How Third Parties Can Be Relevant, and Save American Democracy in the Process

I mentioned Duverger’s Law in the last post, which holds that in a “first-past-the-post” system such as what we have where a plurality rules, a two-party system is inevitable. Supporters of third parties constantly try to deny this, claiming some sort of conspiracy of the two major parties to convince people we have a two-party system and so discourage people from voting for third-party candidates. But it’s actually quite simple to demonstrate. Anyone old enough to remember the 2000 election saw it play out firsthand. People dissatisfied with Al Gore’s progressive bona fides decided to cast their vote for Ralph Nader, and in certain states, that gave the vote, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. By voting for a candidate closer to their views they actually elected a candidate further away from them. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to get your way, you stick with the major-party candidate closer to your views no matter what, because veering away from it is counterproductive. (Yes, I am aware that Nader defenders will claim he took equally from both candidates, but it wouldn’t have taken much of a difference in Gore’s favor to swing Florida.)

The Founders may not have been aware of Duverger’s Law, but they still took pains to avoid its consequences in the selection of the President. A majority of the electors are required to choose a President; otherwise the race falls into the House of Representatives, where a majority of states are needed to settle upon a President, recognizing, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, that “it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive”. That a candidate could effectively secure enough electoral votes to win the Presidency when he did not secure a majority of the vote in seven states, accounting for far more electoral votes than his winning margin, indeed when he lost the popular vote by over two million votes, yet his opponent failed to secure a majority either, would greatly offend the Founders. The only place where the Founders did not secure the process from “permit[ting] less than a majority to be conclusive” was in the selection of electors themselves. The electoral college could be greatly reformed, and made far more hospitable to third parties, simply by adding a prohibition against states awarding all their electoral votes to a candidate that didn’t win a majority. But adopting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, as many on the left want to do, without requiring majority rule, would throw out all the wisdom the Founders tried to put into the electoral college while (as we shall see) actually foreclosing what little hope third parties might have to win the Presidency, further entrenching the two-party system and all its problems.

So if you want there to be more than two parties, so that you have an alternative to the two most hated candidates in history, you need to move away from first-past-the-post. Perhaps you adopt something similar to the ranked-choice voting system Maine enacted on Election Day. Or perhaps you follow the example of countries like Britain and Canada, where a multitude of parties reign and effectively challenge the dominance of the major, powerful parties. Those nations use… a plurality-rules, first-past-the-post system?!?

Yes, in Britain and Canada, third parties typically target electoral districts where one of the major parties is irrelevant, allowing them to serve as an alternative to the remaining major party. The viability of third parties in Britain and Canada is usually attributed to their being parliamentary systems, where the head of state is chosen by the legislature. But it’s hard to see how that makes much of a difference. There’s nothing stopping today’s third parties from focusing on winning in specific states and districts where they can be the only viable alternative to the major parties. Indeed, such a strategy should be more viable in the United States, with its gerrymandered districts designed to be safe for one of the two major parties, than in Britain or Canada. It might even completely nullify the problem of gerrymandering. The whole point of gerrymandering is to create a few districts utterly dominated by one party, and then leave the rest of the districts with a large enough majority for the other party so as to leave a sizable underclass of supporters of the first party that are left completely disenfranchised. A party that can appeal to that underclass’s interests, while being palatable to enough members of the majority, should be able to effectively challenge for the district better than the original major party it’s replacing. Done right, possibly assisted by multiple third parties all carrying out the same strategy, it should not be possible to gerrymander your way to one-party rule; no matter how much you disenfranchise the members of one party, you only create an opening for another party to challenge you. Perhaps then district lines could be redrawn to preserve the current two-party system at the expense of giving any party “safe” seats, or they could even be drawn without regards to party preference at all, just whatever makes sense for each state, if it’s not possible to entrench any one party into power.

Under the Founders’ vision, a party looking to influence the direction of the nation should actually focus on Congress more than the Presidency – there’s a reason Congress comes first in the Constitution and why all the powers we popularly associate with the federal government as a whole are attributed to “Congress” in that first article. Indeed, until the expansion of presidential power under Woodrow Wilson, Congress was more powerful than the President – and, as the past decade of gridlock has shown, still wields tremendous power to, if not shape the direction of the country, at least check the President from unilaterally doing so.

