Parties, Public Political Participation, and the Utah Party Caucuses March 25

Tonight are the Utah party caucuses. Are you going to participate?

My own participation has not always been a sure thing. In American History class in junior high (was it 7th or 8th grade?), we were required to read George Washington’s farewell address. At the time I was much less skilled at deciphering the florid prose of that era, and did not glean as much as I have in subsequent years. But even then, I gleaned one thing from the address. Washington was no fan of political parties or other forms of factionalism.

This struck a chord with me. I didn’t have anything invested in politics at the time; my parents weren’t really politically active or conscious. They were, like so many western Mormons, pretty much reflexively Republican. I had no reason at the time to question their affiliation, casual though it was. But the inter-party squabbling seemed a stupid way to conduct the business of a nation, and the one-dimensional way of characterizing a politician based on their party (Reagan was glorified, while anyone named Kennedy was scorned) seemed juvenile.

My further investigations into history did nothing to improve my perception of parties. Parties almost invariably become more concerned with obtaining and holding domination than anything else. From multitude of factions in ancient Athens, to the Optimates and Populares in the Roman Republic, to the Blues and Greens in the Byzantine Empire, to the Blacks and Whites of Machiavelli’s Florence, to the clans of the Scottish Highlands (in truth much closer to political parties than to genetic families) to the Whigs and the Tories, to Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s/Madison’s Republicans, to our modern Republicans and Democrats, all gleefully drag themselves through the mud to try to maintain power. Rather than attempt to use discourse, persuasion, and rationality to cultivate the will of the people, they go through all sorts of skullduggery to circumvent the public will. Whatever guiding principles they may claim to champion typically become lost in their quest for power. Consider, for example, the Republican expansion of government despite their purported small government agenda, or the Democratic willingness to abandon their populist principles and court corporate America, or the way either has taken up the militarist banner when it suits them. U.S. political history for the last century and a half is simply the story of public outrage over one party, turning the power over to the other until it becomes complacent and corrupt enough for the public to become outraged again. I would prefer a political system without parties, in which we could truly evaluate candidates and programs based on unadulterated ideology and integrity rather than party affiliation, “electability,” or whether the candidate is sufficiently ingratiated with the party bosses. I’m certain there would still be corruption without parties, but it would be more difficult to institutionalize it.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that humanity seems predisposed to parties. We seem desperate to belong, to be able to identify with a particular entity. We are swayed by the ease of established networks of organization within party structures—and the funds into which those networks can tap. Eliminate civilization entirely and still parties will spring forth like weeds (Isn’t The Lord of the Flies just the story of the spontaneous genesis of parties among a group of isolated boys?).

If we’re going to have parties, I’d prefer a lot of them. A binary party system is both polarizing and restrictive. It is too easy for one particular entity to gain domination. It is also too easy for the parties to conspire together for their own interests. We in Utah can complain about the gerrymandering of the Republican majority, but there are plenty of states with a partisan balance where the Democrats and Republicans have sat in the same smoke-filled room to divy up the districts. With multiple parties, there is less chance that alternative voices are stifled or entirely ignored. It is more difficult for any one party to become dominant and to be able to ignore the others. Coalition building would be required. I think our politics would be greatly enhanced by many strong parties, both liberal (Green, Social Democrat, Liberal Christian, Social Christian, what have you) and those not necessarily associated with modern liberalism (Libertarian, Constitutional Party, maybe an explicitly Conservative Christian, etc).

But the reality is that right here, right now, we have a two-party political environment. Hopefully one day we can see many thriving parties—but here in Utah, we probably need to start with a second strong party! This being the case, the primary way for ordinary citizens like you and I to become politically relevant is to participate in our local parties. When the public does not participate in any great number, the parties become accountable not to the public, but to very narrow interests. We can best make our voices heard, shape agendas, keep the machinery in line, and contribute to grassroots change by becoming involved in our caucuses.

Democracy is an incredibly powerful force, but a rather fragile one as well. It takes sustained effort by We the People to make it vibrant and healthy. Call your local party office, locate your caucus meeting, and become involved.

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14 Responses to “Parties, Public Political Participation, and the Utah Party Caucuses March 25”

  1. MarcusDcas Says:

    I often feel sorry for you in the US, not in a condescending “my country is the best” kind of way but REALLY sorry, that you are locked in this two party system. Both for the country but also for you as individuals. That there’s really two choices to choose from when it comes to the general election.

    I’m from Sweden (though I live in London at the moment) and we have around 7-8 parties to choose from that are concidered the main ones, and are pretty stable in making it to the parliament/congress (though if you count the ones that fall by the wayside and don’t make it to the parliament it’s tons more)

    No political system is perfect I guess, but I feel it’s really rewarding to have so many choices, as it’s easier to find some party that lies closer to what you actually feel.

