If I undertook to write about partisan politics for dummies, I’d immediately have your attention. Many people think that’s all partisan politics is for. It’s everyone’s favorite punching bag.
But I’ll argue that partisan politics is forever with us and a good thing, so we may disagree. At least if we avoid capital letters, there’s no trademark rub with the popular “For Dummies” book series. Anyone cover a cut with a generic bandaid or xerox on an off-brand copier, after all.
So I come to praise partisan politics, not to bury them. If that sounds crazy or wrong, it doesn’t make you a dummy in the sense of low IQ. But it may do so in the sense of that book series – someone who just never got up to speed on a subject. Politically, I dare you to do it now. Really you can’t afford not to.
Several straws in the April wind bring this up. Harris Kenny of the libertarian Reason Foundation tells The Denver Post that for him and other young voters, “the future is nonpartisan.” Jason Salzman of the progressive Bigmedia.org complains in the Huffington Post that partisan Republicans (me included) “overwhelm” Democrats as voices in the Denver media.
Petitioners set out to make the Colorado secretary of state’s office nonpartisan after Democratic chairman Rick Palacio brands the GOP incumbent, Scott Gessler, as shockingly partisan. Some Republicans brand their state chairman, Ryan Call, as a liberal after he appeals for cooler rhetoric and fewer charges of “RINO” (Republican in name only) or “establishment.”
Meanwhile the new super-PACs overshadow the old parties as Romney takes on Obama. The waters are further roiled by such well-funded upstarts as the No Labels effort, targeting Congress, and the Americans Elect movement, promising a bipartisan presidential ticket with one maverick from each party.
Never mind that this led to a train wreck with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr after the deadlocked election of 1800, necessitating a constitutional amendment. Our transpartisan dreamers missed that in school, which is typical of these earnest folks. Sam Cooke’s “Don’t know much about history” could be their national anthem.
History teaches ten reasons why partisan politics is fortunately here to stay: (1) Power corrupts; human beings tend to lie, cheat, steal, and overreach. (2) Parties check each other’s stewardship of power and fulfillment of promises.
(3) Human beings naturally disagree; interests inevitably clash; unanimity is rare. (4) Parties give voters a choice between contrasting visions for governance. (5) Governing is difficult; wrong turns are everywhere; mistakes can be disastrous. (6) Thus while the ruling party steers and accelerates, the opposition party is there to monitor and brake.
(7) Americans who see the rewards and benefits of government tend to be Democrats; those who see the dangers and costs of government tend to be Republicans; we need both. (8) Republicans, favoring the brakes, thus tend to agree parties are good; while Democrats, favoring the gas, tend to wish away the need for parties. Hence the “partisans R not us” angle taken by Salzman and Palacio.
(9) There is no real-world example of a free society with democratic institutions and constitutional self-government that doesn’t also have competing political parties, each party consisting of a contentious coalition around an establishment core. Hence the wisdom of Call’s appeal.
(10) There are too many real-world examples of unfree societies with only one political party, or with personality cults and thought control instead of parties, resulting in brutal tyranny. Hence the impossibility of Kenny’s nonpartisan future. It’s a fantasy, and ominous at that.
Aristotle said man is a political animal. Moses and Jesus warned he’s also an imperfect one; often a dummy, in fact. I know I sure am. Parties can help save us from ourselves.