Barack Obama is the first President in the history of the nation to serve during a period without functioning political parties. Political parties, for all their faults, allowed government to function for centuries, and for that reason, they will be missed. Dysfunctional government will now rule until a party system is reignited, although it is difficult to see when that might happen, if ever.
Party politics did not die yesterday. It’s been a long, slow death. In 1999, Fareed Zakaria asked ABC commentator George Stephanopolous if the Democratic Party would nominate Al Gore in 2000. Stephanopolous responded with “There is no Democratic Party.” He went on to tell Zakaria that Gore would run if he could raise the money and build an organization. He further commented that the concept of “party elders” impacting the choice of nominee was anachronistic. The nominating process was fully democratized. There was no Democratic Party. There was only a loose affiliation of people who sometimes voted for Democrats.
Isn’t this what we are seeing in the 2012 Republican nominating process? Mitt Romney, the begrudging choice of the party elders who see him as the only hope to defeat Obama, is being rejected and weakened by the vocal base. Reinus Preibus, chairperson of the Republican National Committee, is not a kingmaker – he is an afterthought. The candidates can raise money and elevate their own professional profiles without a national committee. They just need a book publisher, a slick website and a social media outreach program to win elections. Attention to party politics has given way to attention to voter preference polling data.
(Sarah Palin has started her own political party, with an assist from Facebook.)
The democratization of our formerly republican system of government has been happening for a number of years. The direct election of Senators, enacted in 1913, was one of the first steps towards putting more power directly into the hands of the people, usurping a power formerly delegated to state legislatures. In the 1970s, Prop 13 passed in California, placing a cap on the power of elected officials to set property tax rates in the state. By referendum, the power to address state needs through property tax changes was eliminated. The people were beginning to wrest power from legislators. Today, California is run by referendum, and the power of the legislature has been neutered. 85% of the California state budget is already spoken for – by mandatory publicly voted referendums. Legislators are trying to fix the California budget mess while having control over only 15% of it. I fear that the people in their rush for direct power over the government forgot to wrest accountability at the same time, or perhaps were just unwilling to assume it. Accountability is not much of an aphrodisiac.
In a functioning society, the people and individuals will have competing needs and wants. We elect and empower a government to balance those interests as best it can. Majority rule leads to win-lose situations. Elected representatives should be charged with finding the win-win solutions when at all possible. Political parties funnel these individual needs and wants into a cohesive governing philosophy, and thereby allow real work to be done and real progress to be made.
The movement away from institutional power and towards individual empowerment has only just begun. Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party share distrust of large institutions, and to a large degree a greater faith in individual choices and decision-making. Unleash the individual and society as a whole will benefit, they say. Think about the growth of micro-financing, Angie’s List, Craigslist, individual blogging versus institutional journalism. By demystifying investing, information gathering, retail, society can and has flourished – to a point. The downside is we are becoming a virtual Wild, Wild West, where anything goes. Don’t we still need a few sheriffs so the entire community can expand and grow? And if we find some sheriffs, don’t we owe it to them to arm them?
With great power comes great responsibility, so said gentle Uncle Ben to Peter Parker. Now that people have more power, where’s our collective sense of responsibility? Yes, I mean voting, but not just voting. I mean accepting accountability for lousy results. If we as a public demand the right to make all of these decisions, we shouldn’t blame the government if these choices fail.
The democratization of America (and the world) will mean less centralized structure, more chaos, and maybe in some cases, better individual outcomes. But we need large, structural institutions to keep order and insist upon protections for the benefit of all. Everyone can play in this new world order, but collectively we need formal institutions with the power to build field with fences and foul poles and employ umpires. Political parties, for all their faults, at least had the ability to consolidate the disparate views of its members and work to compromise with the opposing party (or parties) so the nation could move forward. If Stephanopolous is right, those days are over, and we are not better off because of it.
“May you live in interesting times” is a wonderful sentiment. We sure do. It is the Age of the Individual, and we have traded institutional control and certainty for self-determination and anarchy. Hopefully, we live during a time when the proper balance between individual and group, government and people, is struck. In the meantime, the people will choose a nominee and the people will choose a President after that.
We do live in interesting times, so we should remain interested to protect our interests. Interesting...