But rather than do the hard work of building a party from the ground up, third parties continue to waste their time on moonshots to win the presidency, hoping against hope that the people will, all of a sudden and all at once, reject both major parties and that enough of them would coalesce on just one candidate (which would, of course, be theirs) to steal the presidency. Even if such a thing were to happen, it’s highly unlikely their party would hold any seats in Congress which could leave their President wholly impotent, but the fact that no third-party candidate even became relevant even in the face of the two most hated major-party candidates in history should cause some serious soul-searching in third-party offices, regardless of how much they may blame the media or the two-party system or their inability to get on the debate stage. Only a candidate with enough pre-existing celebrity as Nader can truly achieve relevance, and even he didn’t achieve any of the milestones that could have established truly lasting or at least impactful relevance beyond just tipping the outcome away from his preferred policies.

I’m fairly convinced the 5% threshold to receive funding from the federal government is actually the most anti-third party rule we have, convincing third parties that their presidential moonshots are actually a good way to create a shortcut to building a real party, and once they collect their federal funding they can actually start working on electing people at other levels. Nader didn’t achieve it, and even Gary Johnson, arguably the most qualified third party candidate since at least Nader or Perot, again going against the two most hated major-party candidates, didn’t achieve it. Without actually being able to elect enough people at lower levels to convince would-be politicians that your party is a legitimate means to achieve office, you have no mechanism to build credibility for any candidate you would field or to give them the sort of experience that would at least allow them to know what Aleppo is or name a world leader they admire. And without being able to convince activists that your party is a legitimate means to advance their causes, you’re left to become a club for people far enough outside the mainstream to complain that the two major parties don’t represent them. Johnson was probably the closest any third party is likely to come to a viable, credible candidate as long as they keep chasing the presidency, and he was despised by a large portion of the Libertarian base, his best approach, according to many analysts, being to distance himself from his own party as much as possible. Ultimately, third parties’ laser-focus on the presidency effectively precludes them from being credible and moderate enough to even achieve enough presidential votes to be worth it.

What makes the whole thing even more absurd is that the Founders may have actually intended for the United States to be something akin to a parliamentary system, but failed because of another intersection between their two big blind spots I mentioned last week. The Founders believed that no one other than George Washington would be able to win a majority of the electoral college, simply because it was too difficult for anyone else to achieve enough name recognition across all the states given 18th-century communications technology, meaning most candidates would be regional at best. Thus, the House of Representatives would pick the president on a regular basis, effectively establishing the President’s fealty to the House, but the existence of the electoral college would mean that if another Washington had enough popular will behind him, he could become President without going through the House. The rise of parties would ultimately undermine this vision, but it didn’t have to. If a third party had enough support in the right states and could effectively split the vote on a regular basis, it could regularly force an electoral college deadlock and throw the race into the House, where, presumably, a third party that strong would have a say in who becomes President – something that wouldn’t be possible under the NPVIC without ditching first-past-the-post. So the presidency, and thus the country, continues to be subject to Duverger’s Law, and the President either gets to work with a majority in Congress or butts heads with a faction he has no need to appeal to, because third parties won’t work to make Congress, and with it the Presidential race, work exactly as the Founders intended, because of their laser focus on the Presidency.

That said, if a third party became large enough to regularly throw the Presidential race into the House of Representatives, we might start running into problems that would still warrant some significant changes to the Constitution. In our “democracy uber alles” society, having the House pick the President regularly after nearly two hundred years of the people doing so more or less directly would not go over well, especially if House districts remained gerrymandered (indeed, one could argue we more or less chose a two-party system over House selection of the President in the 1820s after the way the 1824 election played out and the subsequent slow coalescing of Andrew Jackson’s opponents into the Whig party), and it might end up subverting House races if people voted for representatives as a proxy for their presidential vote, since representatives have the “real” power to pick the president, rather than voting for representatives on their own merits. (This seems to be a common phenomenon in Britain, where people effectively cast their vote for the party they want the prime minister to come from, and even happened in the United States, where direct election of Senators was enacted because people were voting for state legislators based on who they wanted to be Senator.)

All this is exacerbated by a quirk of the Constitution: when picking the President, each state gets one vote. This may have made sense when the US was seen as more of a union of individual sovereign states, where the states were primary and the union derived from them, and in a more agrarian society where the state with the most representatives at the time the Constitution was drafted was Virginia with ten, but in today’s urbanized society of mostly neutered states and a stark urban-rural divide both in the landscape and in our politics, it would be quite undemocratic for California’s 50+ representatives to have the same amount of say in picking the president as Wyoming’s one (even if it is the same way the Senate, which would have to pick the Vice President, works).

