Wayne O’Leary

Nonpartisan Delusion

In late October, on the eve of the midterms, 85% of Colorado voters reportedly told polling Suffolk University researchers that US senators should not vote in Congress along party lines. Further, by a three-to-one margin (57% to 20%), they expressed a decided preference for a senator who would vote half Democratic and half Republican on issues instead of consistently supporting his or her party.

This says a lot about Colorado, a purplish state whose wild-card politics swings like a weathervane from avant-garde liberal to tea-party conservative and back again. But it also says a lot about the American political mindset in 2014. We live in a democratic republic that has largely rejected democratic politics, dismissing the importance of competing political parties and political ideologies along the way.

Except in places like the neo-Confederate South, where the majority continues to march lockstep in a steadily rightward direction dictated by the GOP, opinion polls going into the elections revealed a broad disillusionment with party politics bordering on nihilism. And even in the South, efforts to disenfranchise political minorities betrayed a fascistic tendency that is anything but small-d democratic in spirit.

If we are to believe what respondents told pollsters in pre-election surveys around the country, Americans yearn for independent candidates beholden to no political party, candidates who, if they do have a party affiliation, are more than willing to desert their party on a moment’s notice to make common cause with the other side. An apparent desire to see their representatives split the difference on a whole host of questions defines the mood of the public (or a significant portion of it) after four straight years of stalemate in Washington.

Much of this attitude simply reflects frustration in the face of seemingly permanent congressional gridlock by a public too impatient to delve beneath surface appearances for the real source of gridlock. The cause is readily apparent to anyone willing or able to look beyond the obvious — namely, the intransigence of a Republican party dedicated to using obstructionism as an ongoing political tactic, with the ultimate aim of rendering government dysfunctional and thereby returning the anti-government party to power.

The results have been predictable. Americans, who mistrust and misunderstand their government — it’s not a presidential dictatorship — and can’t be bothered to follow the intricate day-to-day political maneuverings that make it work (or not), have fallen back on clichés and cynical expressions of folk wisdom — e.g. all politics is corrupt; both sides are equally to blame.

Electorally, this is manifested in a desire to throw out the “ins” and bring in the “outs,” no matter who the outs happen to be or what they may do; in governing, it is expressed in an endless search for “bipartisan” solutions, compromise for the sake of compromise, and nonideological centrist leadership unburdened by coherent philosophical aims or controversial legislative objectives requiring explanation and persuasion.

This outcome has been abetted by a national media that regards government and politics as a game and whose only felt responsibility is to keep score: who’s up, who’s down; who’s winning, who’s losing. Its only demand is that the politicians “do something” that can be chewed over and picked apart for any dangerous departures from the conventional wisdom threatening to the powers that be.

For this emerging set of circumstances, the times have provided the country with the appropriate president. Barack Obama has been perfectly cast for the role of chief executive of the Republic of No Labels. As the first self-styled postpartisan president, who recognizes no blues or reds, his ambition since day one has been to “change the way Washington works” by leading the US to a place where bipartisan or nonpartisan government would be the ruling value and ideology would wither away. He didn’t reckon on the tea-party revolt, but wide swaths of the public continue to share his original vision of democracy without politics. In Obama’s ideal world, technocrats set the agenda, parties cease to be important, and all differences can be amicably worked out.

History and experience, including not least the futile experience of the last six years, suggest this is impractical and unrealistic. Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the Democratic Party, knew it two centuries ago. “In every free and deliberating society,” he wrote in 1798, “there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissentions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time.”

The natural division into two opposing parties, which Jefferson saw as class-based (a party of the common people and one representing “the higher classes”), was spelled out more humorously by William S. Gilbert, the playwrighting half of the British comic-opera team Gilbert and Sullivan. In the 1882 production Iolanthe, he put it this way: “I often think it’s comical how nature does contrive, That every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive, Is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative!”

American independents think they’re an exception, but few are. Studies of self-proclaimed independents reveal that only about a third are truly independent — that is, without discernible political tendencies of left or right. In fact, one-third are Democratic-leaning independents and one-third are Republican-leaning independents. Aside from a small minority who genuinely can’t make up their minds, independents are mostly people who dislike the untidy way party politics works, recoil from participation in the natural partisan conflict inherent in democracy, or just don’t understand the process and don’t care to learn.

Jefferson also had something to say on this last subject. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” he advised, “it expects what never was and never will be.” That says quite a bit about our predicament in an era when liberal education, the key to intelligent political involvement, is everywhere under siege.

Of course, the current political class hasn’t helped any by cynically muddying the waters, claiming bipartisan intentions while avoiding making their own case on the merits. For the Democrats, in retrospect, a frankly partisan, Trumanesque attack on the do-nothing Republican Congress, led from the top, could have been a clarifying moment and a winning strategy for 2014. Obviously, it didn’t happen.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2014


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