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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Join a Major Political Party. I Don't Care Which One.

To paraphrase our first president, it is the interest and duty of a wise people to restrain its political parties. At present, this is the only way to restrain and redirect our government. The only way to do that effectively in the short run or the long run is from the inside.

In my arguably not-very-humble opinion, I think all the Americans who have started caring about government and economics in the last couple of years, including but not limited to the Tea Partiers, should pick one of the two major parties, join it, get active in it, and start pulling it away from the cliff. I think all the people who have a long-standing interest in government and politics, but who -- for whatever reason -- have shunned partisan politics, should do the same. This is how we pull the country away from the cliff.

But Washington Said . . .

What's that? Yes, thank you, I hold George Washington in the highest esteem, and I'm well aware that he didn't like political parties. He was concerned that, where political parties are active, they tend to put in the place of "the delegated will of the nation" something less wise and honorable, often the will "of a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community" . . .

. . . and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests. However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

. . . The spirit [of party] . . . is seen [in governments of popular form] in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension . . . is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty. . . .

The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. . . . (Farewell Address, 1796)

Washington also wrote, "If we mean to support the liberty and independence which it has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish, we must drive far away the demon of party spirit" (Letter to Arthur Fenner, 1790).

Shameless Tangent: Behind the Scenes at the Blog

I already know that some of you like to peek behind the scenes at the blog, and some of you don't. If you are in the latter category, skip to the next section.

Those of you who are still here may be interested to know that I have written and rewritten this post several times in recent months. I have written it long and short and a couple of lengths in between.

Let me try that again, more accurately. I have written it long and longer, and a couple of lengths in between. That's a little more believable, isn't it?

I've scrapped the whole draft a few times and started again from scratch. In most of those attempts, I've tried to lead the reader carefully from views many people share, in a meticulous and irresistibly reasoned path to a completely unwelcome conclusion: join a party and get involved. I've approached it from other directions, too.

Just last night, or it might already have been morning, technically, I decided that it was time to settle on an approach, write the thing one more time, and post it. I decided to begin, as I have, with my absurd and offensive proposition --apologies if you're still reeling -- and follow with some good, juicy George Washington quotations, as I have.

Lots of Reasons to Avoid and Disdain Political Parties

I cannot begin to count the number of people I know who find "the spirit of party," to use Washington's phrase, so distasteful that they despise and avoid both major parties. Some of them are quite matter-of-fact about it; others are preening, condescending, and self-congratulatory about it. I've been listening to and conversing with these antipartisans for decades, but especially in the last few months. Here is a partial list of the reasons I hear for avoiding political parties:

  1. Some people are simply uninterested in politics and government, even to the point of being indifferent to their taxes, the economy generally, and whether or not there's a federal bureaucrat tinkering with their health care or their health insurance. Any attempt to involve them seems vain, and any success might be counterproductive, anyway. I've never thought that people who don't care and don't know should vote.
  2. Some care about government, but not about politics. They want to be free and not to be taxed into oblivion, but they also want us all to agree and get along -- or at least to disagree gently and get along. Any brush with politics, especially partisan politics, arouses distaste, disgust, or even disdain. It doesn't feel good, so they abstain.
  3. Some think the two major political parties in the United States are basically the same, and their bitter differences are just wrangling for power. No third party interests them; there's no point, and most of those are even more extreme and combative, anyway. You'd think these folks might be shaken in their "Republicrat" interpretation of the political world by ObamaCare, if nothing else, but some of them aren't.
  4. Some have firm political views which substantially diverge from the platforms of the major parties, but would join a third party if they could find a compatible one, viable or otherwise. That haven't found one, and they can't or don't wish to start their own, so they are officially nonpartisan. That's a reasonable stance -- except that now the ship is sinking, and you either bail with a red or blue bucket, or you don't bail.
  5. Some believe that their political views are God-given, that is, logical and inevitable extensions and applications of the unambiguous commandments of God, and that anyone who rightly understands these commandments will have precisely the same views. Some of these actually fear exposure to dissenting views as any committed religious person fears temptation to sin. This perspective diverges radically from my own views of religion, government, and truth, but I'm sorry to say that it is logical in its way. If one's political views are moral absolutes, derived from the ultimate moral absolutes, then to consider others' views really is to flirt with temptation, which is itself a sin, not to mention folly. To allow oneself to be persuaded to change an opinion is to yield to temptation, which is an even greater sin. Understandably, people who think this way react to the disagreement and compromise of practical politics with something more severe and more judgmental than mere distaste. I don't know what to do about them, except to try to keep them as far as possible from political power.
  6. Quite a number of my nonpartisan friends used to be partisans. Some of them were quite zealous, and didn't like themselves or others very much in such a role. Some of them have simply been so frustrated and embarrassed by their parties' behavior, or so often betrayed by their parties' candidates, that they want nothing to do with a party. Some of them have tried both major parties, with the same unpleasant results.

