The (political) party is over

A former member of the Republican leadership in Congress, Mickey Edwards is a vice president of the Aspen Institute and is working on a book about how political parties are undermining democracy.

In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “HMS Pinafore,” Sir Joseph, a former member of the British Parliament who has been appointed lord admiral of the queen’s navy, recalls how he achieved such great success: “I always voted at my party’s call,” he sings, “and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

Sir Joseph would fit in well in the United States’ party-driven political system in which loyalty to one’s political club often seems to trump objective decision-making.

When a Senate committee voted in favor of Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation for a seat on the Supreme Court, every Republican but one voted no, even though she was obviously qualified and even her most insistent critics could find only a handful of decisions to quarrel with over a long judicial career. And not one Democrat voted no, even though Sotomayor had repeatedly indicated in speeches that it was a judge’s background that mattered in decision-making rather than strict adherence to the rule of law. There were party lines to be followed, and the senators followed them.


Last month, when the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions became the first to vote out a healthcare reform bill, not a single Democrat thought questions about the proposal, which included a government-run plan, were sufficient to raise doubts about moving forward. Not one Republican thought the current state of American healthcare justified the proposed legislation.

If legislators decided how to vote by weighing the concerns of their constituents, looking to their own philosophies of government and evaluating proposals on their merits, one might assume that at least one or two Democrats would have balked, and perhaps a Republican or two would have voted to go forward. But we don’t live in that kind of political world.

The Washington Post published a review of Senate voting records at the end of the 110th Congress, which ended in January. Over the previous two years, Congress had taken up important votes on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, approved billions of dollars of spending and wrestled with many other controversial and difficult issues. On average, Democrats voted with their party 87.5% of the time, and Republicans voted the GOP line 80.7% of the time; 44 senators voted with their party more than 90% of the time, 24 of them more than 95% of the time. So-called maverick John McCain voted with other Republicans more than 88% of the time.

Granted, there are distinctions in political philosophy that draw people to one party or the other (a natural coalescing), but it is nonetheless clear that there is far less independent thinking going on than good governance would demand. (California’s two senators, incidentally, were among the worst: Barbara Boxer voted with her party 95.5% of the time; Dianne Feinstein, 94.2%.)

When I testified before the House Judiciary Committee against President Bush’s unconstitutional use of presidential signing statements (the Constitution allows a president two choices: sign a bill and make it federal law or veto it; ignoring it is not an option), not a single Republican on the committee saw anything wrong with what the president had done. They later found the same practice unlawful when a Democratic president did it. When the House voted to hold White House staffers in contempt for defying a congressional subpoena, Republicans stomped out in protest.

At the time, I saw those incidents as signs that my fellow conservatives had abandoned their principles. But it was more than that: It was one more example of members of Congress voting as a team. Surely, when Bush’s assistants defied congressional subpoenas, at least a few Democrats might have thought a president’s claims of executive privilege had some merit, and a few Republicans might have been appalled at a chief executive thumbing his nose at the lawmaking branch of government. But again, that’s not the world we live in.

James Madison and George Washington feared the advance of political parties. Of course factions would be formed; people of like interests would band together in coalitions. But those coalitions would shift as issues shifted. In a system designed to leave the people in charge of their own government, their representatives would assess issues and vote according to their best judgment of a proposal’s merits.

Loyalty to party undermines the very essence of representative government, which depends on entrusting members of one’s community to act in one’s stead as an evaluator of legislative policy.

What author Peter Shane labeled “Madison’s Nightmare” has come true: We live in a world of constant partisan warfare, a never-ending battle between “my club” and “your club,” undermining the belief that a citizen’s vote truly counts for something.

Political theorist Bernard Crick wrote that “politics is how a free people govern themselves.” Strong political parties, on the other hand, are how a free people lose that ability. Parties choose which candidates can be on the November ballot, and do so in primaries and conventions that cater to the extremes. Parties reward fealty and discourage independence. In an earlier time, before the Internet, when it was hard to get information about candidates and they had to depend on party support for campaign funds and volunteers, political parties made sense; today, they are passe, black-and-white television, remnants of a time that has passed.