The tale of Ferguson, Ohio is in many respects the tale of two cities. One half white, overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. The other half, black, overwhelmingly Democratic, and at least nominally liberal. In a perfect world, such a community would never come into such stark and intense opposition with each other. In an ideal political process those differences would have been worked out long before their anger engulfed them. But the two-party, winner-take-all system has sorely injured the American political process.
On the black, largely democratic side of the Ferguson divide you have a triumph of symbolism over substance. Record turnout of black voters in national elections created a shift in the Electoral College system that allowed Democrats to achieve stunning victories that belied the actual closeness of the popular vote count. Hoping for change, these voters got more of the same, only less of it. Here’s why: the Democratic establishment promised less than one would think given it’s surefooted victories in 2008 and 2012, and they were able to deliver even less than what they promised.
The Democratic Party was able to navigate a path to victory by in the national presidential elections by picking off key constituencies in swing states. But local and state mid-term elections have proven to be much more partisan. The age of the computer and more accurate census data has enable local parties to gerrymander districts with a geographic dexterity that almost defies credulity. A lawsuit making its way through the appellate courts in Florida will soon come before the Supreme Court as a test of whether the district violates a Florida law passed in 2010 that outlaws politically motivated electoral districting. Democratic Rep Corrine Brown’s district intersects and encircles Republican Rep. Daniel Webster’s district in what can only be described as an unholy knot of political chicanery. A plain look at the lines reveal that they were designed to concentrate black, largely democratic voters within a Democratic district, and concentrate white voters in the surrounding Republican district thereby making it safer for Republican candidates.
But if we take a step back from the legal wrangling around the constitutionality of these districts, a deeper problem emerges. It is the problem represented by Ferguson. That is, what happens when people who actually live in close proximity to each other are able to participate in two totally separate political processes? We see on the national level what has happened. Extreme partisanship coming out of politically manipulated local districts ends up creating extreme polarity in Congress. Even long term elected officials who want to work with each other across party lines are prevented from effective coalition-building because their districts are so firmly entrenched. They fear for their political lives if they make the smallest venture outside the party ideology, always looking over their shoulder lest someone with more extreme views take their place. As a result, over the past few years we’ve experienced record deadlock and the lowest Congressional approval ratings in recent history.
On the Democratic side, while the party has been more cohesive, it has been less accountable to its electorate. Say what you may about the tea party and its tactics, one thing is for sure: it has got the attention of the establishment. No longer can establishment Republicans get away with ignoring the interests of a significant part of their constituency. Not so the Democratic Party unfortunately. While taking for granted significant parts of its electorate, in particular the black vote, Democrats have failed to even address, much less alleviate the ills facing the community: chronic unemployment, poor education, epidemic levels of incarceration.
At the root of this problem is the winner-take-all two party system. We have gotten to the point where the nation is too large and complex and diverse to be encompassed within such a framework. Party loyalty has had especially diminishing returns for black Americans. You look at a situation like Ferguson, where a large democratic majority is stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no jobs and bleak future prospects. Sure, they helped vote for Obama in record numbers, and have been Democratic Party stalwarts for the past thirty years. But where has it gotten them? Democrats would argue that they have been able to pass civil rights legislation and other social safety net measures that have disproportionately benefitted the black community. And some of that was true during the height of the civil rights era when great society programs made their debut. But a casual look at the community today reveals a somewhat desolate landscape and an eroding social safety net. Democrats have not levelled with their electorate to help them understand that the government is essentially bankrupt and cannot afford an expanding set of entitlements amid crushing debt and declining American labor competitiveness.
Furthermore, the liberal social policies have shared the same umbrella as civil rights for far too long. The disconnection is simple to understand if put in layman’s terms. While civil rights in terms of extending the vote and enforcing anti-discrimination laws has been generally positive, the focus on liberalism and the move away from traditional values has had devastating effects. Even if one were to disagree about the perverse incentives created by expanding social welfare, the erosion of family values and increasing acceptance of an “anything goes” moral framework is a poor recipe for a group trying to lift itself up out of poverty and social isolation.
The problem with the two party system is that you have to keep the bathwater in order to save the baby. And of course, the dirty water ends up harming the baby in the long run. Some have called for a parliamentary system with parties running on specific platforms which can be individually voted upon by the electorate. But that system is not without its flaws either. Platforms become rigid and dogmatic themselves, and course correction can be difficult. On the other hand, some have called for a stronger executive branch, principally in investing more autonomy in the chief executive. That has its obvious pitfalls as well. The founding fathers clearly preferred an ineffective government over an evil one, and for good reason.
The bottom line is that we are a country of and for the people. We are not state, we are not parties, and we are not districts. Those can be convenient organizing tools, but at the end of the day the power is invested in the people to change themselves. People should begin to demand more accountability of their elected officials. But at the same time, they should not be afraid to reach out across party lines in search of workable solutions that benefit the community as a whole.