I have friends, to say nothing of other associates, who fit each of the six items I listed. In four of six cases (2, 3, 4, and 6) my own sensibilities and experience could easily move me in the same direction, except for the argument I'm trying to make here. If you have other reasons for not joining and acting to influence a party, I'd love to hear them, but I don't think they'll dissuade me of my point.

In the Real World

I would love to live in the world George Washington envisioned, where even at the national level public opinion is nonpartisan and "the public administration [is] . . . the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests." But I don't live in that world. Neither do you. Neither, in fact, did George Washington.

Like it or not, the American political system is a two-party system. There are other parties, I know, but they rarely get any traction, and when they do, their overall effect seems to be to undermine their own objectives. It has been more than a century since a new party arose to eclipse an established party. The likelihood is very small of a new party arising in time to affect the next two national elections, in 2010 and 2012, which I believe are crucial to the intact survival of what has made Americans Americans these many years. (I mean no disrespect to the Tea Party, but it is a revolutionary party, not a governing party, and will not be able to become a governing party quickly enough. More on that someday soon.)

If you intend to have a lasting impact on state and national government in the foreseeable future, you'll need to do it from inside a party. To do that, you'll have to join a party and get involved. I really don't care whether you become a Republican or a Democrat. Both parties need all the good people they can get.

It hardly matters at the moment that a two-party system isn't precisely George Washington's ideal. With all due reverence to him, I feel quite confident that, if we could ask him, he would agree that, when the barn is already on fire, you have to fight the fire with whatever you have. You won't help at all if you insist on standing around and telling everyone within earshot that we really need a newer, shinier fire engine and a bigger hose.


Rather than discoursing at length on every detail of my argument -- which regular readers know I can do to a fault -- I pose instead a few questions and invite your answers.

A lot of good people who never paid attention to politics, and many who actively shunned politics, have begun taking an active interest in the last year or so. A bunch of them showed up at my precinct caucus in March, not quite knowing how things worked, and lacking clever sound bites to spout on major issues, but determined to learn to be involved. They and millions of Americans across the country are part of a large, impressive awakening -- and I don't mean just the Tea Party movement.

By and large these are intelligent, serious people, who know what it is to live on a budget. They know that mere hope does not overcome consequences, and that not every change in life is a happy one. They may not have been steeped in politics since they were knee-high to an congressional intern, but they have somehow amassed enough common sense to survive and perhaps even prosper in life. My favorites among them don't see any reason why government should take care of us, when we can take care of ourselves and each other.

My questions are about these people, and about the many who still profess their disdain for or disinterest in "partisan politics" -- whether they express this sentiment casually or condescendingly. These last are often intelligent, serious, sensible people, too.

First, if all of this uninvolved and antipartisan intelligence, seriousness, experience, and common sense had been active inside both major American political parties over the past 50 or 60 years, would the federal government have extended its tentacles so far into state and local matters and into life in general? Would we now be unbelievably indebted and still spending as if there were no tomorrow? Would the parties have diverged so far in their principles that all major legislation on major issues would be bitterly divisive and pass or fail in party-line votes?

Second, isn't it a more promising course of action to fill both major parties with such people now -- better late than never -- rather than to wring our hands and hope for a viable, national third party miraculously to emerge, and to assume that it would automatically have all the right party virtues and none of the vices we hate? Isn't it more honorable to fill the parties with good people, rather than to stand aside, detached, watching the piecemeal enslavement and impoverishment of future Americans, who will deserve better? I emphasize the need for this to happen in both major parties, because they tend to alternate in the roles of majority and minority parties, at least where governing is concerned, and because we need two roughly equal parties pushing against each other. One-party government is a colossally bad experience, where it has occurred. So I think it would be best to drag both the Republican and the Democratic parties back to some semblance of sanity and practicality, not just one of them. This is why I say, join a major party -- and I don't care which one.

Third, are you inclined to think there is no hope for success in this approach? If so, you're wrong. Ordinary people can take back a party. Remember Senator Bennett? The party leadership wanted him; the rank and file of the party mostly didn't. Remember Ronald Reagan? Republican leadership didn't want him, but he went over their heads to the people, and they swept him into the White House and kept him there for eight years -- and the world changed, and he became the modern icon of American limited government.