As much as Democrats may lament that large numbers of their voters only turn out in Presidential years and don’t care as much about Congress or state legislatures despite their importance, that third parties suffer from the same affliction may be far more damaging to the country as a whole. A relevant third party could have offered a real, credible alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, would have allowed a viable option for factions within the parties rather than forcing each faction to fight to make itself heard over the other factions in the major parties and the preferences of the establishment, would break the “with-us-or-against-us” mentality engendered by the two-party system and set itself apart from the major parties in the areas where they do agree (and so allowed themselves to become a true alternative to the establishment), forced compromises instead of gridlock where appropriate, and by their very existence would have done much to ease the scourge of gerrymandering, with both of the latter two having the effect of encouraging moderation instead of leaving the two parties to slowly leave the center behind in order to appease their bases. Instead they keep laser-focusing on the presidency and wonder why the major parties keep ignoring them – and in so doing, may be complicit in the ongoing decline of our democracy. I can only hope it is not too late for them to realize it.


The Constitution’s Two Fatal Flaws, Part II: How the Two-Party System Turned the Presidency Into What the Founders Most Feared

In the last post I talked about the Founding Fathers’ first and most obvious of their two fatal blind spots when making the Constitution, their distrust of political parties without doing anything to prevent their formation or mitigating their effects. But the place where the rise of parties most undermined their vision was in the power of the Presidency, which was designed for a George Washington but which the parties would render tailor-made for a Donald Trump.

The Founders of course were very concerned about the tyranny of a single ruler, not only of a king but also of the governors of the colonies the king appointed, but as they deliberated on the Constitution many of them came to see the President as the safeguard against the tyranny or hubris of Congress, saw him as a way to protect against demagogues in Congress while doing little to prevent the office from being taken by a demagogue himself, feared an oligarchic conspiracy of the Senate without doing much to consider the opposite problem of a wholly impotent one paralyzed by faction, and sought to insulate him from Congress’ influence while doing surprisingly little of the reverse. Thus, after much debate, the convention finally settled on the system whereby a group of electors, determined by a process set by each state legislature but imagined to be mostly chosen by the people, would choose the President, and only if a President failed to receive a majority of the Electoral College did the House of Representatives step in to choose the President from the College’s top vote-getters. His powers were meant to serve as a check on Congress and to be in turn checked by Congress, not as a means to tell Congress what to do, but powers they were, and they provided enough of an opening for the President to seize ever more power across the decades and centuries. Doubtless the fact that George Washington was certain to be the first President, and that he was no would-be tyrant but in fact had no wish to take the office at all, was foremost on their minds. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” said Benjamin Franklin. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” Certainly even the opponents of the Constitution had too much respect for Washington to voice any fears that the Constitution would grant him too much power.

The expansion of presidential power has meant that every twist and turn in the fortunes of the nation inevitably gets credited or blamed to the President, even if Congress actually has more to do with them, because the President is expected to “push through the gridlock” through sheer force of will and effectively tell Congress what to do. In effect, despite our alleged anti-monarchist origins, we seem to expect the President to act as an elected king, and Donald Trump in effect presents himself as what, on some level, we want our President to be, indeed what we think he already is.

For Alexander Hamilton, that the President would bear all the responsibility for all the nation’s ups and downs was a good thing. In Federalist #70, he made the case for vesting executive power in one man rather than diffusing it among many, noting that a diffuse executive would make it harder if not impossible to attribute responsibility for any action or inaction, especially if the executive’s deliberation were kept secret. Hamilton believed that “it is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people”, that if a plurality in the executive did not result in dissension and paralysis, a far more dangerous problem than in the legislature given the urgency of the decisions the executive must take, it would more likely result in the opposite problem, of a conspiracy of men using such a powerful office to destroy the liberty of the people, aided by the inability to pin responsibility on any one of them. A singular executive can be held responsible for the successes and failures of the nation, and rewarded or punished accordingly. In a republic where the executive must be re-elected, this distinguished him from the British monarch, who was insulated from all responsibility for any decisions he might make that instead devolved upon his advisors who he could overrule.

