Republicans and Democrats
An American coup d'état
Let's say we've just elected our district's representative to the U.S. Congress, and, as usual, we've elected a Republican or a Democrat. He's there to represent our district; there can be no doubt of that, can there? Unfortunately, there's considerable doubt about that, because long before he gets to Washington he will be getting his directions from elsewhere. Far from representing our interests, he will really be representing the interests of his political party. A block or two from the U.S. Capitol, and within a block or two of each other, are the offices that will call the shots for our new representative. Whether it's the Republican office on First Street or the Democratic headquarters on South Capitol, this is where our representative will be told how to vote on nearly every significant issue that will come up during the session. Sounds like the idea of representing the district is being perverted here. And why is it being perverted? It's simply because we elected a party man. Hear this: Republican and Democrat politicians are not free men and women. Once we elect them, our representatives' loyalties belong no longer to us – the voters in their district – but to their party headquarters on First Street or South Capitol in Washington, D.C. Our representative is now their representative.
In contrast to much of the world, political parties have no legal role in American government. They've intruded there anyway, with disastrous results for our democracy.
Many Americans may not see this situation as a problem, because this is the way it has been throughout our lifetimes. But the operation of the major American political parties, and their unconstitutional intrusion into government, represents perhaps the greatest perversion of our democratic principles and our republican form of government in modern America. Let's look briefly at the nature of political parties, and their proper and improper roles in our society.
Political parties are private associations formed for the purpose of offering candidates for elected office and influencing voters to support these candidates. It follows from their mission that parties have a set of core interests or principles that they attempt to promote and to which their candidates are expected to remain true. These interests are often philosophical, but as we know they spin off into details of economics, commerce, the military, and every conceivable governmental program. In reality, the party will develop, on nearly every question that comes up in Congress or in the public debate, a position that they hold to be consistent with their interests, and they will expect "their" representatives and senators to support the party's position. Thus, the candidate who runs on the party's ticket is expected to be loyal, not just to the principles and positions of which he was aware – and with which he presumably agreed – when he ran for office, but also to positions developed by the party after he is elected. The good party man thus commits himself ahead of time to positions developed by others – non-elected private power brokers in a Washington office – often with little concern for his own views or those of the voters of his home district.
Why does the Congressman agree to be owned by the party? The reason is self-interest, which translates to money and power. Once in Congress, his re-election and future seniority and influence depends entirely on the support of his party. He needs the party for its endorsement and for the campaign contributions that will secure his re-election, because he knows that money is the root of all winning elections. He and the party know that the American voter votes for the candidate who appears in most TV commercials. Such is the state of our democracy.
Now, there's nothing illegitimate about forming a political party, or offering candidates for political office, or assisting these candidates, by legal means, in getting elected. Nor is it inappropriate for a party to hold principles and positions and to expect candidates receiving its support to agree to these. No, the problem with parties, their abuse of power, comes from their surreptitious intrusion into the government of the United States, where they have no place. This may sound like a shocking statement, but political parties have no constitutional or legitimate role within the U.S. government. These private associations, which are essentially interest groups and ought to be given the same attention in Washington as, say, the AARP or NRA or the Muscular Dystrophy Assn, have in fact hijacked the Congress and are in a very real sense holding its members hostage to their will. They are alone responsible for the factional gridlock and "us-and-them" mentality that pervades both houses of Congress. They have sacrificed the efficient operation of our representative government to their own pursuit of power. To secure party power they have made the Congress a rubber-stamp for the Presidency whenever they have had the opportunity to control both, undercutting the Congress' constitutional leadership and watchdog roles. They have supplanted the voters as the source of instruction for the members of Congress, and have made these members their representatives. We have seen, just this month, the work of the parties at their worst in the Senate, as they have locked horns along party lines (having no relation to the interest of the people the senators purportedly "represent") on such arcane matters as filibuster rules and advise-and-consent procedures for Presidential nominees. It is a comment on U.S. political apathy that Americans have not become outraged at this unconstitutional seizure and abuse of power by these private interests, the major political parties.
The excessive and unwarranted leverage of the political parties is two-pronged. Each prong is in theory amenable to correction by the people. Unfortunately, in the absence of a judicial determination, such correction requires action by the very Congress that the parties own. Not very likely as long as they own it, a fact that leads to a recommendation below. The two sources of the parties' power are:
1. Campaign financing and 2. Congressional rules. More details on both of these in upcoming essays (see " Congress, political parties, and fair representation"), but here's a brief outline:
As suggested above, the political party buys the loyalty of "its" members of Congress by the simple expedient of being the members' source of funding, either directly or through the necessary party endorsement in the candidate's fund-raising effort. The parties naturally resist every effort to reduce the expense of political campaigns, because doing so would take away their leverage over incumbents – who depend on their largesse – by reducing the incumbents' financial advantage over challengers. (Both parties prefer the security of preserving the numbers they have in Congress to the uncertainty of electing new freshmen.) The ultimate solution to the problem of campaign financing, and the way to neutralize the parties' stranglehold on the Congress, is some form of public financing of campaigns along with measures to reduce the cost of campaigns, removing private and parties' funding from the process. As long as the parties hold the purse that secures the Congressman's self-interest, the parties will continue to own Congress.
Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution says of the Congress: "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, ..."
The framers of the Constitution did not envision a role for political parties in the Congress. (Indeed, they envisioned an ideal, and ultimately unattainable, society without political parties at all.) But the modern political parties that formed early in the 19th century, and under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren began their parasitic growth, were not satisfied with the appropriate role of private interest groups, that of presenting candidates and working for their election. To increase their power they succeeded, through the actions of their members in Congress, in codifying party affiliations and party power in the rules of both houses of Congress. These rules, which divide the Congress along party lines and give authorities to specific members based on their party roles, essentially give the political parties control of Congress. They also unconstitutionally diminish the value of most Americans' representation, by making many districts and states subservient to districts and states represented by a few power brokers and power holders.
Political parties have their place, of course. But that place is not in the halls of Congress. The American system of representational democracy is geographically based – each representative and senator is expected to represent a specific group of citizens who live in a specified area. He is the representative of all the citizens of his area, whether or not they voted for him. This is not a system that would naturally give great power to political parties. But the American parties looked with envy at Europe, to the parliamentary systems where voters select party ballots, and where political parties are supreme. Individual members of most European parliaments are not answerable to any specific group of voters, as American representatives should be, but answer first and foremost to the party. Coveting such power, the American political parties have managed to insinuate themselves into the Congress, codifying their power there, and taking this power in a thoroughly unconstitutional manner.
Correcting these un-American power grabs may eventually depend on action by the federal courts. However, this third branch of government will be very reluctant to interfere in the Congress' authority to establish its own internal rules, and the major parties – that is, the Congress – will fight any such effort tooth and nail. So the most immediate, and potentially the simplest, way to bring the system back to the intended democratic model, is to elect independents, or if need be, candidates from minor parties. But first, get angry. Be outraged. Then say to the major parties, "A pox on both your houses! We're taking back our representational right. It's we, the people, not party operatives in Washington, whose voice will be heard in our Congress."
Against the power of the ballot box the power-grabbers are ultimately powerless.