LIFE | THOMAS KNAPP: Political parties: Inevitable and ugly, but not entirely useless

By Thomas L. Knapp

George Washington, America’s first president, devoted part of his 1796 farewell address to warning against “[t]he alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension.” He feared perpetual war for power between political parties both as “a frightful despotism” in and of itself, and as prelude to some future tyrant seeking “his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”

Was Washington right? Sort of. Political parties possess all the evil characteristics he attributed to them. What he seems to have missed is their inevitability.  By the time he exited the presidential stage, Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were already struggling for power, a struggle which continues to this day under other party names.

Any system that apportions power through political means is going to sprout factions. If those factions contest power through elections, they’re going to become parties.

Are there “non-partisan” elections? In theory, yes. In practice, not really.

For example, look at Nebraska’s state legislature, the Unicameral. Elections to it are theoretically non-partisan, but political parties back the candidates and 48 of its 49 members have known party affiliations.

In 2016, Nebraska Senator Laura Ebke changed her affiliation from Republican to Libertarian. In 2018, the Republican Party backed a Republican who unseated her. So much for “non-partisan.”

Ditto city governments around the country. Even where they’re formally “non-partisan,” most officials are party-affiliated and party-backed. Many politicians treat local office as the first rung of a climb up the party, and political, ladders.

Like it or not, if we’re going to keep a democratic process, we’re going to have political parties. Sorry, George. Fortunately, there are up sides.

At the individual candidate level, partisan affiliation conveys information. A Republican candidate is more like Mitch McConnell than like Nancy Pelosi; a Democratic candidate, vice versa; a Libertarian or Green candidate is something different.

That information is imperfect. Not every candidate will agree with everything in his or her party’s platform, or toe every party line in office. But it’s better than nothing.

At the macro level, partisan affiliation tells us whether we have a healthy democracy or are moving toward a one-party state, with one party becoming increasingly dominant or two dominant parties looking more and more like each other.

That last situation sums up recent decades pretty well. There’s a reason why both “major” parties are nominating creepy, handsy, probably senile, and undoubtedly corrupt septuagenarians for president this year: They’re fresh out of competing ideas. In “Hollywood for ugly people,” this is what a beauty contest looks like. Thankfully there’s no swimsuit competition.

So party on, I guess, but if you waste your vote on Republicans and Democrats, don’t complain when you get Trumps and Bidens.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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