Partisan politics strengthens self-government

(John Andrews in the Denver Post, June 4) Nonpartisan politics is baloney. If you want to beef up self-government, its protections as well as its powers, you need strong political parties. You need parties that are fiercely competitive, yet able to compromise; principled yet pragmatic; cohesive yet diverse; law-abiding but lightly regulated. Today’s Republicans and Democrats meet this standard pretty well. By comparison with parties in other countries, or in America at other times, they meet it very well. Both parties could do better, however. And the drumbeat of elite opinion condemning “partisanship” threatens to march us in exactly the wrong direction.

These dry generalizations come to life, as the professor will demonstrate shortly, in such spectacles as the mating dance of President Bush and Senator Kennedy on immigration, the slugging match of Bob Beauprez vs. Marc Holtzman for governor, the success of the Salazar brothers, and the failure of public education.

But first let’s see why political parties are a good thing – and why powerful forces keep trying to marginalize them. Our American way, government by consent of the governed, necessitates citizens foreseeing what policies they are voting for, and knowing whom to reward or blame afterward. Parties provide that.

Parties brand their candidates with a distinct approach to governmental responsibilities ahead of an election. They marshal their elected members, legislative or executive, to carry out that approach while in power. Then at the next election they collectively face the voters for accountability on results.

In addition, the rivalry between parties serves a watchdog function to deter deception, corruption, or abuse of power. When these inevitably occur, the underdog barks and bites until the misbehaving top dog is reproved or replaced.

Two-party political competition in a representative republic like ours is noisy, messy, and imperfect. Yet it has proved admirably effective in terms of liberty preserved, prosperity expanded and shared, the common good and common defense upheld. An inelegant and sometimes ragged system, but who could object?

The self-anointed could object, and so could the self-interested; that’s who. Pretensions of “scientific” governance by experts, claiming to discern optimal policies, even to remold human nature itself, landed here from Europe a century ago. They set off a party-weakening trend that still continues. Open primaries, direct initiative, and nonpartisan local government are among the results.

Nonpartisanship is often not merely a banner of idealism, but a cloak for cynicism. When giant media companies preach that party motives are always unworthy and campaign money always dirty, their own clout increases while the credibility of Republican and Democratic organizations wanes. Coincidence? Probably not.

When incumbent politicians on both sides, abetted by the media, legislate campaign finance restrictions that hobble challengers and muzzle political speech by parties and interest groups alike (but not by the press itself), democracy takes a hit. And somewhere James Madison, author of the First Amendment, weeps.

Framing a constitution for a free society, said Madison in Federalist No. 51, involves a balance where “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” Though dubious of political parties, he and the other Founders were soon swept up in them. Most scholars – the constitutionalists, anyway, if not the progressives – would agree the balance he sought has been strengthened ever since.

Consider, finally, my examples from the headlines. Party polarization is needed on immigration, where the coziness of a GOP seeking cheap labor and Dems seeking cheap votes gave us the amnesty bill. Party cohesion is needed as Holtzman battles Beauprez to succeed Gov. Owens; my fellow Republicans threatening to sit it out or go third-party only improve Democrat Bill Ritter’s chances.

A partisan growl is needed against the folksy pose of Sen. Ken Salazar and Rep. John Salazar, liberal Democrats under their centrist cowboy hats. Party branding is needed in elections for school boards, city councils, and RTD, which spend their ill-managed billions with far too little accountability.

Is the party over for American politics 2006? We better hope not. Democrats and Republicans thriving, along with Libertarians, Greens, and other small fry rising, are our best defense against misrule by the self-interested and self-anointed.