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.