There is nothing more in vogue these days than bemoaning politics and partisanship.
Ask 10 people to describe their feelings on politics, and most will explain to you that they think Republicans and Democrats are exactly the same and that neither offers a real path forward in this country. They will tell you that they are tired of all the fighting, scheming and politicking seen out of leaders today.
In Maine, we have an entire Senate campaign based off this feeling in people. Independent Angus King believes, and he may be right, that by simply massaging voters’ distaste for modern political discourse, we will fail to notice that he stands for nothing in particular and is lying about what he plans to do once elected.
But I think I have had just about all the sanctimony I can handle from anti-partisan evangelists like King. He and his missionaries spend every day in a unspoiled ivory tower, issuing a never-ending avalanche of smug derision for those who participate in the partisan process.
This crew considers it chic to decry the existence of entrenched parties, seemingly very taken with their own bold insight that “there must be a better way.” Perhaps, though, it might be instructive to understand why we have two parties in this country in the first place.
Virtually every election that takes place in the United States is built around representative districts that see a single person elected. This creates a system where achieving 51 percent of the vote will guarantee you victory.
Other countries that have many parties often have what is known as “proportional representation,” where legislative seats are doled out according to how much of the vote they get. This allows them to lose big and still get to participate.
But here, for all the thirst people in this country seem to have for “other options,” it really makes no sense to participate in a party or movement that can only command 10 percent of the electorate.
If you do, some of your opponents will form a coalition that can get 20 percent of the vote. You will then try to achieve 30 percent of the vote with a larger group of allies. They will respond and build a group that can get 40 percent. You then seek 51 percent, as do they.
And thus the dualistic nature of American politics is born.
Sooner or later, we end up with two major factions in conflict. It isn’t a coincidence that the United States has always had two major parties, with very rare and brief exceptions, be they Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, Democrats and Whigs, or Democrats and Republicans.
Our current parties are themselves grand coalitions. Within the GOP, for example, you have an eclectic and often contradictory mix of social conservatives, libertarians, neoconservatives and business people. Many of these groups, in a vacuum, would aggressively oppose each other, yet they share enough in common to band together to stand against the equally multifarious group that calls themselves Democrats.
It is within the parties that America’s pluralistic political opinions are expressed. Each big party has dozens of little parties within it, and, despite the media telling us for decades that each party is a unified block of mindless automatons who all share a Borg-like hive mind, you will always be able to find like-minded people in such groups.
The two-party system is a natural and unavoidable result of the system we have. Unless that system changes, we will always end up with two poles in conflict. To have any real influence, you will have to participate in one or the other.
But there is indeed a “better way.” Rather than sitting back and complaining about who the parties end up nominating, while simultaneously abdicating any role of their own in choosing, perhaps it might be time for the anti-partisans to get their hands dirty and try to change what they hate so much.
If you don’t like where the parties have gone, then involve yourself in one. You may find that you end up with the ability to change the party and no longer end up with candidates you revile.
It isn’t easy, and it takes time. There are often setbacks, as the Ron Paul coalition recently learned. But there is no denying that it is the path to real influence. And it will work, eventually.
So, participate in the system you hate so much, and you just might find fewer reasons to hate it once you’ve won.