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Partisanship Is Dead. Long Live Partisanship

In his farewell address to the nation

In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington’s mediation on partisanship was: “… the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of the party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restraint it.”

Thomas Jefferson was also once noted disparaging the party system that is now such a mainstay of our political culture: “If I could not go to heaven but with a political party, I would decline to go,” said Jefferson.

With midterm elections nearing amid a flurry of polls predicting the demise of the Democratic Congress, and with it any realistic chances of progressive legislation, the question of just how jaded the current electorate is has come to the fore.

President Barack Obama has been attacked widely from the all sides, including his core base, for policy steps such as escalating troop levels in Afghanistan, failing to close Guantanamo Bay and, most recently, choosing to forgo a moratorium on foreclosures after the revealing of widespread mortgage fraud by banks all over the country.

The Democrats’ campaign message has been centered on the presumption that there is a fate worse than death – a Republican-controlled legislature – and it is in the voters’ power to help avoid it.

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But consistently low approval ratings of the president, and a notoriously anti-incumbent mood, may mean that not being Republican is not enough to motivate support for the Democrats.

The Rally to Restore Sanity this month, led by John Stewart, is billed as a light-hearted counterpoint to the partisan hysteria.

“We’re looking for people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard,” it says on the web site, “and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.”

The development economist Jeffrey Sachs summed up the weightier core disillusionment: “What passes for American political debate is a contest between the parties to give bigger promises to the middle class, mainly in the form of budget-busting tax cuts at a time when the fiscal deficit is already more than 10% of GDP.”

“Much of America is in a nasty mood, and the language of compassion has more or less been abandoned. Both political parties serve their rich campaign contributors, while proclaiming that they defend the middle class,” wrote Sachs. “Neither party even mentions the poor, who now officially make up 15% of the population but in fact are even more numerous, when we count all those households struggling with health care, housing, jobs, and other needs.”

In a recent New York Times editorial, the columnist Thomas Friedman predicted the rise of a third party to represent the views of this so-called radical center.

“There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing ‘third parties’ to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline,” Friedman wrote. “Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her – one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.”

Friedman was not the only one to bring up this issue in the past few months. Columnist in The Washington Post, Boston Phoenix, Slate, Houston Chronicle and on MSNBC, among other places, either in response to Friedman or separately, considered the issue.

This is not the first time that Friedman, or any number of other writers, have predicted similar election outcomes. But many still contend that this time is different.

“There has never been a moment in recent American history when the voters were more open to new ideas and approaches,” the Phoenix wrote.

Could the widespread recognition of “our stagnating two-party duopoly” be the harbinger of a new political age? And, if so, what are the practical hurdles to a realistic third-party candidate bid?

Voter opinion of both major parties is at an all-time low, according to polls by The Wall Street Journal/NBC and CBS News. In addition to this, more than 40 percent of voters do not identify with either major party, according to numbers compiled by The Committee for a Unified Independent Party (CUIP).

Races all over the country have seen an increasing number of independent or third-party candidates. According to the Tenth Amendment Center, Florida is seeing a large number of independents on both the Democratic and Republican side in the 2010 midterm elections. Thirteen independent candidates and four minor part candidates have made the ballot in Florida’s 25 Congressional races.

Wisconsin, Alaska, Rhode Island, Ohio and Illinois are also seeing an increased number of third-party or independent candidacies, and many moderate GOP incumbents, who were beaten in the primaries by more conservative newcomers plan to stage independent candidacies. Lincoln Chafee, a former liberal Republican, has stripped his party affiliation to run for governor of Rhode Island.

Nate Silver, writing in The New York Times, says that Sens. Olympia Snow (R-Maine), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Connecticut) and Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) are all likely to benefit more from running as independents than under their party banners.

The Democrats returning to Congress in January are expected to be similarly polarized – the Boston Phoenix predicts that they will, on average, be more liberal than their predecessors, since the races most likely to lose in November are the moderates from swing districts.

Independents are also known as “swing voters,” a camp which has been steadily growing. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, “Independents Take Center Stage in the Obama Era,” the proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years.

They supported Barack Obama in large number in the 2008 election – according to CUIP, as many independents voted for Obama as for Ross Perot in 1992.

Wes Benedict, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Libertarian Party, says the Libertarian anti-war ticket is essential to kindling interest from both sides of the aisle. According to Benedict, the Libertarian Party has filled the vacuum on both the right and the left – the record of both the Democrats and the Republicans on taxation, the military and civil liberties has pushed individuals who “stand for more freedom, less government” to his party.

“Republicans keep betraying fiscally responsibly voters,” Benedict said, “and Democrats keep betraying liberals who care about liberties and personal freedoms.”

Though the Libertarian Party does attempt to court Tea Party supporters, they disagree on core issues.

“You’ve got to cut military spending,” Benedict said, a move which many Tea Partiers are not quick to support. He went on to say that “the stereotypical welfare recipient,” often the scourge of the right, “is not the big problem in America.” Welfare is only a tiny portion of government spending – the biggest budget expenditure is the military, with Social Security and Medicare a close second.

Though he assents that individuals pay into Social Security, Benedict says that most people get more than they pay in – “it’s a Ponzi scheme.”

The Libertarian position on Social Security and Medicare may not be particularly welcoming to progressives, but Benedict says that his party also supports personal liberty issues such as the right to gay marriage that have traditionally been a major fighting point for the right.

According to the Libertarian Party’s web site, it has more than 600 candidates running for local and national seats in 45 states.