Had Hamilton foreseen the level of influence the President would come to have on the legislative process, he and the other Founders might have recognized that this degree of attribution of responsibility to the President would insulate Congress from some of the responsibility that might rightly fall to them, even to the point of depressing turnout for midterm elections. A Congress with personal animus with the President could block the passage of any bills whatsoever, even those of the utmost importance, and the President would see much of the blame fall to him, as the Republicans’ showdowns with Obama have proved.

If Hamilton did not see the rise of parties that would make such a conflict possible, it is all the more profound that he did not foresee that it would also allow the executive to obtain more and more power at the expense of the liberty of the people, thanks to a conspiracy not of an executive council but of the President’s party’s representation in Congress, who would willingly expand what circumscribed powers the Constitution gives him even into areas that are rightly Congress’s. Federalist #69 contains Hamilton’s most robust defense of the presidency as substantially more circumscribed in its power than the British monarch, yet many of his points ring hollow. “The one would have a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other, in addition to this right, possesses that of declaring war, and of raising and regulating fleets and armies by his own authority,” Hamilton writes; yet the President has repeatedly, since our last truly “declared” war in World War II, sent the military to fight around the globe without Congress’ explicit permission. “The one would have a concurrent power with a branch of the legislature in the formation of treaties; the other is the sole possessor of the power of making treaties;” yet the Senate rarely applies any real influence on the formation of treaties and in any case, in practice, has little ability but to sign off on the treaty the President gives them. “The one would have a like concurrent authority in appointing to offices; the other is the sole author of all appointments”; yet in practice the Senate, once again, has little influence in changing who the President might choose for judicial and other offices except in cases of extreme disqualification, and if the President’s party is in power not even then, but even the party opposing the President has little power but to stonewall his choices in hopes of capturing the Presidency for themselves or, perhaps, forcing the President to choose someone else who might not be much better in their eyes, all while the country suffers from the continued vacancy.

Nor did Hamilton foresee that the emergence of two great, opposing forces would make the prospect of which party controlled the Presidency of profound importance, to the point of, judging by the left’s reaction to Trump’s election, threatening the liberty of the losing party, or that it would demolish the safeguards the Founders did install against a demogogue or a tyrant ascending to the Presidency. After the revelation of the CIA’s report on Russian influence on the election, Hamilton’s words in Federalist #68 were highly circulated and cited by liberals and by electors considering defecting from Trump:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment. And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation might be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office. No senator, representative, or other person holding a place of trust or profit under the United States, can be of the numbers of the electors. Thus without corrupting the body of the people, the immediate agents in the election will at least enter upon the task free from any sinister bias. Their transient existence, and their detached situation, already taken notice of, afford a satisfactory prospect of their continuing so, to the conclusion of it. The business of corruption, when it is to embrace so considerable a number of men, requires time as well as means…

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.

Perhaps Hamilton should have foreseen that when the electoral college exists solely for the purpose of choosing the President, they are less likely to deliberate on the merits of the choices given them than they are to state their intent ahead of time and allow themselves to be used as a proxy for whoever the people of each state really want to be President. Certainly if he had foreseen the rise of parties he might have reached this conclusion. In any event, the rise of parties and especially the two-party system has effectively neutered any hope that the electoral college might serve as any sort of effective check against “foreign powers…gain[ing] an improper ascendant in our councils”. All that is needed is for them to ingratiate one of their number into the nomination of one of the major parties and they will have access to an apparatus that will secure the vote of a considerable number of states, and will install electors obliged to vote for the candidate with an “R” next to his name, no matter his qualifications or lack thereof, no matter his fealty to a foreign power. For them to do otherwise, indeed, is to effectively defy the will of the people, to usurp the choice of the people under the system of election that, if it was not necessarily designed by anyone, is the system we have ended up in and which people believe ourselves to operate under, any deviation from which is inherently anti-democratic. It is quite unlikely in any case as such electors would effectively not only be rejecting a single candidate but calling into question the judgment of their whole party, when they tend to be party flacks, “corrupted” by “time” well before such a candidate even launched his candidacy, and tasked with carrying out the party’s will.

