Monday, January 30, 2006

The Baneful Effects of Party Spirit

You'll notice one of the links I've posted is to Washington's Farewell Address, which to my mind is one of the wisest political documents in American history. Among other things--such as his famous declaration of religion and morality as the "indispensable supports" of popular government and his exhortation to cultivate "peace and harmony" with all nations--our retiring first president warned his fellow countrymen about the "baneful effects" of party spirit, which "serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."

It is easy enough to see how prophetic Washington's words were, both in his time and in our own. And yet Washington was no naive fool; he himself admitted that party spirit has "its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed" and "within certain limits" political parties do provide "useful checks upon the administration of the government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty."

My own opinion about political parties--formed reluctantly after years of cynicism and reflection--is that they are a necessarily evil, that for reasons of basic human frailty democratic nations cannot conceivably conduct their public affairs without them. But, knowing that we are doomed to live with them, I believe our country would be much better served by the healthy competition of multiple parties than it is by the stagnant monopoly (or is it duopoly?) of our two-party system. The predictable response to this idea is that "we would just end up like Italy" with a crazy circus of third parties constantly winning and losing power. I disagree. I think Italy's parliament reflects the boisterous nature of a Mediterranean society descended from feuding city-states, while in Northern Europe and particularly in England, from whom we derived our political system, one seldom sees more than a few parties in office at any given time. But even three parties are often a vast improvement over two, as one of the two dominant parties must inevitably seek to build a coalition with the third, usually by making concessions to one of the third party's key issues. If Greens and Libertarians were elected to the U.S. Congress, one could easily imagine occasional partnerships between the Democrats and the Greens on one hand, and the Republicans and the Libertarians on the other, with the result that at least some Green and Libertarian ideas would get passed into law. If nothing else the Republicans might start paying more than mere lip service to the idea of "minimal government" if the Libertarian Party had a visible presence in Congress. As it stands now, voters who favor 1) smaller government, 2) balanced budgets and 3) a better form of taxation (be it a flat income tax or a consumption tax of some kind) have no choice at all other than two parties that will never deliver all three, or even just two of the three. And that's a real pity.

To compound this problem, Democrats and Republicans in all 50 states have erected many insurmountable legal and financial barriers that keep third party candidates from ever having a reasonable chance of being elected. Martin Gross catalogues some of these barriers in The Political Racket.

One might fairly ask me at this point, "Wouldn't electing more parties to office just make party spirit worse by simply multiplying it?" It might, but in fact it usually seems to have the opposite effect. The reason, again, is that the parties have to play nicer when building coalitions. It is the smug arrogance of uncontested power that seems to fuel party spirit more than anything, as we see in full display in our two-party government. I believe that healthy competition from third parties would shake the Democrats and Republicans out of their complacency and force them to improve, just as healthy competition in the free market often forces competitors to improve their products.

Imagine if Coke and Pepsi had a complete stranglehold on the market for soda, making it next to impossible for competitor brands to be distributed and sold. One can imagine how much nastier the advertising would be between the two companies as they constantly sought to achieve and maintain market dominance. But break up their monopoly and let Dr. Pepper into the market, and lo and behold they have a popular new rival. Faced with a refreshing new alternative, consumers would be much less interested in hearing the tired old Coke-Pepsi attacks, and those two companies would need to find new ways to market their product, usually by improving it.

Perhaps it's a deluded fantasy to think that a multi-party system would achieve the same results, but I don't think so. And it couldn't possibly be worse than the status quo. I've said it before and I'll likely say it again, but in a society like ours that always preaches free speech, choice and competition, it's nothing less than shocking that we tolerate such a stifling, stagnant and increasingly corrupt two-party system.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Democracy in America

I thought about posting a Top 10 list of the books that have most influenced my political philosophy, but Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America towers so far above the rest that it frankly deserves a post all of its own. I've also included a link to an online version of the book for those who have never read it. I actually prefer the J.P. Mayer translation to the one online, but the differences are mainly ones of prose and not of substance.

The nice thing about reading Tocqueville is that you don't have to feel constrained to reading the book from cover to cover. The chapter titles are all so specific, and sometimes completely unrelated, that you can freely skip around and read the ones that catch your interest as independent essays unto themselves. One of my favorites is a chapter near the very end of Volume II entitled "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations have to Fear."

Tocqueville's perceptive insights about American society and democracy are if anything more important today than they were in the early nineteenth century, and many contemporary authors continue to explore the relevance of his insights today. A good companion piece to Democracy in America is Habits of the Heart, co-written in the 1980's by the sociologist Robert Bellah. Among other things Bellah and his colleagues wrote very eloquently and movingly about the rise of individualism and the decline of republican ideals so much in need today.

The Lyceum is open for business.

The original Lyceum, as some of you may know, was a gymnasium in ancient Athens that served as a place of military exercises and later as a school of philosophy under Aristotle beginning in 335 B.C. Because of my own military background and my interest in philosophy and political science it seemed like the perfect name for this blog, which I created mainly as a forum for amicable discussion with friends who share these interests. In the days and weeks ahead I will occasionally post my thoughts, and I encourage you to read and comment on them. A few words before you do:

1 - I am not terribly interested in partisan politics, though I may occasionally comment on them. I am much more interested in philosophy and political theory, particularly the "first principles" of Western philosophy (from ancient Greece through the Enlightenment) that led to the birth of our nation. I am a republican, not a Republican, a difference I hope to explain in greater detail in future posts.

2 - I prefer discussion to debate, and dialogue to diatribes.

3 - I have many other responsibilities and hobbies that compete for my time, so I may be slow in responding to posts. Bear with me.

Thank you for visiting my Lyceum, and I look forward to hearing from you!