Dan La Botz, the socialist candidate for Senate running in Ohio, offers progressive voters in particular an alternate agenda. A former labor activists and journalist, La Botz is running without any corporate funding on the ticket of democratic socialism, also known as radical democracy.

By radical democracy, La Botz explains he means “the democratic control of the economy by the majority of the people of the country, rather than by a small minority. Working people make the country run, and working people should run the country.”

On key issues such as health care, the environment and military spending, La Botz suggests that we organize society around the needs of a working woman with children. “If we took care of such a woman, we would take care of everyone,” says La Botz. In our society today, however, “everything is organized around the needs of a CEO … and we can’t move forward politically, culturally or economically while we are dominated by the corporation.”

It was the fact that the Republican and Democratic Parties “are completely intertwined with the corporate world” that fueled La Botz’s decision to run as a socialist party candidate, not a Democrat.

The socialist contingent during the March for Jobs on Washington, an idea originally coordinated by La Botz, showed the strong support for “an independent political alternative.”

The most relevant historical example of an independent candidate who garnered a significant movement was Ross Perot, a presidential candidate in 1992. Perot, a billionaire, data systems mogul, ran as an independent and won 18.9 percent of the popular vote, but no Electoral College votes.

At one point however, before Perot briefly dropped out of the presidential campaign only to return weeks later, he commanded a lead with 39 percent of the vote. The significant polling numbers he achieved in his lead are often cited as examples of the possibilities for a popular independent candidacy.

In addition, Perot, as one of Forbes’ 400 most wealthy Americans, had a considerable war chest. Funding places candidates such as La Botz, who is running his campaign entirely on community contributions, at a disadvantage to more established or wealthier partisan candidates.

Ralph Nader, who ran as a Green Party presidential candidate in 2000, is most often used as a cautionary tale of the independent vote. Nader is charged with splitting the vote in key states, especially Florida, that may otherwise have gone to Democratic nominee Al Gore. Instead, critics say, Nader’s 2.74 percent of the national vote led to the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

The barriers faced by third-party and independent candidates are not only those of political interest – there are real structural barriers to a nonpartisan candidate winning either local or national elections.

The nature of our voting system, known as winner takes all, means that a third-party candidate would need to win an outright majority of the electoral vote to be elected, a difficulty in an age when many states are firmly Republican or Democratic.

John Stuart Mill famously wrote in 1861 about the critical difference between “government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented,” which was the ideal, or “government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people exclusively represented,” which he argued is what winner-takes-all elections produce.

Third-party candidates are unlikely to be allowed to participate in a debate unless they have already achieved at least 15 percent in the polls, which The New York Times calls “something of a Catch-22 for a candidate looking to improve his or her visibility.”

Though this is difficult, it is not unheard of – Rich Whitney, the Green Party candidate for governor of Illinois, was part of the first-ever three-party gubernatorial debate in the state this month.

The control of redistricting by partisan forces also minimizes the possibility for electoral success of a third party, CUIP notes, by carving up state districts to guarantee the election of party-sanction candidates – also known as gerrymandering. The use of the Electoral College also undermines the chances of independent candidates, CUIP believes.

There are also structural issues, which advocacy groups argue restrict the voice of individual independent voters. Closed primaries, which exclude voters without party affiliation from taking part in the first round of voting, have been called a major obstacle to a vigorous democracy by CUIP.

According to CUIP’s polling, 90 percent of independents support open primaries. They argue that this would allow an additional 40 percent of American voters to participate. Thirty-three states already have some form of open primary or caucus at the presidential level, and a handful for federal or state office as well. In addition, many cities have nonpartisan municipal elections.

There has been pushback from parties – California’s blanket primary was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a case brought by the California Democratic Party. California Democratic Party v. Jones was won by the former on the grounds that it allowed nonparty members to determine the party’s nominee in 2000.

However, Washington’s modified blanket primary was upheld in 2008.

In addition, CUIP said that restricting voter registration also supports incumbents. Having a “cut-off” date for registration especially hurts younger voters.

Esteli Pacio-Manzano, a community organizer with the New York City Independence Party and said that critics who attempt to argue for piecemeal reform do not realize the importance of a fully representative, nonpartisan democracy to the democratic process.

“I think that you need political reform to be able to target everything,” said Pacio-Manzano. “No one thing is going to be the solution.”

Relying on political parties is “sort of a crutch that we have developed instead of thinking of the issues,” but “that’s actually a lazy way to think and I think that’s why they [the Democrats and Republicans] get away with almost anything. When it comes down to it, they end up doing what’s best for the party,” she said.

Rather than being on the “right” or the “left,” Pacio-Manzano says the growing independent movement, especially among younger voters, is rejecting those dichotomies. “We just don’t want to sign up and be on your team.”

Instant-runoff voting has also seen a surge in popularity. With this method, voters rank some or all candidates in order of preference, and votes can be transferred between candidates. This removes the risk of splitting the vote by bringing in a third-party candidate. If there is no majority winter, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, and those votes are distributed to the second-preference candidate of the supporters.

Though this approach is guaranteed to produce a clear winner and more voters get a say in the election’s outcome, critics note that some people’s second or third preferences may count for as much as other people’s first choices.

Rob Richie, executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy, which advocates for instant-runoff voting, said, “we have to adapt to the reality out there that most people don’t identity with the major parties. To have a functioning democracy one needs to accept people where they are, and where they are is no longer plurality voting rules. That is not the country we live in anymore.”

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