Perhaps more than any other part of the Constitution, the electoral college is difficult to defend in the context of the two-party system. Yet perhaps more than any other part of the Constitution, it is also responsible for that system. As mentioned, the increase in presidential power has resulted in the perception that the presidency is the only elected office that matters, and by not “mak[ing] the appointment of the President to depend on any preexisting bodies of men”, the Founders gave people no reason to care about any other office if the President was going to be that powerful and at least nominally directly elected by the people. Among other things, this means that third parties that set out to break up the two-party system and want to present themselves as viable alternatives inevitably put all their eggs in the Presidential basket, inevitably fail to gain any traction whatsoever (even with two historically hated candidates, Gary Johnson barely even broke three percent), and then whine about how the system is rigged against them. As the 2000 election should have demonstrated, the best-case scenario for third parties running Presidential candidates is to serve as a spoiler tipping the election to the candidate further away from their views. This actually has a name in political science: Duverger’s Law states that, in a “first-past-the-post” system like we have where a plurality rules (and which the Founders never intended), a two-party system is inevitable.

And yet the electoral college also provides more of an avenue for third parties to achieve the presidency than most of the proposed alternatives, if only they could see it and had enough patience to build up power at lower levels first. In so doing, they might alleviate many of the problems people have with our government without directly changing any laws, let alone the Constitution. The great irony is that the Founders’ two blind spots might have cancelled each other out instead of reinforcing each other, if only third parties would follow the path the Founders laid out for them, and which I lay out in the next post.

The Constitution’s Two Fatal Flaws, Part I: The Inevitability and Value of Parties

Despite the bizarre political-rally setting, I thought President Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night was one of the better ones of his presidency, certainly one of the most important, making several important points about the state of our democracy and our country and what to do and not do about it. But besides the fact that he aimed it enough at his supporters that the people who perhaps most needed to hear what he said will ignore it, I’m worried that his unwavering commitment to optimism may have led him to understate the threats to our democracy and fail to get at their root causes. In December, when the left was calling for the electors to effectively overturn the results of the election, I made many of the same points but came to two conclusions that evidently were a bridge too far for Obama: that the root of the problem was the two-party system and that truly fixing our government would have to involve making changes to the Constitution.

In other words, I saw the problems with our government as primarily structural, while Obama sees them (or says he sees them) as primarily peculiar to this moment. Obviously the particular circumstances of the moment must have something to do with our situation for us to make it over two hundred years without running into the problems we’re experiencing now, but the specifics of those circumstances are unlikely to change just because Obama hectors us to change them, and are more likely to get worse. “The splintering of our media into a channel for every taste” and the ability to take in only the facts and engage only with people we already agree with was inevitable with the rise of the Internet, a natural consequence of human nature only forestalled by the presence of a small number of media outlets able to control the national conversation to a significant extent; perhaps it’s possible to teach people to discern real facts from “fake news”, but we’re a long ways away from that and not even that close to universally recognizing it as a good thing, let alone a necessity of democracy. Obama speaks of “allow[ing] our political dialogue to become…corrosive” and “writ[ing] off the whole system as inevitably corrupt” as weakening the ties holding the nation together, as though the corrosiveness of our political dialogue weren’t an inevitable result of technology and increased popular participation in political debates and the criticisms of the system didn’t have some merit. In this context, it makes sense that Obama would speak of “rebuilding our democratic institutions” in ways that work within the system – making it easier to vote, reducing the influence of money in politics, increasing the emphasis on “transparency and ethics”, and redrawing district lines, all laudable goals but made easier if not self-correcting when more than two parties can thrive, which none of those goals help with – but treat the problem as a failure to live up to our Constitution’s ideals, rather than the Constitution itself potentially being part of the problem.

Not that the Constitution’s ideals are bad ones – far from it! But in America, we tend to revere the Founders and our founding documents almost to the point of religious devotion. If Obama can’t admit that our Constitution might be a contributing factor to our problems, calling for a Constitutional convention to greatly change the structure of our government must seem downright sacrilegious; even raising the possibility that the way the Constitution pursues its ideals ends up undermining them seems largely verboten. In order to truly confront the root causes of today’s gridlock, we are going to have to confront the reality that for all their wisdom, the Founding Fathers were after all human beings who lived nearly 250 years ago, human beings with flaws and disagreements, and that in crafting the Constitution they made some critical errors that ultimately undermined their goals.

There are two major errors the Founders made in crafting the Constitution in particular that have proven to undermine the franchise. The first and most obvious to students of American history is their distrust of political parties without appreciating the forces leading to their creation. The second was that, for all their distrust of kings, they let their hero-worship of George Washington lead them to give the presidency more power than they probably actually wanted, creating the opening that would ultimately lead to today’s king-like presidency through a procession of presidents with less humility – a process they were actually deeply aware of. The two are interrelated – the Founders hoped the Congress would stop the president from obtaining more power for himself, but they’re more likely to let the president do what he wants if they’re more concerned about their loyalty to the party than to their current office or themselves – but each has proven corrosive on their own.

