There’s a great New Yorker cartoon that shows a couple of dogs wearing suits in a boardroom and they’re saying “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.” Apart from the natural questions this raises like what sort of business are the dogs in and how does a dog go to the bathroom in a suit, this cartoon makes me think about two-party politics.
The headlines coming out of Washington always seem to start with “Democrats say…” or “Republican say…” and the stories talk about these large groups of people who have aligned behind a party label and are moving en bloc to force their ideas down the throat of another group who has aligned behind a different label. It’s all “Republican cuts” and “Democratic pet programs” and “Republican proposal” and “Democratic capitulation to Republican demands”. But when is the last time you read a headline that said anything about any of the proposals or actions coming out of the two
fraternities parties being “good ideas”?
There are only two kinds of ideas in politics these days, Democratic or Republican, and neither of those labels actually describes the value of the idea. In truth, a lot of the ideas that Presidents, Congress and the state legislatures have are downright shitty, no matter who inks them onto paper. Extending a series of tax reductions that were instituted at the outset of one of the worst economic declines in US history and may have had a causal role in worsening the crisis*? Bad idea. Forcing public schools to test the shit out of students every year and pay over a $1 billion per year to private testing companies, while ignoring the complaints about the system brought by parents and teachers**? Bad idea. Deregulating the mortgage lending market to the point where lenders are offering loans with no guarantee of income on the part of the borrower***? Bad idea. Trickle down economics****? Bad idea.
Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that an idea was bad simply because it was introduced by a member of your political party, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the badness of the idea? So. Fucking. Stupid.
I’m growing to think that the parties are destructive forces. They operate like corporations, focused on balance sheets: money in, elected offices out. This intense effort toward getting the most donations to get the most seats requires demonizing the opposition party to the point that you’d like everyone with a different word on their voter registration card has fangs and a tail.
You know what? I know Republicans. Lots of them. I talk to them about all kinds of things. Not only can I assure you that they don’t have fangs, I can also assure you that they care deeply about the future of our nation and they are just as hungry for change, progress, and workable, efficient solutions as any Democrat. But we all end up voting for these flawed, party-driven slates of candidates who are ultimately disappointing because they become creatures of their parties first, servants of their constituents second.
I’m tired of being a Democrat and feeling like I have to choose Democratic candidates who are supported by the Democratic machinery and contribute to a Democratic voting bloc in the legislature. I’m tired of buying into a mediocre brand of group think for the sole reason that the other mediocre brand of group think contains a couple of non-starter notions. I want a smart legislature full of smart individuals. Innovative individuals. Thinkers, not a party players. But we only get party animals in politics because of the cost of running for office. It’s too expensive to run for office without a backer. And the big backers are the Democratic and Republican parties. Tragically, there’s no Smart Party handing out checks and putting a seal of approval on candidates. There’s no IQ threshold for getting into the game. Instead there’s allegiance to the establishment and a promise to raise money for the group if the group raises money for you. Everything else, election to office, ascendance in party power structure, promotion to even higher office, all of it follows from being able to bring in enough money to get yourself elected and help others get elected. Merit does not always matter, even though it should.
How great would it be if everyone in Washington listened to the smartest person in the room instead of the person with the highest degree of party anointment? But that’s not how it is. We’re not hearing from the smartest people. We’re hearing from leadership of both parties who spend countless hours demonizing the opposition party in a way that frightens the base into writing campaign checks and voting straight ticket. None of which does me any good and probably doesn’t do you much good either. The only people really seeing a benefit from the current levels of inter-party strife work for 24-hour news networks.
If I ran the country, I would eliminate all private campaign funding and dismantle the political parties so that the barriers to running for office would be removed entirely. Then we’d be left with a slate of unaffiliated candidates who are beholden to no parties, no leadership, and no private contributors and are free to think and speak for themselves. We, as voters, would then get to make our choices based on who is the smartest, who has the best ideas, and not whether their necktie and yard signs are red or blue and if you can bring in the money in an election year. And maybe if the Congress and legislatures were stocked with smart people churning out good ideas, we’d finally make some progress.
**Bush with considerable buy-in from Ted Kennedy