I must confess, I am dreading today’s elections. Not because of who might win or lose.
Not because as a Californian, my vote for President will count 1/3 as much as an Alaskan (actually it won’t matter at all – I’m not in a swing state). Not because my vote for Senate will count 1/50 as much as an Alaskan. But because no matter what the outcome, our government will still be a giant bonfire of partisanship. It is ironic since whenever I have met with our elected officials they are invariably thoughtful, well-meaning people. And yet collectively 90% of their effort seems to be focused on how to stick it to the other party. So my plea to the victors – whoever they might be: please withdraw from your respective parties and govern as independents in name and in spirit. It is probably the biggest contribution you can make to the country.Political partisanship is kind of like representative democracy itself—a terrible mess, but clearly superior to the alternatives. After all, we don’t need to guess at what representative democracy without political parties would look like. Just examine almost any American city council—be it New York, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, whatever—and you’ll see a legislative body that’s so overwhelmingly Democratic that partisan politics don’t drive outcomes. The result of this isn’t a utopia of good government and sound policy, it’s an orgy of hyper-localism. Political parties are organized, for better and for worse, around clashing visions of what’s better for America. The quest for partisan advantage is, among other things, a quest for the opportunity to build a better society. Absent parties you get a situation where instead of a clash of visions of what would be best for the city as a whole, council members give undue preference to strong local interests. In city government, that means NIMBYism. In Congress it would mean endless gobs of the much-derided pork barrelling.
Tim Carney did a good piece recently pointing out that it’s the “moderate” members of congress who are often the most corrupt, for this very reason. Strong partisan affiliations are what keeps legislatures adhering to some kind of principled vision, as opposed to merely using the powers of office for personal gain.