The Political Parties Might Be Our Problem

We had a chance to sit down with, Jim Jonas, a long-time active supporter of a variety of independent candidate campaigns and nonpartisan causes who now serves as the interim executive director of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers. Our conversation covered why now is the time for bipartisan and non-partisan efforts and candidates and how people can overcome polarization.

You’re building a relationship between organizations that all seek to weaken the two parties’ hold on America. Is the goal for you all to create a third party? Or to support candidates who don’t want to be attached to any sort of political party?

The two major parties are doing enough on their own to weaken themselves. I don’t think they would need our help if that were our goal.

What our members have in common, not currently shared by the major political parties, is a desire to strengthen the power of voters.

Political parties serve an important role, but they should derive their power and influence via the free-will support of their voters, not by how well their leaders can write backroom rules that insulate the two dominant political corporations from competition.

Members of our association can and do utilize different approaches to solving electoral problems, but we all share the core belief that making elections more competitive will strengthen both the country and political parties by reconnecting political leaders to their own members and their constituents.

As an association, we’re not proposing or advocating for a third party, nor do we have any desire to form one. Most simply, the Association Preamble states, in part, “ … we believe that the destruction of electoral competition diminishes the role of innovation in our political discourse, including within the Republican and Democratic parties, … .”

We believe that election rules should be party-agnostic. Every voter and every candidate, regardless of their party affiliation or non-affiliation, should have the right to participate equally and meaningfully at every stage of the election process.

When the rules for voters to fully and equally participate in the election system are fairly conceived and enforced, there will be more electoral competition, broader accountability, stronger parties and in turn, and most importantly, better governance.

A recent book, How Democracy Dies, says that one of the problems right now is actually that the formal party structures have too little power/control, so populist movements have been able to take them over and drive polarization. Do you think that’s true?

Political party leaders have worked in concert over several decades, in legislatures and courtrooms, to insulate themselves from competition and even from their own members.

The very contention that the political parties have been unable to respond to “populist” concerns is evidence of the corrosion caused by their successful efforts to rig the rules.

Republican and Democratic powerbrokers have become the architects of their own demise. They have made themselves unaccountable to voters by, in effect, divvying up the voter-pie, dictating the terms on which they’ll campaign and choosing the districts in which they’ll run as though voters were nothing more than a necessary nuisance in the process.

Gerrymandering, closed primaries, party-centric campaign finance rules, restricted access to Presidential debates, a binary, hyper-partisan media and even aligned political academics (whose “analyses” always begins with partisan binary assumptions) are all symptoms of a troubled, disconnected political structure that fails the core test of any democratic society’s reasoned desire to resolve conflicts in a peaceful and civil way. These are the real-world factors that are driving polarization.

That is why nearly half the American electorate now self-identify as independent from any political party. As more and more voters leave the Republicans and Democrats, the power and influence of the partisan extremists who stick around naturally increases. This trend is toxic to the American system.

Academics consistently refer to a “two party” system. In fact, it is said so often that it is worth repeating that nothing in the Constitution or in any other founding documents contemplates a “two party” system. The country’s early evolution toward two broadly based (“Big Tent”) parties was a consequence of the decision not to adopt a parliamentary process. Rightly or wrongly, this was a conscious decision to avoid what Washington referred to as “factionalism”.

Our members may debate the merits of that choice as well as the solutions. But, what is undeniable is that a “two party” system can only survive if both parties strive to be “Big Tents”.  Instead, both parties are narrowing their appeal and moving further out to the ends of the partisan poles and as a consequence weakening themselves as well as the voters they claim to serve.

If Democracy is dying, then the broken relationship between the parties and the voters created by leaders of the Republicans and Democrats is the prime cause.

Looking at the political landscape, what do you think are the one or two issues that non-partisan or third party candidates can most effectively discuss and/or impact that a Democrat or Republican cannot?

Independent and third party candidates can and should talk about the fundamentally unfair rules of the election game. It is no secret that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump struck a chord when they talked about the system being “rigged.” Most voters, intuitively, know that it is. The problem is, neither of the major party candidates spent much time talking about how it is rigged or how to fix it (or how the one-third of the electorate that chooses not to affiliate with a party doesn’t enjoy the same election rights and access as the voters who do affiliate).

