Just when you think national politics can’t get any worse, it does. The Bush administration seems to have been working hard since the 2004 election to ingratiate itself with pretty much everyone. But, apparently dissatisfied with low positive polling numbers, it seems to be executing a secret plan to achieve record-high negative polling numbers as well. (You know, the “evil genius” Karl Rove at work).
Congressional Republicans have been running away from the 1994 revolution at breakneck speeds. Some still give lip service to the revolution, while others openly diss it as just so much old baggage. Then comes the whole Abramoff thing, which in turn highlights other abuses. Congressional Republicans look up at us like the kid whose mom catches him with his hand in the cookie jar and his mouth full of cookies, saying (while spraying cookie crumbs), “Ifft wuffn’t me!” They spend a few weeks posturing and talking about the problem, ultimately coming up with a plan to move the cookie jar three inches to the right.
Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, have been so busy pandering to their angry left base (see here) that they have departed from the world of reality for some kind of nihilist Never Land (although the WSJ argues here that this loony landscape could become reality). They have been working hard since the 2004 elections to make it sound like they heartily support another 9/11-like expression from the poor and oppressed practitioners of the religion of pieces (this term stolen from Mark Steyn here).
Then comes the Dubai Ports fiasco. Salivating anti-war politicians suddenly discover their missing backbones and take up a duplicitous stance to the right of the President. They fool enough of the people for a short time that they start having pipe dreams (non-inhaling, of course) of taking over Congress in the upcoming November elections. In the midst of their hallucinating, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) comes along with a plan to remind everyone just how opposed to national security the Democrats really are. This appears to be a serious effort by Feingold to bolster Bush’s flagging numbers (see here).
Weakness = bad government
The trouble with all of this is that the American public is poorly served by it. We are better served when we have two strong political parties on the national scene, keeping each other sharp and efficient. One party always works to be just a little stronger than the other one. (Or as one observer put it, two strong groups of thugs keep each other in line). Strength doesn’t necessarily translate into the actual number of representatives elected to Congress from a particular party, but it does seem to translate into a measure of good government.
Since the stronger party only needs to be slightly stronger than the weaker party, when the weaker party becomes weaker the stronger party becomes sloppy and fails to work for good government. This is what we are seeing on the national scene today.
The Democrats, for all of their opportunities, seem intent on self destruction (see this satirical article that hits the mark). 'At-least-we're-not-as-bad-as-the-Democrats' Republicans seem only too happy to lower themselves to stay just a hair stronger than Democrats, even morphing to look more and more like Democrats on many issues. An argument can even be made that the Democrats have moved left because Republicans have successfully co-opted so many traditionally Democratic stances (although some argue that the cause and effect are reversed – see here).
At this point, my third party friends will chime in and say that this is exactly why we need a third party. I believe third parties have their place in our system of government. But our two-party system has such strong barriers to entry into the system that third parties can rarely hope to achieve meaningful electoral victories, although, they can influence elections and policy. Major elections won by third-party candidates usually turn out to be Pyrrhic victories. Only when a major party completely implodes can a third party hope to be thrust into the big leagues as it picks up the tattered remnants of the dying party, such as when the Republican Party rose to prominence following the demise of the Whigs.
Third parties tend to thrive only briefly, often only held together by a strong personality or a strong issue, such as when Ross Perot ran for the presidency under the auspices of the Reform Party. The party did remarkably well for a third party in the 1992 election (getting about 18.9% of the presidential vote), but it then joined the remainder of third parties that together garnered less than 2% of the vote in 2004. Political analyst Michael Barone explains here why coalition parties never survive long.
I do not wish to discourage anyone from joining a third party. I’m merely trying to point out the reality that there is little chance that any third party will become a long-term major player in national politics unless one of the major parties succeeds in destroying itself. That could happen, but I’m not sure that there are presently any issues that divide either of the two major parties quite the way slavery divided the Whigs.
Getting to good government
The Founders knew that government was an ugly beast, but also knew that its existence was necessary to prevent anarchy. They designed a system that they hoped would prevent even uglier systems from taking hold. I recently heard a person argue that even with all of its flaws, the U.S. has the least screwed up system of government on the face of the earth. Even if you don’t believe in American exceptionalism, each of us must not give up trying to improve our system of government.
We need strong parties for good government. One of our major problems is that we have put too much of our society under the control of the national government. The system is so unwieldy that it cannot be governed well. Our major political parties have become sloppy. They ignore the truly important issues and focus on things that should be handled at a lower level. I believe that one of the best things we can do to strengthen our major political parties is to shrink the responsibilities of the central government to be more in line with what the Founders intended, shifting responsibilities to the most appropriate level of government, similar to the system suggested here by LaVarr Webb.