Should We Retire Our Political Parties?

Do political parties muddy the political discussion?

Posted Aug 06, 2020

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In September of 1796, toward the end of his second term in office, President George Washington delivered his farewell address to the nation. He took the occasion to warn his fellow citizens of dangers he felt could threaten, or destroy, the country. 

There were two that particularly concerned him. One was the danger of becoming entangled in foreign wars. The other was the polarization that results from extreme partisanship.

And today, a little over 200 years later, Washington’s worst fears have been realized. We are living in an era defined by its virulent partisanship. 

How did we get this way and what can we do about it?

One of the factors creating our current impasse is “ideological creep.” For much of the last century, both parties in Congress represented a wide range of ideological positions, a continuum, with many on each side quite moderate and centrist. There was a significant overlap between the parties.

But things have changed. In its study of the roll call voting record of the 111th Congress (Jan. 3, 2009—Jan. 3 2011), for both House and Senate, the National Journal found that there was no longer any overlap between the two parties. Zero! 

For the first time in modern history, both political parties were completely separate.

Why?

One of the big factors was the ascendency of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was a history professor in a small Georgia college, who had twice run unsuccessfully for the House. But on his third try in 1978, he was finally elected. 

And he arrived at the House with a burning mission.

The House had long been in the hands of the Democrats, but Gingrich was determined to change it to a Republican majority. By whatever means necessary.

He found his signature strategy very soon after his arrival at the House. He made an in-depth study of the ways the media covered news about the House. And he took special note of the public response to any particular news item.

What he discovered was that the media love a fight. If a congressional speech or hearing involves intemperate language, insults, or a confrontation, it becomes a “hot” news item. People get excited. Viewership goes up.

Just before the midterm election of 1994, Gingrich scurried around the country drumming up interest for Republican candidates to challenge incumbent Democrats.

In their excellent book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, longtime political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein describe the tactics Gingrich used. He provided candidates with speeches, themes, and language focused on discrediting Democrat incumbents.

In addition, Gingrich offered a list of words that he encouraged his candidates to use against the Democratic enemy: "betray, bizarre, decay, anti-flag, anti-family, pathetic, lie, cheat, sick, and traitors.”

Gingrich and his cohort viewed their opposition not as collegial rivals, but as “the enemy.” 

Gingrich’s strategy seemed to be a giant success. The Republicans achieved huge gains, 42 Republican seats, and their first Republican majority in 40 years. And Gingrich was elevated to the role of speaker of the House.

But it was an expensive victory. It squandered goodwill in Congress and sent it down a dark negative spiral from which it still hasn’t recovered, 20 years later.

What can we do? Here are four strategies we could all follow to help reclaim our country:

Stop Identifying Yourself as a Democrat or Republican. (Or Liberal or Conservative.) These are four of the most radioactive terms in our language. If you identify as a Democrat or Republican, you’re automatically placing a target on your back which half the country is aiming at. (You may also be telling people on the other side that you’re not interested or willing to listen to them, or treat them respectfully.)

Instead of identifying yourself by political party, define yourself by the best and most idealistic goals you hoped your (previous) party might achieve. Like achieving racial justice! Not as a political issue, but as a moral imperative. And don’t be afraid to explore moral issues that members of the opposite side hope to achieve. Honor them.

Stepping outside the narrow, toxic confines of partisan politics can be wonderfully freeing and clarifying!

Monitor your thoughts. You are what you think. Thought is generative. You are creating your next self by your current thinking. Guard your thoughts closely and change them when you need to. Your life depends on it.

If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, do you think he would be following celebrity gossip on social media?

Constantly Strive for Truth. There are many forces today working to undermine the truth. Resist them.

Give Congress a Tutorial on Good Governance. Again, in Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s wonderful book, they offer what I consider to be a truly great suggestion for restoring the political health and balance to our country.

They suggest choosing several ex-congresspeople, both Republicans and Democrats, who are not currently serving. They would be chosen for their ability to listen, and for their willingness to compromise and engage in open, respectful debate.

Mann and Ornstein suggest that the group get together periodically to discuss current political topics. There would be a moderator and the discussions would take place before a live or filmed audience.

In essence, they would be modeling what we would like our Congress to be. They would be showing people how it ought to be done!

Ideally, our current representatives might watch and take note. Who knows, they might even learn how to be better congresspeople.

What a concept!

David Evans©2020.