Mike Bruno: Escaping the Partisan Cesspool

Having a two-party political system does not serve us well.

I wish to talk about partisan politics today, but I will begin with some words by George Washington who was highly distrustful of the emergence of political parties and, in his Farewell Address, spoke bluntly of their their dubious value :

“[Political parties] serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often 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 counsels and modified by mutual interests.” —George Washington, Farewell Address, Sept. 17, 1796

If he could only see the partisan divisions that presently corrode our republic today. It conjures an image of a blue-jacketed, brass-buttoned, white-wigged Washington smugly saying “I told you so!” (Though he would probably say it more artfully.)

Elsewhere in his speech, he acknowledged their inevitability, and I have long argued the same. We are a representative democracy and we, as a people, want our voices heard and our interests recognized. It is natural (and inevitable) that individuals will band together with others sharing some common interests to make their voice that much louder.

Now I am not a sociologist (or whatever “-ist” would speak authoritatively on such things), but it is my sense that, given the structural framework of our democracy, it is nearly unavoidable that we would self-segregate such that we end up with two dominant parties with one or two wanna-be parties nipping at their heels. Those hangers-on [probably] know full well that they can’t win, but they can sometimes have their core message adopted, in part or in whole, by one of the big-dog parties. Witness Ross Perot and the Tea Party.

Another seeming inevitability is that eventually these parties will become so large that they begin to be the tail wagging the dog. I suggest that today, our major parties are no longer about being a mouthpiece for an engaged public, but morph into their own, powerful special interest group promoting a partisan agenda as opposed to a public agenda.

I could ramble on about the evolution of our present, partisan schism...but I think my thoughtful and enlightened readers already recognize that the most important tenets of good governance... compromise, common good, and evidence... are largely ignored in current political discourse. When publicly stated goals are not  to let the other team succeed as opposed to maximise  benefit for the public, then something is horribly wrong.

So, how do we escape this partisan cesspool? There are a number of ideas that might directly or indirectly diffuse the partisan bomb.


Already used in some countries and states; in this scenario you don’t cast one vote for one candidate [i.e. president], you would instead list your first, second and third choice. If there is a majority winner, then we have a new president. If there is no majority winner in the first round, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated and the vote is re-tallied. If I voted, in order, for candidates ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ and ‘A’ was eliminated in the first tally, then my vote would go candidate ‘B’ the second tally.

In IRB, a voter could actually throw their support to the candidate that best reflects their position without feeling their vote is thrown away. The fear of throwing away a vote is the fear of the third party supporter and the bane of the third party (along with institutionalized disadvantages, more on that later) The third party supporter may know that, in the end, it will be a candidate from the red or blue team that wins the day. So, despite having a real affinity for the Puppies and Kittens Party, a good many throw in with [what they might consider] the lesser of two evils. This is something that the major parties count on.

If the the voting public is really as partisan as our political system appears today, then the major party will still win. My sense is that there are many disaffected centrists/pragmatists that don’t have a voice. IRB would give back the voice to the centrists/pragmatists.


Using the presidency as an example; a major party can win the day but, unless that party has an overwhelming majority (like a super-DUPER majority) in other branches of government, the other party can effectively thwart the implementation of any policy that was touted during his/her campaign. If the Puppies and Kittens Party (PKP) were in office, the Chickens and Goats Party (CGP)  can make it difficult or impossible for them to enacting their canine/feline agenda for which they were carried into office. The PKP are then perceived as a failure despite their having been actively thwarted from trying to fix the national problems. This perceived failure is to the great benefit of the rival party during the next voting cycle.

This is the most insipid aspect of our current political climate where such partisan gamesmanship comes before national good. There are public and unambiguous statements by some partisans that the primary goal is to deny the sitting party/official success. Talking heads have said “I hope the economy tanks just so my rival looks bad.” That is too messed up for words...and “messed” is not the word I would like to use.

Now hold onto your seat here, because what follows is scary.  It is well argued that if a party/candidate is elected, they should be able to enact ALL their policies and, for the most part, unfettered by rival political factions. This is the “put up or shut up” method of governance. If you fail, there is no blaming the rival party of obstruction. There is no ambiguity as to who gets the blame. You will live and die by the policies that you implement and it will be self evident to the electorate whether your policies delivered on their promise. If your policies delivered an epic fail, then it will be a long long time before you float to the top come future election days.