The Founders believed factionalism was the result of too much popular participation in the political process – of people pursuing narrow self-interests. By granting more power to elected representatives, they believed, those representatives would be free to focus on deliberating amongst themselves, united by the quest to do what was best for the republic as a whole and the imperative to do the job for which they were elected. In the Founders’ minds, lawmakers would line up and take stands on an issue, then when the next issue came up they would line up and take sides on that issue, sides that looked completely different from the previous issue and with little apparent commonalities besides their opinion on that issue. Besides missing that even the “best men” could be subject to a more subtle form of the same sort of passions they believed the people at large were susceptible to (not to mention that this was pretty much how Britain’s Parliament worked and it resulted in the very party system they were trying to avoid), the Founders missed that even the most learned, disinterested statesmen could have legitimate fundamental definitional differences as to what was best for the republic, differences that existed amongst the Founders themselves and would unite those committed to one definition behind a given course of action while pitting them against other definitions dedicated to other courses of action, and might even lead them to believe the other side was not really interested in the welfare of the republic and that only their own side was. Some might believe in a strong central government while others believed in states’ rights; some might believe in protecting rural farmers while others believed in helping urban industries. Even among the very people that worked on the Constitution there were disagreements over what it actually allowed the federal government to do.

In the end, the Founders were probably too optimistic about the merits of voting for the person as opposed to the party. Parties may have been the result of people pursuing narrow self-interests, but organized parties control and direct the pursuit of self-interest into forms more conducive to the success of the party as a whole, presenting a coherent statement of the merits for or against a particular position from the anarchy of hundreds of individual representatives, encouraging and supporting compromise and potentially unpopular yet necessary courses of action, even if they don’t always do so in the most savory of ways. The separation of powers was supposed to prevent the system from being exploited by people with naked self-interest; Congress was supposed to have most of the power, and the President had to work with them to get anything done. Individual Congressmen couldn’t get too much power without potentially running afoul of the President, and if worst came to worst the Supreme Court could curb the President and Congress from together abridging the rights of the people. What the Constitution does not do is provide any system for curbing those who would pursue naked self-interest despite all this, something that has become far more necessary now that the Senate and Presidency are directly elected by the people, creating far more opportunity for a demogogue to achieve one of those offices. Members of Congress can only be booted out in the middle of their term by a two-thirds vote of their house (a high enough bar that it is exceedingly rarely tried), and the President can only be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors”, not for using the legitimate privileges of their office in a legal but self-serving way. In effect, the Constitution and the push for democracy uber alles leaves it up to the easily-manipulable people to vote out the most self-interested politicians (and as the Republican primary process proved, even if the people do try to vote against the demogogue they can end up splitting the vote and giving the demogogue the win anyway).

Despite all our polarization along partisan lines, in some ways we live in a culture significantly closer to the Founders’ intention than at any time in history, and it is proving no virtue; we now live in a world where a self-professed billionaire can run for an office he seems to treat more like a dictatorship than a presidency solely on the back of his own brand, where one particularly venal politician can bring the entire government to a standstill just to discredit the “establishment” and further his own career. Republicans may take advantage of this more than Democrats, but over the last sixteen years I have lamented that Democrats have been too moral to engage in this sort of brinkmanship; their commitment to upholding political norms, actually seek out compromise, and actually care about appealing to more than just party activists gave them a candidate for President that failed to excite those activists enough to match the enthusiasm of Trump supporters, has given them little hope of capturing the House until at least 2022, and dashed any hope of actually accomplishing any of their agenda at the national level short of favorable Supreme Court decisions – and the rise of Bernie Sanders and backlash of the party base against its establishment in the wake of Hillary’s loss (in part because of the reticence of many of Sanders’ supporters to support her even in the face of the threat posed by Trump) suggests the Democratic base is getting tired of constantly trying to appease the Republicans and constantly losing, and may be about to react to Trump’s victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress similarly to how the Republicans reacted to Obama’s similar victory. Sanders supporters who seethe at the DNC tipping the scales to Hillary should note that a similar degree of control at the RNC might have saved the country from Trump.

