Do we really need political parties, or are they a necessary evil? Wouldn't we still have partisan divides over issues even without political parties?
The parties have become more partisan, more self-serving, but wonks will argue that they've actually become more like the electorate itself, since it's the electorate that puts them in power. Is the electorate more partisan than the elected? How do we fix that chicken and egg problem?
Meanwhile, the people tired of the partisanship leave the political parties, and the remaining party members just make the parties more partisan.
Initially, we ponder whether political parties are still relevant, but perhaps we should ask more specifically whether political parties aren't relevant, but even useful in their current guise. over two centuries ago, George Washington wrote the following in his Farewell Address:
Political parties serve always to distract the public and enfeeble the public administration. They agitate the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindle the animosity of one party against another, and are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
It would be difficult to find an historic document in this country with a more direct and acerbic assessment of political parties. Washington was terrified of the foundation and formation of political parties. He believed that individuals would become so enamored of their connection to party and so covetous of what the party could provide them that they would put matters of party over matters of country.
If you look at the current mess that is our political discourse today, and the pernicious influence of political parties in the progress and life of our nation, you understand how prescient the first president of this country really was.
Pundits will tell you that parties have purpose. "A very useful shortcut for voters," says political science professor David Karol, who spent over a decade teaching at Berkeley before moving onto American University in Washington.
"If they see a party label," he says, "they already know a lot about that candidate, and that's very helpful for those who want to cast meaningful votes."
The word "shortcut" feels troublesome. Our system of government is complex; our problems complicated, human beings, richly nuanced. Party labels are the Cliff Notes of self-government, a cheat sheet that leads us to draw misinformed conclusions and uninformed decisions about who to credit, who to blame, who to vote for.
But is it really the political parties? "Most people say they are 'moderate,' but in fact the country is polarized around strong conservative and liberal positions," argues Hans Noel, a political scientist at UCLA now teaching at Georgetown, co-author of "The Party Decides." The parties simply moved in those two directions to align themselves with already existing ideological division in America. Hence, political species like "Reagan Democrats" and "Eisenhower Republicans" are practically extinct --too moderate for today's party models.
Over the last four decades, we've been segregating politically. From 1948 to 1976, election results in most counties became more closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. In 1976, Republican Gerald Ford won most of New England and the entire Pacific Coast, and he almost won New York.
But since 1976, the number of counties where one party or another had a landslide majority has doubled. Nearly three-quarters of us live in counties like that --solidly Democratic or Republican, overwhelmingly liberal or conservative.
If the problem with our political parties isn't the parties but the partisanship, how do we solve the problem if the electorate itself is partisan?
It's ironic, really. Despite the vast knowledge the digital age makes readily available to us, we are retreating from the kind of enlightenment that comes with routine exposure to different values, ideas and opinions. We chose this as we became more mobile, to live in places that have become more like themselves, and exacerbating the partisan divide thereby.
As John Kenneth White, author of "The Values Divide," puts it, "We have two parallel universes. Each side seeks to reinforce its thinking by associating with like-minded people."
In reaction, the fastest growing voter blocs both nationwide and in California are the independents --declined-to-state voters. But there's a consequence: you get more extreme parties, because the moderate voters have left it.
Where are these moderate voters to squelch the stupidity of affirmation?
When President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, was there any reason for the Republican leadership to hold a press conference the next day and, one by one, make empty statements claiming credit for his downfall? Yet, if torture had been part of the intelligence equation, could Democratic acolytes not give credit where it was due?
It took nearly a decade to find and kill bin Laden, but it took less than 24 hours for politicians to politicize it --and for whom, a partisan electorate?
The Human Genome Project has discovered that we are somewhere between 99.5 and 99.9 percent the same --that every non-related age difference you can see, including gender and race, is rooted somewhere between the remaining one-tenth to one-half percent of our genetic makeup.
Yet, almost all of us spend about 99 percent of the time thinking about the half-percent of us that's different --even obsessing about it, and even wishing it were more so. What are we losing or gaining in this process as we doggedly cling to our predetermined political ideology?
How can you operate a self-governing country as big as ours, as diverse as ours, if too many of us have closed our minds to real, vibrant political debate? Or if we elect officials who have also closed their minds to real, vibrant political debate?
Here's what George Washington is saying to us, the people of the United States: You can't sit this one out. You can't hide behind your labels. It doesn't matter what party you belong to. It doesn't matter what ideology you follow or don't follow. It doesn't matter what you dream of the ideal state being. You can't afford to sit this one out.
But putting an end to the partisan rancor will require us to make a painful admission: The problem isn't them in office; it's us on Main Street, out here in the electorate. We're the partisans sending partisans to the halls of government, and we're the only ones who can put a stop to that.
Politicians would say that the two parties lie between us and the solution. But if you, the voter, are a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of one party or the other, then you, too, stand in the way of that solution.
We don't live in a homogeneous society. We sometimes act as if that's what we want or if that's who we are, but we're far from it. We're a pluralistic society fraught with complexities where no single way is the right way. It's a society that requires a willingness to compromise and a willingness to sacrifice in pursuit of the careful crafting of multiple solutions that can best satisfy the needs of as many as possible while disadvantaging as few as possible.
The first political party that embraces this notion, that parts company with the partisan politics and political gamesmanship dominating our discourse, and calls out those who do so, including fellow politicians in their own party and voters who might support them --that's the party worth seeking.
This is not a matter of political party or ideology or vendetta or counting coup against the opposition. It's a matter of saving this country. The very challenge George Washington brilliantly foresaw when he submitted his farewell address in 1796 rings down through the corridors of history to us. We have far more at stake in this united than we do divided, but we are now standing on the precipice of a nation in the grip of the very crisis that Washington enunciated.