Independents and the Two Party System

February 18, 2008 on 3:55 am

In his book Revolutionary Characters (Penguin), Pulitzer Prize winning historian Gordon Wood takes on the issue of what made seven founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison and Paine) great. In his treatment of John Adams, Woods discusses how the concept of sovereignty in the United States emerged during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In effect, sovereignty is not surrendered by the people to the government, but delegated to the branches of the government for specific purposes and periods of time, with those elected to serve subject to recall as the people see fit.

The idea of sovereignty remaining in the people was a departure from European models. In Europe, there were estates or orders of people (royals, aristocrats, clergy, commoners) each of which had claim to a part of the government; e.g. the House of Lords and the House of Commons. By our Constitution, the sovereignty of the people was delegated to elements of government, each of which acted as a check on the others, all in the interest of the people, each person of whom was born equal. This was radical.

But it also raised the issue of how the people were to delegate the authority of their sovereignty to their government. At the federal level, an elective process was established in the Constitution. But who was to organize the process of candidate selection among the 3 million people in a country stretching along 1,000 miles of coastline in the late 1700s?   

With an emerging complexity of views on the issues of the day, the electorate soon found itself organizing political groupings, the most notable being the Federalists, who favored a stronger central government, and the Republicans, who favored a weaker one. Today’s Democrat Party tracks it origin to the latter, with today’s Republican Party reflecting the economic perspectives of the former. The parties, in short order, were to become the venue between the people and the government.

While political parties’ purposes are both noble and necessary, the parties themselves remain fallible. Sometimes they reflect more the goals and interests of their leaders than their members or the nation. Also, they can sometimes so link themselves to the structure and operation of government as to drain sovereignty away from the people into the bureaucracy, to the certain detriment of both the people and government. It is in this way that democracies can decline, can slip into tyranny.

The two party system, however, creates an environment wherein groups can combine their resources and meld their interests with a real hope of impact, even control. And since we delegate sovereignty to the separate branches of government, we can have an Executive branch of one party and a Legislative branch of the other. (Recently we had the Senate under one party, and the House under the other.) The risks of a tyranny of the majority, or even the minority, are thus greatly contained.

Today’s Independent is significantly advantaged by the two-party system. The Constitutional requirement of an absolute majority of electoral votes to win the presidency compels those seeking it to develop voter groupings on a range of issues and orientations under one party in order to win. And as one party gains the advantage, the other party seeks to grow its base and strengthen its impact. Absent the requirement of an absolute majority, the political process would likely fracture into multiple parties and factions leaving the Independent to sort among the splinters and all but assuring that his or her vote would go unnoticed and unregarded.

With only two candidates for whom to vote, Independents will generally have a clear choice, with exit polling giving them an identity and presence in the election. Independents, then, have an interest in the well being and proper functioning of each party. This primary season seems likely to give us a broader based Republican Party which can be expected to lessen partisanship in the legislative process. (See For the GOP, A Tonic Named McCain by Jonathan Rauch, National Journal ) The Democrats, however, appear at great risk of a primary season closure that could wound it gravely. This is in the long term interests of no one.

Of the 20 primaries remaining, nine are open to Independents: Hawaii, Washington, Wisconsin on February 19; Ohio, Texas, Vermont on March 4; Mississippi on March 11; Indiana on May 6; Montana on June 3. Get out there and vote, if for no other reason than to strength the system on which so much depends.  





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