In today’s America, an elected senator can’t even describe his political opponents as nice people without being hounded by those wanting to sacrifice him on the partisan alter. Disenchantment with both political parties is sky high. Government has become dysfunctional: at war with itself, fueled by 30-second news clips and reflexive loyalty or hatred based on the “D” or “R” attached to one’s name.
Several of the Founding Fathers warned about this exact political environment, viewing it as an evil that could threaten the life of the republic. We’ve become so accustomed to this cage-match mentality that it seems we fail to recognize its severity or how much better the country could be without a two-party system. Politicians and voters have talked about the need for bipartisanship so government can run efficiently for years — by now we should recognize it will not happen. If Americans still have faith in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, they should break out of this intellectual and political jail cell by supporting and running as independents.
George Washington warned about “the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” calling it “truly their [Americans] worst enemy.” John Adams used especially prescient language, saying: “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures into opposition to each other. This … is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Washington was so concerned about political parties that he devoted a major part of his Farewell Address to fighting against them. He cautioned that these parties are organized factions who seek to use the government to enact their agenda, “rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.” These parties, he predicted, would attract “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” who will then end up “destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
He wasn’t talking just about the country dividing as later happened during the Civil War, but the actual conduct of politics — the politics of personal destruction and the politics of policy-wrecking instead of policy-making.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension … is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism,” Washington said.
James Madison had similar thoughts, spending a great deal of time warning about factionalism. In Federalist Paper No. 10, he warns of a future where factionalism “inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” If anything has come to define our current two-party system, this is it.
Washington was especially worried about parties being founded on “geographical discriminations.” Today’s parties aren’t founded upon geography, but geography defines them. There are clear blue and red states and relatively few swing states that decide the fate of the country. It is rare when one party actually challenges the monopoly the other has on states it basically owns.
Finally, Madison foresaw that this factionalism would result in a fight over income redistribution. He actually predicted class warfare. “Every shilling with which they [the victor] overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved for their own pockets,” he said. Whether you view the Democrats as confiscating money from the wealthy to give to the poor or the Republicans as catering to the rich, this is the exact scenario Madison feared. Loyalty to political parties is often not based on who will improve the economy as a whole, but as a way of widening personal wallets without any regard for the greater dynamics at play.
The Founding Fathers would react today by fighting tooth and nail for every “D” and “R” in Congress to be replaced with an “I.” Skeptics will say it is impossible to break out of the two-party system. With the exception of Washington, the Fathers took part in political parties while vigorously warning about their potential consequences. Seeing these concerns actualized today, they likely would remain unaffiliated. In fact, they made it clear that Americans should try to resist joining political parties.
“If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all,” Thomas Jefferson once said. Washington said “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
He conceded that parties can act as checks and balances, and their existence is preferable under some governments like monarchies, but he had higher hopes and expectations for the United States. He said “the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it,” describing parties as a fire that requires “uniform vigilance” to not end up “bursting into a flame” that “consume[s]” the nation.
The Fathers believed that political parties should be avoided altogether, or at least restrained. Rejection of party affiliation is to be rewarded in the eyes of the public, not ridiculed or dismissed. Those in the party apparatuses may not realize it yet, but the ingredients exist for independents to dominate the scene.
The number of unaffiliated voters is at its highest level in 70 years. The Pew Research Center put together an average of surveys from 2009 and found that independents are the largest political bloc, with 36% of the population describing themselves as such. The Democrats came in second with 35%, and the Republicans had 23%.
In addition, there is the pride factor. Party affiliation has become part of our identity, creating an emotional attachment. Losses or victories are taken personally, and disagreement is often taken as an attack on one’s very being. This psychology makes it difficult for a Democrat or Republican to swallow their pride and vote for their rival, but voting for an independent might be a more realistic possibility.
This herd thinking can be combated by independent candidacies, as voters will have to actually research who they are voting for, educating themselves in the process. Partisan gridlocks in Congress will be weakened, as officials won’t have to worry as much about offending their bases and can respond to the will of the people rather than the party apparatus.
The ingredients and imperative exist for viable independent candidacies to take off around the country. The grassroots activity of the tea partiers, regardless of what you think of them personally, proves this is the case. The relative success of people like Joe Lieberman, Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Ron Paul, and those that are involved in the tea party movement shows the longing for this exists.
Giving political independents a strong voice in all levels of government may sound like wishful thinking based more in hope and grandiose goals than reality. The Founding Fathers didn’t think so. Washington called for Americans to actively “discourage and restrain” political parties. It’s about time we followed his call.