Given how polarized and partisan things are today, this seems really scary to me. That said, I would suspect that even our most extreme candidates would work a lot harder at vetting their policy positions for effectiveness since the political downside is so severe. Maybe they would even start soliciting economists on matters of economics and scientists on matter of science to make sure they are not talking out their backside.


On this matter, I am still educating myself so I can’t speak in detail, but it may surprise you to know that there are institutional campaign advantages for the major parties. Did you know that federal and some state laws make it easier for the reds and blues to get on the ballot? Can greater access to ballot access be anything but good? Shouldn’t we make sure that there the Puppies and Kittens Party or the Chickens and Goats Party or Jane Doe have the chance to get on the ballot?


Can any of these changes be implemented? It’s not likely. For the most part, the major parties would suffer under any of these changes and since the major parties control virtually all of U.S. politics ... well, ... you know where any of this discussion will go. I’m glad Mr. Washington isn’t here to wag a finger at us.


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Mitotero August 07, 2012 at 03:15 PM
Other countries have 3 plus political parties, and the government is based on coalitions between the parties. This process keeps the extreme partisan ideas from being implemented, and forces the parties to work together. We are seeing this in Kansas, where traditional republicans are joining the democrats to thwart, or at least slow down, the more extreme conservative movement taking over Kansas politics. I think this would be beneficial on a national basis. The voters across the country could, and should, vote out the politicians who put politics ahead of the greater good of the country. The debt ceiling impasse of last year, and the resulting credit downgrade, is a perfect example of partisan politics trumping common sense. Sadly, no lessons seem to have been learned from this debacle, and the toxic, political environment remains the same.
Mike Bruno August 07, 2012 at 03:28 PM
That is why it disturbs me that there are impediments for third parties to successfully influence the dialogue. Even the public campaign financing goes into the major parties IN ADVANCE of the campaign. Minor parties sometime have to sue to get any public campaign financing...and the only AFTER the election. Obviously having that money up front would help them get their voices heard.
Colin C. August 07, 2012 at 04:00 PM
It is so rare today to have anyone initiate a thoughtful discussion about politics and our shortcomings in America today. Those familiar with the founding of our Nation know that the system of governance that has evolved in America if radically different from that envisioned by the framers of our Constitution. Politics has become more about gathering and maintaining power and access to wealth and privilege than serving the best interests of America. Unfortunately the very people who are in a position to change the system are the ones who benefit from what they have created--the professional politicians. Obama's 2008 slogan "Change" and the Tea Party spring from the same desire, to make government work for US. The libertarian movement is based on the idea that government cannot be made to work for our mutual benefit and must be eliminated as much as possible. I think that many of us are deeply disappointed, frustrated and frightened by what we see in our Country today from our elected representatives and the system they have created. Perhaps one reason that so many don’t vote is that they see the system as being rigged against them and that their vote cannot change anything. Why bother? “Big money" and professional politicians have a lock on things. "Throwing the rascals out" and voting in another party just perpetuates the stalemate. True Democracy has become an illusion. I like your suggestion on the IRB. Here’s another idea: (continued)
Colin C. August 07, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Another idea: eliminate all private donations to political campaigns. With today's widespread popular access to media, all candidates would be allowed personal web pages and the governments of various levels would post comparison web pages stating all the qualifications, beliefs and promises of each candidate for each office in an easy to compare format. In order to qualify for the latter a candidate would have to submit enough petition signatures to prove significant popular support. These would be made available six weeks before the election. No other media campaigning allowed. Debates in the media (TV, internet, radio, etc.) would have to be sponsored by a non partisan organization. Any candidate or supporter could speak as often and as loudly and the unaided voice can carry. No media ads, no media advocacy outside the personal web page. No phone calls or e-mails. This would take the big money influence out of elections and open the process beyond the two political parties. Combined with the IRB that you proposed it is quite possible that we could fix our government. All this would probably require a Constitutional amendment and none of it is likely to happen simply because far too many of us have bought into the self perpetuating propaganda spewed out by both our major political parties and their wealthy and self interested supporters. But Mike, I really appreciate and agree with your views on this subject.
Mike Bruno August 07, 2012 at 05:01 PM
Thanks Colin. It is disheartening to see the electorate taking their cues from from the party instead of the other way around. ...but I am not hopeful of sweeping change. I will ponder your campaign finance reform idea (which seems the complete/total/exact/polar opposite of Citizens United)


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