What’s the matter with our so-called political leaders?
As we sit on the sidelines and wait for Washington to find a compromise to skirt default, we see more and more evidence that voters are fed up with the two-party system, and Republicans and Democrats are out of touch with constituents.
Here in Arizona, voters who registered without a party affiliation outnumber Democrats and are within reach of Republicans. And yet here and across the country, we see an increase in partisanship as more and more politicians distance themselves from the middle and coalesce to the extremes.
This is a puzzling turn of events considering the common knowledge that elections are won or lost by the sway of Independents. And yet the rise of the Tea Party, a group of ultra conservatives who find compromise unacceptable, demonstrates the power of a minority to control the direction of policies.
In some ways it’s not surprising that politicians choose to remain captives of the party bosses. GOP and DNC operatives are the gatekeepers to the financial means necessary to win elections. This is America after all, and elections are anything but free.
But as more Americans shun political parties, we end up with less representation of the middle ground and less representation of the majority of Americans. The parties cater to the base, which becomes more removed from moderate views and more focused on the small factions of Americans with the biggest and loudest voices. This in turn leads to the disenfranchisement of large portions of the population and the current divisiveness and incivility that has become commonplace in Washington and in state capitols around the country.
Some journalists and policy wonks point to this dysfunction as a good example of why a two-party system works. They say we’re having an important argument over the future of America, what we choose to spend our dollars on and how much deficit we wish to handle. And while I agree that debating differing viewpoints is healthy and indeed key for a democracy, I also see that the debate isn’t leading to solutions.
It’s one thing to have different views on public policy but quite another to insist one stance is the absolute and only stance worth considering. This results in stalemates and posturing and politicians more concerned about doing what’s in the best interest of the party versus the best interest of the electorate.
Compromise isn’t a dirty word, and the American people know it. We are demanding cooperation even as the party extremists are refusing it. No one has all the answers, and refusing to work together, walking away from discussions, and signing party pledges that do not allow for negotiation is counter to what we need for an effective democracy.
When the job of getting reelected or of gaining additional members of one’s party takes precedence over governing the here and now and the desire to tackle problems, we know the current system is failing. When complex problems such as deficits, tax reform, entitlement reform, immigration reform and others are continually skirted, we know Congress is broken and our nation is in trouble.
Great leaders, starting with our very first President, George Washington, warned of the dangers of political parties in creating divisiveness and harming the fabric of liberty. He addressed his fear of the rise of political parties in his Farewell Address in 1796, noting that the party spirit, “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.”
More than 200 years later, this country is a living example of the dangers Washington warned against and the “frightful despotism” that has ensued. Now, more than ever before, moderates need to gather their numbers and demand a voice at the table. Instead of working to strengthen parties, we should be working to end them. Instead of identifying as Republicans or Democrats, we should be identifying ourselves as Americans.
We may not be in danger of becoming the next failed Roman Empire, but our inability to govern effectively in times of crisis certainly points to our vulnerability as a world leader. If we cannot find ways to work together for the good of the country and continue to elect and promote politicians who choose party over people and ego over compromise, then George Washington’s dire predictions will certainly come true, and the America our Founding Fathers envisioned will become nothing more than a failed dream.