profit organization or other assembly of people, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment cannot be easily changed, but laws can be passed, both federally and within states, that will allow citizens to reclaim their governments from moneyed interests and political pressure groups. Because most political pressure groups use political parties to subvert the government, some specific laws could be passed to check the ways they hijack the governance process.
The most important item is to remove party names from ballots. Currently, most citizens vote for political parties, not their representatives. In principle, putting a “D” or “R” on a ballot is no different than putting“Catholic,” “Muslim,” or “Jew.” Voters will vote based on group identity rather than exercising the responsibility of democratic citizenship. Group labels on ballots encourage citizens to make a political party their proxy, abdicating their own role as a citizen-voter. Party names on ballots also give political parties unjust control over legislators. Parties will endorse candidates who, when elected, will be pressed to vote the party position on bills. The party position will represent lobby group interests and big money, and seldom the interest of the citizen. Representatives who vote against the party line will not likely get the party endorsement for the next election.
It is often argued that it is easier to vote for a party than a representative. The voter won’t have to take time to research candidates and just vote for a party choice. But that is against the whole concept of democracy. This process has caused more voters to become independent, without leaving them a satisfactory candidate on the ballot. It is more democratic for voters to be ignorant, leading to random guesses on ballots, than to vote for parties. Those random guesses will cancel each other out, while the citizens who researched the candidates will make intelligent choices. The voting result will more closely represent the will of the people than voting for parties controlled by other interests. Voting for candidates, rather than parties, will hold candidates accountable to their citizens rather than the party when the next election comes.
A second way to remove the unjust influence of political parties over legislation is single-subject legislation. For years, the LEA has explained the problem with omnibus legislation, where party leadership, government officials, and lobbyists produce huge bills on multiple subjects, most of which would not be approved by “a consensus of the governed.” Citizens are unable to hold their representatives accountable for how they vote on individual topics in such pork-filled legislation. Nor can they use their legislators to hold the ever-expanding state bureaucracy in check, when that bureaucracy has a major hand in shaping legislation in collusion with party leadership.
Term limits and financial contributions to political parties are secondary concerns. Handing legislative power back to citizens who can hold their representatives accountable will give the parties less ability to manipulate legislators or effectively spend lobbying money on legislation in the first place.
In conclusion, political parties have become “established” in government in several ways that remove governing power from the people and their representatives. They are conduits for legislation for financial interests, government agencies, and other groups, usurping power and money from citizens. Today we have a “government of the parties” and not a government of the people. The US Founders warned about this in 1796 and their fears have come true. While we cannot easily change the First Amendment to fix this problem, there are two relatively straightforward changes that could be done to return legislative power to citizens. The first is to remove political party names from ballots, and the second is to demand single-subject legislation.