Two and a quarter centuries after America’s founders devised what was then a unique approach to government — a nation in which people would be citizens, not subjects — the country is in the midst of a struggle to determine whether that system can survive. And California, as is so often the case, is in the vanguard. If other states ignore California’s rebellion against party-centric politics, the dysfunction that plagues Washington will continue and the United States will become increasingly unable to deal with pressing national problems.
The governing system the founders envisioned was a particular blend of republic and democracy, one in which the government would be made up of people who had been chosen by the citizens, but also one in which the powers of the majority would be constrained to preserve individual rights and the preferences of voters would be filtered through a mediating legislature. The founders were acutely aware of the toxins that could seep into such a system, and each of the first four presidents — Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison — warned repeatedly against creating the kind of political parties we have today: permanent factions engaged in a never-ending struggle for power, unwilling to seek common ground and hostile to the compromises necessary to govern a large and diverse nation.
Yet today our political parties are little more than power-hungry private clubs, seeking to limit voter choice and thereby damage the political and governing processes. Under the primary systems of most states, only one person from each party can make the final ballot. Consequently, candidates with the widest general appeal are often denied the right to be in the runoff by relatively small bands of ideological activists, and “sore loser” laws in most states prohibit a primary loser’s name from appearing on the general election ballot. In addition, despite the Constitution’s requirement that candidates for Congress be inhabitants of the district from which they are elected (signaling a desire for citizens to be represented by people familiar with their concerns), parties also have the ability in most states to use their legislative majorities to redraw congressional boundaries to favor party advantage over effective representation.
Following the example of voters in Washington state, frustrated Californians have brushed aside protests from party insiders to restore citizen control of the election process, eliminating closed party primaries and turning redistricting decisions over to nonpartisan commissions. Other states are now considering following California’s lead. The more states that allow citizen panels rather than party zealots to drive the election process, the closer we will come to achieving that important balance the founders desired — a functional government that is both constrained and empowered.
Unfortunately, the nation’s lawmakers are still firmly invested in partisanship. In Congress, party leaders control important committee assignments, handing great power over public policy only to those who promise to carry out the party’s agenda. Committees are staffed, and their members briefed, by partisans. House speakers, who largely control the legislative agenda, now function primarily as partisan leaders. Thus the entire process of hearing witnesses, writing bills, considering amendments and creating laws is dominated by party loyalty. Instead of functioning as Americans, coming together to deal with important issues, members of Congress act as party operatives and on every important issue draw sharp lines in the sand by which to define the parameters of the next election. No matter the issue, no matter how important the consequences, it is now common to expect almost all Democrats to be one side of the issue and almost all Republicans to be on the other side.
What we are witnessing in Congress is not mere polarization; it is a war between rival armies. California’s new system of balloting is a step toward armistice. In many districts this fall, the choice won’t be between one party and another but rather between two members of the same party. In order to be elected, candidates will have to reach across party lines and offer something to all voters, not just those of the dominant party. This system is likely to favor moderates over party zealots and could lead, eventually, to a more functional legislature. But to accomplish this, voters must use their ballots to reward cooperation and punish incivility and intransigence.
Mickey Edwards, a former member of the Republican leadership in Congress, is a vice president of the Aspen Institute and the author, most recently, of “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.”