Reflections on Our Party System: Made in the USA

Reflections on Our Party System: Made in the USA

I recently spent an enjoyable hour with the current class of Leadership Tampa. Together with Dr. Susan MacManus (who I consider the dean of Florida electoral politics), we talked Florida politics, Tampa Bay politics and transportation (the dominant infrastructure issue of the day).

Most of the time was devoted to Q&A, which is my preference (and Dr. MacManus’s) for such groups. They always have questions. We all learn more by listening to the questions and considering possible answers.

Two of the questions struck me as at once profoundly important and profoundly troubling.

One, from a professional woman whose story is one of the multitude of true immigrant-family-lives-the-American-Dream narratives, focused on the circus that has been the presidential nomination process to date. She asked us for a good reason not to be cynical about the whole process and about the future of this country.

The other, also from a professional woman (whose story I do not know), noted the divisiveness of the whole approach of both major political parties and just asked if we couldn’t get rid of parties altogether.

What could we say?

The experience of finding neither party speaking to or for you is quite common. The dramatically rising tide of independent registrants, in Florida and across the country, gives pretty clear evidence of this.

Watching intra-party and inter-party warfare in our state and national capitals, it’s not hard to understand the desire simply to get rid of parties and vote for people of character.

In short, the visible realities of our current political culture give ample cause for one to become cynical, to want to throw the whole thing out. Anything, one might imagine, is better than this.

But that imagining is profoundly wrong.

I’m no Pollyanna for the American political system or the Democratic and Republican parties. The sun may come out tomorrow, but I have no problem saying things are pretty gray today.

The very things that cause one to despair today, however, are things that were created over time by the concerted efforts of various groups of citizens, various organizational interests, and even our friends in the media. They changed over the last few decades . . . and they can change again.

In the 1970s, the common complaint among pundits, some politicians, and many political scientists was that the parties were really essentially the same. For all the campaign hype about the disastrous consequences if the other party won, things didn’t change very much when they did. There were Republicans who were more liberal than many Democrats, and Democrats more conservative than many Republicans. There were hawks and doves, spenders and cutters, Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates in both party’s ranks, even among their most prominent elected officials. In some races, the differences between the Democrat and the Republican were dramatic. In others, truthfully, the only real difference was whether they liked donkeys or elephants.

Pundits railed against it. Political scientists taught that we should have a “responsible party system,” where parties staked out very different agendas and were rewarded or punished for those agendas (and their success in prosecuting them). Smart political strategists and politicians saw a weakness to exploit for political gain.

Fast forward to today. Pundits rail against the inability of the two parties to find common ground. Political scientists criticize the parties for their failure to connect with voters, noting the large numbers of voters who declare themselves independent of any party. And some political strategists and politicians see a weakness to exploit for political gain (as Florida’s current governor clearly has proven can be done).

One can like the old ways better, or the new. What we need to understand is that, together, over time, never exactly as we planned, we have fashioned these changes in our political system. That might be cause for some self-flagellation. But it also is cause for hope.

Our political system is a domestic product, made in these United States. We are the ones who made it. We can make it anew.