Everyone who believes our two main political parties are serving the country well, please signify by shouting “Aye!” Everyone who disagrees, please signify by shouting “Nay!”
It seems the “Nays” have it.
American political parties used to set competing agendas for the nation. A party’s presidential candidate was chosen because the party’s leaders believed a given candidate could best deliver on the party’s stated agenda. Those were the days, my friend, but those days are long gone. Today’s political conventions are little more than nationally televised publicity stunts. Party leaders and strategists no longer select a party’s presidential candidate at a nominating convention. Today, presidential candidates are chosen through fifty state primaries (or caucuses), and some, including this writer, long for the proverbial smoke-filled convention rooms in which responsible party leaders selected their standard- bearers.
Presidential primary elections, which took hold in the 70s, are runway performances that attract relatively small audiences (voters) who often simply go for a gift-of-gab contender and sometimes just for plain poke ’em-in-the-eye contrarians. It’s incredibly troubling because these very low turnout contests ultimately determine who will lead us, thereby setting the standard for much of the world. Consider this: in the 2020 presidential primaries, no state, not one, produced even a 50% voter turnout. Forty-seven states failed to turn out even 40% of eligible voters, and eight states couldn’t get even 10% of eligible voters to the polls to pick the candidates, one of whom would become our President. And that was considered a record-turnout primary season. So, no surprise, the most exercised, sometimes the angriest, and often the most radical voters turn out on primary day.
As a result, our presidential primaries are driving America to the political extremes where little that is good happens. The center appears largely vacant or voiceless. The danger of this rush away from political comity and cooperation is that a lot of something no sane person should want will frequently emerge from the nether reaches of the American political landscape. Voters who turn out for primary elections are disproportionately courting the extremes, and, as a result, both parties are in danger of self-destruction.
Primaries have been around since the Progressive era, over a hundred years ago, but they were advisory and never deterministic of who would lead the country. As recently as 1968, only thirteen states held Democratic Party primaries and anti-war candidates prevailed in all of them. Nonetheless, at the infamous Chicago nominating convention, the party selected vice president Hubert Humphrey who supported the war in Viet Nam. Primaries have pretty much co-opted the presidential selection process ever since.
The primary dilemma plays out in both parties. Just as the Tea Party took control of the Republican Party in 2009 with candidates who won with 12% to 15% of their party’s primary turnout, ultra-progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wound up in Congress, following an 11% primary turnout in New York’s 14th congressional district.
Gerrymandering every ten years worsens the problem because the practice produces safe seats, making low-turnout primaries a bonanza for entrenched politicians. Today, fringe voters disproportionately populate the voting booths on primary day in America. Candidates who do not cater to the fringe in their party are simply toast because the fringe dominates Primary Day throughout the country. Consider this, the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 was selected by less than 5% of the U.S. electorate.
The country is constantly being pulled away from the center, and the ramifications are terrible. Arguably, the future might lie with the MAGA crowd on the far right or, conversely, with the woke brand of progressivism on the far left. Either way, we would be done.
Either extreme in control of our destiny would signal the end of the American experiment as Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, and other founders envisioned it. We will not have evolved to their best hope, but, instead, we will have devolved into their worst fear. The American experiment really would be done. Franklin prayed we could make the new republic work but seriously feared we couldn’t. Maybe he was right. The better angels he and later Abraham Lincoln depended on seem to be far and few in between.
According to a recent New York Times-Siena College poll, only 13 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction. A recent Gallop Poll determined that two out of three Americans believe the country needs a new political party. Independents now far outnumber either Democrats or Republicans. These are very telling statistics but not very surprising trends.
Here’s another query: everyone raise your hand if you feel reassured when Mitch McConnell rises to speak for the Republicans. How about when Chuck Schumer rises to speak for the Democrats? You get the picture. We’re experiencing a schizophrenic American moment. We watch the MAGA crowd, the law and order folks, pummeling police at the Capitol last year while the far left calls for defunding the police and looks the other way at urban disorder. The time seems quite ripe to make something of the perennial partisan cry, “time for a change.”
Enter Forward, the new political party, the formation of which was announced this week. Forward is Co-chaired by Republican Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor and later Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Democrat Andrew Yang. Whitman was a fine and dedicated public servant. Andrew Yang is energetic, likable, and intelligent but a twice failed contender for elected office. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and for Mayor of New York last year.
What Whitman and Yang are endeavoring to accomplish is admirable. Still, third parties don’t win in America, and it is highly questionable whether Forward will do much better than Ralph Nader’s Green Party, Ross Perot’s United We Stand, George Wallace’s American Independent Party, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull-Moose Party, or William Jennings Bryan’s Populist Party. And that just scratches the surface of failed third-party attempts to lead.
So, the question is, how essential are political parties as they are constituted today, compared to, say, alternative candidate tickets? Would qualified candidates who chose to run but not as party candidates have a chance? After all, the available data strongly suggest that most Americans are fed up with our two main political parties, and third parties never seem to gain much traction.
George Washington did not belong to a political party and dreaded their inevitable formation. He understood that political parties would have agendas other than orderly and responsible governance. Parties, Washington understood, would be little more than factions struggling for control; those who saw the future in population centers and commerce (think Hamilton) versus those who saw the future in an agrarian, less transactional world (think Jefferson). Before leaving office, Washington warned that political parties would allow “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men to subvert the power of the people.” Washington lamented, in his farewell address to the nation, “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Rather omniscient, the father of our country.
Washington’s warning over two hundred years ago doesn’t seem like fear-mongering today. After all,147 Republican members of Congress were perfectly willing to overturn, without a shred of justification, the results of the last presidential election because their party leader demanded it of them. Those who balked were ridiculed and driven from party leadership. The nation will remain at risk of severe factionalism until the American electorate recognizes that presidential primaries are equally as important as general elections, and we must turn out for these contests as though the country’s future depended on it—because it does.
Our political parties aren’t what they used to be. That needs to change…and fast.