For example, open primaries (in which any voter, regardless of their affiliation, can participate in a government-funded primary election) was once a top issue for Bernie Sanders. And long before he ran for President, Donald Trump railed against the rules that keep third voices out of the presidential debates.

But neither one of them talk about the rules that both parties use to prevent competition anymore. If they did, BOTH sides of the political aisle would come down on them.

Independent and third party candidates are already running against both parties. They have a self-interest in explaining how the game is rigged against them. It is a reality that is shared by voters.

The scourge of hyper partisanship and its negative effects on legislative progress is another issue that independents and third party candidates should knock out of the park. The same partisan forces that block progress at the ballot box also conspire to block any hope of lasting legislative achievements in congress and inside too many state capitals. The sliver of extremists that serve as the base of both parties control their agendas making common-sense compromise with the other party nearly impossible.

But, if enough independents and third party candidates are elected, they can deny either major party a legislative majority and force cooperation that demands common ground solutions to the seemingly intractable problems confronting the country. Eliminate the false-choice, we win/you lose mentality of current legislative affairs, and the system could rediscover its ability to tackle the really big problems that need tackling. Republicans and Democrats can conveniently bemoan hyperpartisanship and pay lip service to wanting it to stop. Independent and third party candidates and causes can actually solve it.

For those looking to overcome partisan divides in their communities, how should they do that other than voting for non-two party candidates?

First, voters have to be honest with themselves. Do they listen as much as they talk? Are they willing to spend the time to know more than a sound bite about a candidate? Are they skeptical enough about the negative national campaign narratives and personal attacks that have become the “chum’ that distracts the media from providing more substantive information about policy choices?

Second, candidates must realize that voters need to believe that their vote matters. Independent candidates, whether they are registered in a political party or not, have to convince voters that they can win and that they can do it while maintaining their own sense of authenticity.

Finally, and this may seem overly simplistic: voters, candidates, and pundits would all serve themselves and the country well by spending a lot less time tea-leaf reading polls and other so called “micro-data”.

Want to get involved locally? Join a local group or national electoral reform organization (I selfishly suggest starting with groups that belong to the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers) to find information, resources, ammunition, and like-minded reformers and candidates that are taking on the polarized system.

Or, if you are an active Republican or Democrat, fight for principled reform inside your party. It’s hard, in part, because no one can ever guarantee that genuine reform will result in electing people that agree with you. You have to believe in the power of your own ideas; that you and what you believe in can compete on an even playing field. Understanding and accepting the limits of honest reform is why the members of our coalition can stand together despite important differences of opinion on many issues.

The NANR’s preamble says that “electoral competition has died…replacing the historic focus on new ideas in the American public square with the specter of the two parties’ prevailing views.” What new ideas do you see your candidates proposing now and in the future?

Our association’s members are universally optimistic “happy warriors” in the political idea marketplace. They are always listening, on the prowl for big, game-changing electoral reforms and experiments that have the potential to increase participation, transparency and accountability.

The effort to elect independent leaders and to support electoral reforms that challenge the duopoly’s vise grip on elections isn’t easy.

Political parties are private corporations run by powerful, entitled partisans who do not have an interest in compromised progress. Our association’s success will require both a measure of idealism and a dose of practicality. We will have our detractors. We’re used to hearing the partisan’s dismissive ridicule of our objectives. We know we will have to make our own tough, internal choices to set reach goals – but remain realists of what’s possible in the near term.

In the end we would hope to have as many supporters within the parties as from without. We come not to destroy the entrenched political parties, but to save them from their own death spiral. Inclusive, relevant, and accountable political parties can be vibrant players in the new and improved political system that’s coming (whether the parties like it or not) – but it’s up to them to evolve.

Partisans and nonpartisans can and should peacefully coexist – equally – for the good of their communities, cities, states and the country. To do so requires agreement on only one fundamental principle: every voter should be entitled to equal treatment in every election.

On everything else … let’s debate.