    When the process of creating a government arrives after the election, no party ever gets full majority anymore, subsequently there’s always some form of a coalition made with a leaning to the left or right (right at the moment).
    Some may argue, I guess, that this can cause to create a government that is potentially more ineffective and heavy handled, but it actually works out really good. The parties forming the government all have a solid common ground to work from, otherwise they would have been able to form a coalition in the first place, and the diversity that exists just adds to the democratic power and that more people actually have “their” true feelings represented in the leadership of the country.

    I like it, even though the Swedish “right” managed to snatch the election last time … man, their should be some kind of law against it …

    🙂

  2. MarcusDcas Says:

    Sorry for all the misspellings and grammatical errors, when I woke up today it felt like my brain had been put through a shredder and that a chimpanzee had put it together again.

  3. D. Sirmize Says:

    Derek, I accidentally posted that last comment the wrong account. Could you please delete the comment so I can repost it under mine? Thanks.

  4. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I have had the same feelings. Neither Republicans nor Democrats reflect my feelings, which generally come down in the libertarian area. However, looking at places like Italy, I hesitate to think that a large number of powerful parties would be a good thing, although in the long run it would at least blur some dividing lines that keep the right and left from even associating with each other. I do have a problem with the way these parties muck up the process. I can elaborate further, but I had one encounter in particular with Brister or whatever his name was that was running on the Green Party ticket in SLC a couple of years ago which left me absolutely speechless, and more convinced than ever that the majority of people involved in third-party politics are kooks, at least the way they are doing it now.

  5. N8Ma Says:

    Although Sweden has a functioning multi-party democracy, places like Italy don’t. Then you see the parties-within-parties that make up the LDP in Japan. So perhaps it’s not the two-party system that is in and of itself a bad thing. Perhaps it depends on the way the democracy is structured? In a Westminster system, multiple parties make sense. But the US government has a a powerful, not figurehead executive. So cobbling together coalitions of 4+ parties doesn’t make for a good President?

    I dunno. Ultimately I don’t think the nation benefits from being offered only “chicken” or “beef” solutions to our problems. But then again, a political system that boils everything down to a clean either/or makes things a bit simpler.

    At any rate, you might run into my brother at this thing. He’s active with the Utah County Dems.

  6. D. Sirmize Says:

    My problem with the party system is the dilemma it puts us in when it comes to these caucuses. By officially affiliating yourself with a party, a person signs on to everything in that party’s platform. This becomes a problem when the political party you’re registering with officially takes positions that contradict personal religious or moral beliefs.

    What’s interesting to me is the comparatively recent evolution of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Now I would imagine that while I’d bet Derek votes 100% Democrat, he would never name his blog “A Mormon Democrat”. And while I generally vote straight Republican, I would never call myself a Republican.

    We use “conservative” and “liberal” to identify ourselves with a political mindset- but at the same time we’re essentially identifying ourselves with a political party- just in a more vague and no-strings-attached way. It’s almost a rationalization.

    Like I mentioned on another comment thread here, “liberal” and “conservative” have become de facto parties. Although there is some fluidity, most conservatives generally think alike as do most liberals. We’re still partisans even without party affiliations.

  7. jennifer Says:

    Good points everyone. The 2 party system can be really stiffling, yes. It kind of forces a “black and white” perspective for whichever party you most agree with. However, most people when they stop to think about it, have a few cross-over views on a topic or two. (well, I guess that some people never stop to think about it….)

    Derek’s point about UT is important, in that we are often more like a one party state in some regards. Often during the legislature, discussion is squashed or dismissed because of the supermajority of the Repulicans. But the added perspectives and mutual oversight can make for better policy in the end, in my opinion.

    For the record, I have voted for Republicans on occasion 😉 but most often Democrats – – I am not registered w/ any party.

    The words “conservative” and “liberal” tend to confuse the issues, but Sirmize is right that we use those words often to remain non-comittal in the 2 party format. Someone could claim to be a conservative on fiscal and budget matters but less on social issues and vice versa. Foreign policy too could be sliced up along that same continuum. When one factors in trust in government, you can imagine a different continuum of “authoritarian” vs. “libertarian” – – somewhat independent of the “conservative/liberal” continuum. We recognize that a libertarian could be quite conservative OR quite liberal.

  8. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Great point, Sirmize. I hate having to sign on for everything that one party stands for. Pro-choice? Congratulations, you’re also pro-gun control! It’s obnoxious.

    Jennifer, I would LOVE to see the authoritarian/libertarian continuum added to the grid. It might open people’s eyes to just how much influence BOTH parties want to exert over their lives. And I would love to see those who fall under the authoritarian side try to run an effective campaign. Ultimately, if you give it time, “authoritarian” would become a dirtier word than “liberal,” in my opinion.

    I have to disagree that the conservative-liberal question is really as new as we think it is. Michael Medved (who is the only national conservative talk show host I find worthy of respect) just talked about this the other day. He was involved heavily in the Democratic party and antiwar movement during Vietnam, and worked in 1970 for a Congressional campaign where they tested some key words. “Liberal” got a horrible response, and “progressive” tested very well. So the connotations have been around for a while.