A Few Final Thoughts

If you join one of the major parties, you'll have to learn to apply in a new, heated, energetic context some important lessons you've already learned well in other contexts. You'll have to live with the fact that not everyone will agree with you, even in your own party -- even on your own street. The struggles for dominance within a political party are often every bit as sharp as those between parties -- but those are precisely the struggles where your intelligence, your principles, and your common sense are most needed.

You'll have to lose battles without quitting, change your mind when you learn something new, and compromise to get a partial win instead of a total defeat. You'll have to learn even more patience than you already practice, because meaningful things usually happen slowly in politics. You'll have to learn to work effectively in an environment which includes those rabid partisans you so detest, the ones who put partisan dominance above the welfare of the country -- and you'll have to do it without becoming one of them, or what's the point? You'll have to keep working when you don't appear to be making a difference. Sometimes you won't be, and sometimes you will be; you won't always know which is which.

Along the way, you'll meet some smart and committed people (and some other kinds). You'll learn a lot about people, history, government, and the world at large. You might even learn some things about yourself. You'll feel like you've had a little more say in picking the candidates whose names go on the ballot. You'll be much harder to fool. And I hope you will learn how frustrated a lot of us have been with you all these years, when you dismissed our serious thoughts, questions, and concerns about serious issues without really considering them, because you found it so easy and convenient to dismiss every partisan difference as pure, insubstantial partisanship -- even when it wasn't.

Please get (back) into the game. We need you. Millions of you. The country needs you. Both parties need you. If you wake up one morning and discover that you're in the wrong party, see if it happens a few times in a row. If it does, change parties, and start changing the new one, instead. Don't just drop out; if you do, you will surrender the parties and therefore our government -- and therefore our future -- to the smallest people with the lowest motives . . . which you might say is how we got here in the first place. (I'm not saying that all our past and present leaders have been "the smallest people with the lowest motives," but the honorable ones have been shamefully outnumbered. Shame on us.)

To paraphrase our first president, it is the interest and duty of a wise people to restrain its political parties. In the view of your humble blogger -- who hardly deserves to share a paragraph with George Washington -- at present the only way to restrain and redirect our government is to restrain and redirect both major parties. The only way to do that effectively in the short run or the long run is from the inside.

A Practical Note

I don't want to make this any longer than it already is, so I won't offer detailed instructions here for joining a party and getting involved. (If you're in Utah and you want to vote in the June primaries, you have only a very few days.) But if you want me to help you join and connect with the party of your choice, send me an e-mail. I'll be delighted to help you, even if your partisan choice is the opposite of mine.

Ryan Hammond comments (5/21/2010, via Facebook):

David, maybe my favorite post of yours ever. I love point 5 and I identify with point 6, especially about how certain levels of partisanship can easily turn us into a person we don't particularly like. I would be interested in reading your thoughts about how one guards against this while still remaining active.

It will be very interesting to see what happens with the Tea Party when they must move from vaguish angry critiques to articulating specific policies and positions. It is so much easier to critique something than build it. I share with you the respect for people in both parties that do the difficult work of actually building solutions and grappling with real issues. It is so much easier to say vaguely cut the deficit than it is to make the hard decisions what to cut or what taxes to raise.

Mark Steele comments (5/21/2010, via Facebook):

Excellent article, though I lost the thread for a while in the middle when you were explaining your process.

I'm already a committed partisan, but you provided some great food for thought on the value of persistence and compromise in party efforts. There have been times when I'm discouraged over differences within the party, and this encourages me to keep going. Thanks!

David Rodeback comments (5/21/2010):

Ryan, thanks for the kind works and the excellent suggestion for a follow-up topic. Readers, do you have any suggestions about how to keep working effectively within a party without becoming one of those rabid party-for-party's-sake partisans?

A number of elected officials read this blog; maybe we could get a few of them to comment on the move from campaign rhetoric to "actually building solutions and grappling with real issues." (John? Heidi? Shirl? Tim? Others?)

Mark, I've been writing and teaching writing long enough to know better than to throw a little tangent in, where it will cause nearly everyone to lose the thread. In fact, I do know better, but I did it anyway. "I take full responsibility." Still, some readers tell me they like my tangents best; I'm not entirely certain that's a good thing, but I feel little compunction about accommodating them rather frequently. In this instance, I've just now taken the liberty of adding a flashing yellow light to the original warning sign (so to speak). I also tweaked the wording slightly within the tangent to make it a little less bumpy.

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