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Isn’t It Time to Rid Ourselves of Political Parties?

They’ve outlived their usefulness and stand in the way of getting anything done for Americans. We should turn to electoral approaches that diminish their impact and influence.

Nast cartoon
An 1874 political cartoon by Thomas Nast: Nast was an early popularizer of the elephant and the donkey as the symbols of the major parties. (Library of Congress)
Americans complain frequently that politicians don’t work together to get the simplest things done to make their lives easier. Bipartisanship is mostly a thing of the past because so many Democrats and Republicans now view their political opponents as enemies and even evil. For some time now, I have been questioning the need for political parties in electoral politics. Perhaps it is time to get rid of them and let candidates run not as Democrats or as Republicans but simply as Americans.

I am sure some would argue that the problem is not with political parties per se but rather with the two major parties that are controlled by the same corporate interests and beholden to Wall Street and billionaires. They argue we need to reform electoral politics and make it easier for minor parties and their candidates to compete. I maintain that parties of all sizes and purposes have become problematic because both party leadership and rank-and-file members assume and insist that once in office elected officials are going to adhere to their parties’ tenets and platform issues.

Historically, the Democratic and Republican parties can trace their beginnings back to the Founding Fathers. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were Federalists, much like modern-day Democrats: They wanted a strong central government and a national banking system. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe instead advocated for a smaller and decentralized government, their views more akin to those of the Republican Party I knew before Donald Trump took office. The issues that later separated the factions, including slavery, are in the past and bear little resemblance to the problems that separate today’s parties, such as abortion, income inequality, a broken criminal justice system, easy access to guns and assault weapons, and huge tax breaks for the wealthy. The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln died not long after his assassination.

Today’s Republican Party is the party of Donald Trump. It refuses to address factions within its party that are anti-democratic, white supremacists, election deniers and armed militia members. Moderate Republican senators like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney have allowed Trump and his cult-like followers to transform their party into something more akin to what exists in Putin’s Russia or in a banana republic.

The Democratic Party has had to deal with its own cracks and fractures. President Biden can’t pass voter rights legislation named for the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, safeguard a woman’s right to an abortion or enact strong gun regulations that would make us all safer. What good is a political party if it can’t help you govern effectively and push through important legislation?

What political parties can do is sometimes frustrating to executive officials. They help elect candidates of the officials’ own party who later become thorns in their sides. “Blue Dog” Democrats limited what former President Obama could achieve during the short window of his first term when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are doing the same today to Biden. Alliances in the Republican Party are awkward but less noticeable because loyalty to Trump leaves little room for diversity of thought within the GOP. Those who oppose him, as did U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, do so at their own peril.

The two-party system that dominates electoral politics today has also contributed to grotesque amounts of money being spent on political campaigning. In 2019, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that over $100 million was spent on the Georgia governor’s race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. In this year’s race for governor in Texas between incumbent Republican Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, the candidates together had raised approximately $90 million as of June 30; since the race has tightened, that amount could double by November. And the record of all records was the more than $14 billion spent by and on behalf of candidates Trump and Biden during the 2020 national elections.

Without political parties, everyone would have to run as an independent or nonpartisan. Nonpartisan elected or appointed offices are more common in local government, certainly for school boards, mayors, city council seats and for judges up and down the ballot. When I was elected as an Atlanta city councilman, it was in a nonpartisan contest. I enjoyed the nonpartisan environment because it required me to work hard to gain support of my colleagues by arguing the merits of my proposals — not merely appealing to their political parties.

I believe we have arrived at a time and place where political parties have outlived their usefulness and no longer serve productive purposes. It is time to turn our attention to other methods of electing candidates for office. Reforms like ranked-choice voting, “top-two” primaries, nonpartisan elections and other approaches that further democracy and are not reliant on one being a member of a major party should be given serious consideration. It is time to return the focus to the needs of the American people. Political candidates and elected officials who swear to work for the greater good shouldn't have to swear an oath to a political party as well.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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