  9. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Marcus, thanks for sharing your personal experience. Yes, I’m sure nothing is perfect, but I feel multiple options would work better. The inefficiency you talk about could actually be considered a virtue. George Will, conservative pundit, once made the case that government gridlock is often beneficial, because it prevents government from rashly making big changes or mucking about in the lives of the public. An interesting thought.

    Aaron, remember that there are many governments outside of Italy which use multiple parties, and few of them have the reputation for ineptitude and corruption which Italy has. There are a number of historical factors playing into Italy’s situation. Please, consider some other examples.

    I think if you look at history, you will see that the connotations of “liberal” and “conservative” was largely reversed from at least the 1890’s to the 1960’s. Liberal was considered the more positive term by the general populace. It was not until the Evangelical takeover of the conservative movement in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s that liberal became considered a negative term.

    Good thoughts, N8ma. I’ve heard it the thought that part of the problem in the U.S. system is that we combine the executive (ie, managerial) job with the directorial (leadership) job, which makes of both. An intriguing perspective, but that sort of re-engineering of our essential form of government is far less likely than the very improbable growth of multiple parties.

    As I avoid Utah county like the plague, I probably won’t run into your brother (unless we happen to bump into one another at the state convention).

    Actually, D, that is a bet you would lose. In the four presidential elections for which I’ve been old enough to participate in, I’ve voted Democrat exactly once. The percentage is higher for state and local elections, as there alternatives are more rare, but It hardly approaches 100%.

    I call myself a Liberal Mormon because my political thoughts have nothing to do with a given party. I’ve investigated the liberal perspective independent of any party connection or platform. I find that in virtually every aspect, it conforms with the fundamental moral principles of my faith; not perfectly, but to a significant degree, and far better than conservatism does. Liberal identifies an ideology, a philosophical perspective, not a party. Of course most people who share that ideology see the world the same way; that is why they share the ideology.

    To the degree that the Democrats conform to the principles of liberalism, I support them. When they do not (and they very frequently have not over the past century), or when they do not represent a distinctly less conservative perspective than their Republican foe, I do not (here’s something to chew on; If the race boils down to Clinton or McCain, the odds are roughly equal that I vote for either of them or Nader).

  10. D. Sirmize Says:

    I think at this rate it will be Obama vs. McCain. I’ll be reluctantly voting for McCain. Gotta tell you though, it’s been an absolute blast watching Obama and Hillary bloody each other up.

    Derek, you may have done this elsewhere on your blog, but I wonder if you could some time lay out some of the main reasons you think liberalism best fits Mormonism. Not so I can refute them or anything. I’m just interested. As a staunch, well-studied conservative product of a leftist college, I’m pretty set in my view that conservatism best fits my faith. One of us is right, no? I’m just interested in your take.

  11. Derek Staffanson Says:

    D, a primary purpose of this blog is to demonstrate that the conservative perspective is flawed theologically, and that liberalism more closely approximates a Gospel perspective: the manner in which we deal with issues of public morality (homosexual marriage, for example), illegal immigration, issues of social justice (poverty, equality), environmentalism, church-state divide, foreign affairs (war, the way we handle humanitarian aid, torture, etc). If you want examples, most of the posts listed in the sidebar (essential posts) would provide such.

  12. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I realize there are few first-world countries with a more unstable government than Italy. You are right, that is just one example, and an extreme one. However, I am just trying to point out that in their case, the multi-party system may actually make things even less efficient. Honestly I find myself agreeing with you more and more that several parties would be preferable to what we have now. But the way most third-party supporters are doing things now holds absolutely no hope of ever changing things. Brister’s strategy a couple of years ago (and this is from a direct conversation between he and I) was to drive more support to the Republicans and away from Matheson, in the insane belief that by driving the support further right, it would eventually come back to the left. I told him that was just going to make it harder for the Greens to ever have a voice, and that you weren’t going to drive people to your side by diverting them to someone who is even more far removed from you ideologically, but he had the same self-righteousness that plagues a lot of these well-meaning but clueless third-party supporters. You make a difference by getting involved where there are people to hear your ideas. Until people start getting that, I see little hope of really making the system run as it was intended.

  13. jennifer Says:

    Good point Aaron about efficiency. The more parties involved, the more time required for negotiating, explaining, compromising, formulating, etc. The fewer parties the less time. The quickest would be to have a dictator just decided everything for us. Like Bush said a few years ago, governing would be much simpler if he didn’t have to deal with congress (those aren’t his exact words, but you get the idea) YIKES!!! And that was back when congress was majority Republican.

    The concept of the the right eventually becoming the left: it’s true that as the extremes of left and right diverge from “center” they begin to have more in common with each other than with center. You can see some similarities among 3rd party platforms which might appear to be opposite at first glance. Most voters don’t think of it that way or understand why it is.

    Here’s one, maybe humorous example: What groups might oppose a state wide “traditional legal definition of marriage?” A) the homosexual community B) the polygamous community. Both groups are at odds with the center mainstream notions of this issue.

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    The broken and corrupt two party system threatens us all, event if we are not from NJ. Take a stand.

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