In Federalist #10, James Madison argued that the only way to prevent the tyranny of a majority of citizens from trampling over the rights of a minority was a system of representation, whereby “the public views” would be filtered “through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Demagogues and evil men might obtain high office, but this would be unlikely at large scales, since there would be more wise men, it would be harder for demagogues to charm a larger number of people, and the diversity of their opinions would be more likely to center on wiser men. A large nation, Madison argued, would have a greater diversity of interests, which would make it harder for any of them to form a majority with which to pursue their views on the whole, and even if they did they would be torn apart by internal disagreements:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Madison recognized that if factions could not be avoided, the best outcome would be a large number of them, representing a diversity of competing interests, that could not band together to pursue a single policy at the expense of the minority. This, he would soon see, would not come to pass. The Constitution did nothing to prevent the diversity of interests in the United States from coalescing around two major political parties, or from being able to push their agenda on the rest of the country once they were able to form a majority. Nor could Madison foresee today’s great urban-rural divide and the formation of two great factions with diametrically opposed views hoping to achieve enough control of government to enact their agenda, with few who honestly combine views from each side, let alone hold completely novel views, and fewer who are active enough in politics to exert their own influence on the system.

It’s impossible to know what, exactly, the Founders would have done differently if they had known that the rise of parties was going to be inevitable. Likely they would have sought to find a way to direct the passions of each faction towards the good of the republic while mitigating the negative consequences they feared – perhaps incorporating the parties into the system of checks and balances in some way and creating structural, not merely cultural, incentives to compromise. If Federalist #10 is any indication, one thing they might have done would be to try to ensure that as many definitions of the good of the republic would be represented as possible, under the theory that compromise is more likely when there are many parties that are likely to find common ground with other parties than when you have two parties diametrically opposed to each other. Part of the reason for our current malaise is that we have too few political parties for the diversity of our electorate, with the result that the parties, which should be private organizations to exert a particular viewpoint on the levers of politics, have effectively become fundamental parts of the political process themselves, with the primary process being seen as every bit as important a means to express one’s duty as a citizen as the general election. In a functioning democracy, party bosses should have every right to set the rules to run their parties as they see fit, but when the parties are every bit as much a part of the political system as Congress, for them to do so smacks of corruption and twisting the political system itself to serve entrenched interests, so the parties find themselves torn between ensuring party unity, representing all the factions of their base, presenting an electable candidate, and resisting insurgency. So the Republicans are hijacked by activists to nominate perhaps the most anti-democratic major-party candidate in American history, while the Democrats’ greater control of the process ends up alienating the very activists that, in the modern American political system, they so desperately need. A healthy party system might have parties for the following viewpoints (some of which might merge with others):

  • The free market almost always knows best, and government should be shrunk and as many functions given to private enterprise as possible.
  • Government should serve to curb the excesses of the free market and provide avenues of opportunity for people to move into the middle class or the rich.
  • The capitalist system needs to be torn down and replaced with a socialist system with government at its center.
  • America is a federation of states, and so the states should be given broad leeway to run themselves as they see fit, as much as is feasible.
  • Only a singular strong, powerful leader can make America great again.
  • America is a Christian nation and should be organized around Christian principles.
  • People should have freedom to do whatever they want without impinging on other peoples’ freedom, whether that’s to get an abortion, marry someone of the same gender, own a gun, or start and run a business as they see fit.
  • Government needs to act on behalf of the environment and future generations that cannot have a direct voice in government.
  • The only goal that matters is for America to increase its GDP as much as possible.
  • America should focus on protecting its own working class from the abuses of the rich and competition from overseas.
  • America should use its power to spread the ideals of democracy all over the world and safeguard the current world order of peace.

One thing I’m fairly certain the Founders would have done differently if they had known about the inevitability of parties is greatly curb the power of the Presidency, if not get rid of it and have the head of government be chosen directly by Congress. The rise of the two-party system would make it much easier for the President to continue to accrue power across the decades while losing little to none of it, while the method of electing the President himself would end up being the single biggest factor in preventing more than two parties from forming. We’ll get into that in the next post.

Random Internet Discovery of the Week and a prelude to a series of posts a year away

See, now, this was the sort of thing I had in mind when StumbleUpon allowed me to bring more specific criteria to the RID! I may have to refer back to this when it comes time to run a related series next year. And that series is hinted at in the new label.

Important notice: Any comments left between now and the launch of the new site will not survive the launch of the new site. We are that close to launching the new site.