Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Political Parties and Polarization....

In the last week, interesting polls have been published suggesting that a higher proportion of Democrats than ever before believe in the evolution of the human species…while fewer Republicans than ever believe so.

In this morning’s Washington Post, this divergence in the political parties was stated thusly: 

…Political polarization has ushered in a new era in state government, where single-party control of the levers of power has produced competing Americas. One is grounded in principles of lean and limited government and on traditional values; the other is built on a belief in the essential role of government and on tenets of cultural liberalism.
These opposing visions have been a staple of national elections, and in a divided Washington, this polarization has resulted in gridlock and dysfunction. But today, three-quarters of the states — more than at any time in recent memory — are controlled by either Republicans or Democrats. Elected officials in these states are moving unencumbered to enact their party’s agenda…”

During the 1950s – 1970s, it was often hard to draw a hard and fast line between the Republicans and the Democrats.  Northeast “Yankees” like Jacob Javits (A Republican with Liberal Party support from New York) and Edward Brooke (an African-American Republican Senator from Massachusetts) voted with Democrats as often as with Republicans…and southern and western Democrats would make most modern-day Republicans proud.  The lines between the parties was fuzzy, even through the Reagan-Clinton era, as Clinton embraced a “New Democrat” image and Buffalo NY Republican Congressman Jack Kemp argued for paying more attention to urban decay.

Today, it seems that all pretense of ‘variety’ within the parties is gone.

If you’re a Republican, one is expected to embrace an entire litany of positions on abortion, health care, gay rights, the deficit, taxation, capital gains, employment policies, and firearms rights.  If you’re a Democrat, it’s expected that you will walk in lockstep agreement in the opposite direction on all those issues.  The result is a Congress and an electorate that is gridlocked.

But let me suggest that partisanship is not the underlying problem here.

I always wished that the political parties were a little more focused on what they actually stood for; I guess I’ve got my wish now. Like European politics (and most democracies in the world), the parties appear to have developed more specific, identifiable ‘personalities.’
But unlike Europe and Canada and most democracies – the voters’ choices have been institutionally limited to the two major parties.
And that makes it very difficult of you are a person who can not be pigeon-holed into a narrow philosophy.  And that may actually be the majority of American voters.

What does a voter do who believes in stronger gun control, but wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act?  Or, conversely, what does a voter do who supports easy firearm ownership, but also embraces a national health care system? Or who wants to see lower taxes, but less militarism?

In Europe and elsewhere, the answer is a little easier: you choose a party that more closely reflects your values. Canadians may choose from up to 15 parties: New Democrats, Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, Parti Quebecois, Liberals, and Greens; In the UK, one chooses from Conservatives, Unionists, Liberals, Labour, the Scottish Nationalist Party, Greens, Alliance, Sinn Fein, and Independence; Germans choose between Free Democrats, Social Democrats, Christian Social Union, Christian Democratic Union, the Left, and six minor parties that have won seats in state governments.

Standing on an ideological platform is fine; what is not fine is offering voters a choice of only two such platforms, forcing voters to hold their noses and vote for a candidate that stands for many positions with which they disagree. The gerrymandering of districts makes many votes simply an academic exercise anyway; and the ‘winner-take-all notion of congressional districts further thwarts the actual will of 49% of the voters in any district - or across a state.

When Republican and Democrats are able to prevent competition from getting on the ballot; draw district lines that insure their re-election; and need only win 51% of the vote in order to ram through an ideological platform in 100% agreement with their party…the system is broken.

Perhaps Europe and Canada offer a better alternative: proportional representation and multiple parties from which to choose.

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