During George Washington’s farewell address, given in 1796, our greatest president spoke of the potential dangers inherent in factioning ourselves into political parties.
Speaking on the spirit of political parties,
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.
Washington had the foresight to realize the disastrous nature of political parties. Their tendencies to breed corruption, to alter our priorities, to put the party above the people or the nation, as well as their ability to generate hatred and disunity.
Washington was even able to foresee the eventual stratification by region, a significant cause of the Civil War in the past, and a present cause of our red/blue states, flyover states and the divide between rural populations and urban.
In contemplating the causes which may disturb our union it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations–Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western–whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You can not shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection….
Despite these dyer warnings we still chose to divide ourselves into political parties. At first it was Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party (often referred to now as the Democratic-Republican Party). The party system has evolved over time to our present system of Democrat Part and the Republican Party.
However, this is not how it must be. There is nothing in the Constitution mandating political parties. As mentioned previously, George Washington was adamantly opposed. Even in modern times, the Nebraskan state legislature is nonpartisan. Many local governments are nonpartisan. We do not need political parties for our government to function.
Despite the lack of mandate for political parties within the Constitution, our winner-takes-all system of representation creates a large incentive for the use and organization of political parties. Game theory and human behavior cement our two party system. Regardless of our desires to vote for a third party or an independent, we worry about “wasting our vote.” Instead of voting for the candidate that we want, we vote against the candidate we like least by voting within the two party system.
Though we are often tempted to scrap the whole system and try something else that may be less partisan in theory, or at least include more than two parties, there are ways to minimize political parties within the confines of our present system and requiring not one change or amendment to the Constitution.
Despite the temptation, we cannot ban political parties, the First Amendment prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, …or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” We have freedom of association, that association includes assembling based on political beliefs into parties. Political parties may be dangerous and cancerous, but it would be far worst to start suspending basic rights in an attempt to rid ourselves of them.
While we can do nothing legally to restrict political parties, we do not need to have the government support them.
I was horrified to discover upon voting this past November, that my district used voting machines that allowed a with the push of a button, a vote to be cast for every office for just one political party. We do not even need to know who we are voting for, we can just use a button to vote the party ticket completely blind.
There is no reason that our government should be enforcing the two party system by creating such a large incentive for lazy and/or ignorant voters to cast their vote with only a party label to guide them. There should be no button to buttress the two-party system.
We can take this idea one step further, remove all party affiliations from ballots and order candidates names either alphabetically, or even better, random. Thus each voter would have to know who they are actually voting for, rather just voting the party.
There are still further steps that we can take to diminish the power and influence of political parties. While I am not a fan of campaign finance laws, if we are going to have them, then lets remove the special privileges granted to political parties. Instead we can treat political parties as any other organization and hold them to the exact same financial constraints.
The government can also remove its role in party primaries. The political parties can schedule their own votes and find and pay for their own polling places. Government on all levels will no longer contribute anything out of the ordinary for the masturbatory events that are the party conventions.
Televised debates will no longer be monopolized by the two main parties. Since our airwaves are public, and the broadcast of the debate is a public service, the debates will be open to any candidate whose name appears on enough state ballots to mathematically capture the electoral vote in a beast case scenario.
This is a good cut-off line because it will include almost all of the serious candidates, while excluding the extremely fringe candidates who could not even win the election anyway. Increased participation of candidates in the national debate is a win-win scenario for the American people. Increased exposure to alternative candidates will increase the chances that people will find a candidate that they actually support, rather that just the lesser of two evils. While the Republican and Democrat candidates will be forced to give real answers. Ambiguous answers that parrot the party-line talking point will no longer cut it, since they will be faced with debating candidates from all ends of the political spectrum.
Finally, Congress will no longer be organized systemically along party lines. Committee chairs will not automatically be granted to the majority party. If there is a majority party can they still select themselves as chairs? Certainly, but there only need be a few independent or third party members to throw out the idea of majority party, placing each party in the minority and in the position of needing to compromise.
No, we cannot completely rid ourselves of the two-party system without drastic changes. But we can eliminate some of the stranglehold that the elephants and donkeys have over America. We can reduce their influence.
We may never have a third party on equal footing with the Democrats and Republicans, but third parties can matter. Independent candidates can make a difference. States don’t have to be just red or blue or some shade of purple.