Monday, May 20, 2019

Abolish Political Parties?

I purchased "On the Abolition of All Political Parties", written by Simone Weil, translated by Simon Leys, for my wife for Christmas.  In light of the seemingly dangerous partisan politics that is everywhere today, I decided to read it last week.

First, a bit of background.  Simone Weil was a philosopher and political activist who lived from 1909 to 1943, teaching, assisting in the trade union movement, siding with the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, and also spending time working as a common laborer so she could better understand the working class.  Her writings were not recognized for their importance until after her death.  One of her most well known supporters was Albert Camus.  Here is the Wikipedia link of you wish to read about her;

As is so often the case, it is sometimes hard not to imagine that whatever crisis that we are experiencing today, whether local, national or global, is not somehow more critical than any other in history.  Our egos won't readily allow us to consider that we are living in anything less than an historic time, even though it is obvious that some times are more historic than others, and that only after many years have passed, can we truly know if we lived in a watershed time or not.

That being the case, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Weil's time on Earth was indeed an historic time to be alive.  WWI, the Russian revolution, the global economic collapse, the rise of nationalism in Europe, and WW2 all occurred during her brief lifetime, and certainly helped shape her political views.

"On the Abolition..." is her logical argument that very little good has come from the tribalism that infects political parties, while much bad results in their existence.  But Weil's explanation of why political parties are not productive, focuses more on the individuals who comprise the party than the party itself.  She acknowledges that the party, as a whole, might have ideas that serve their nation well, might promote policies that uplift the everyday worker.  Her problem with political parties is best illustrated by the following quote from the book.

If a man were to say, as he applied for his party membership card, "I agree with the party on this and that question; I have not yet studied its other positions and thus I entirely reserve my opinion, pending further information," he would probably be advised to come back at a later date.

In fact - and with very few exceptions - when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as . "As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that..."  It is so comfortable!  I amounts to having no thought at all.  Nothing is more comfortable that not having to think.

Of course, in today's language, we might say "As a conservative, or as a liberal, as a Democrat or as a Republican," but the intent is the same.  The party affiliation helps us identify ourselves for the listeners (and voters), but more importantly creates boundaries for our opinions.  For instance, a Democrat who is pro-abortion, may have a hard time campaigning with that platform, while a Republican who readily acknowledges that climate change is real and that we must embrace the new Green Deal, may find it difficult to gain votes.

This doesn't mean that pro-choice candidates tend to become Democrats, or that climate change deniers Republican simply because the party leans that way, but it does indicate that when a candidate disagrees with a basic party tenet, even if it is only 25% of the time, he/she may not find the party support necessary to win election.  Weil just takes it a step further than some, indicating her belief that the party member stops thinking, and merely adopts the party opinion on all topics, regardless of their personal opinion.

Weil notes the "free" or "conscious" vote as proof of her logic.  As defined,

conscience vote or free vote is a type of vote in a legislative body where legislators are allowed to vote according to their own personal conscience rather than according to an official line set down by their political party.

The fact that this is a real thing should alarm us while her point, obviously, is that all votes should be one in which the elected leader considers his/her conscious, not the exception.

In the US Congress, we see this type of vote exercised by each party when they allow a certain member to vote against the party's preference, knowing that they have enough votes to pass the legislation anyway.  In this way, members with constituents who might be against a particular proposal can be mollified with the knowledge that their representative stood up to the party and respected their viewpoint.  The bill still passes, but the representative saves face, and, most likely, adheres to the party line the next vote so someone else can appear independent.  And, even worse, it doesn't even mean that a "conscious" vote was cast, just that a vote which acknowledges that public opinion, was cast.  The representative may, in fact, be more worried about re-election than their conscience, and by getting a pass from the party, they get to retain their seat in government.

It all adds up to party loyalty above the nation, and, again, even when a particular party may have good intentions, there will eventually be capitulation by the party members to the party's will, rather than a considered vote which places the nation above all else. 

Once you read this book, you may conclude that Weil was right, and that nothing short of the abolition of all political parties is the only answer.  Certainly, some of the founding fathers were worried about this very issue.  But how could this be accomplished, and an even more critical consideration, is the American electorate ready for such a change?

Perhaps addressing the second question first, will provide an answer to the first. 

Can our electorate enter the voting booth on a consistent basis with a general understanding of the candidates and their opinions, vote for the person who best represents their own viewpoints, but also accept when another candidate wins with the knowledge that at least some of their concerns and opinions will be considered when new laws are created?

I ask this because it seems very clear to me that we frequently put our elected officials into 2 all-or- nothing boxes;  agree with me all the time, or, at the very least, agree with my party all the time.  This is a very elementary position, and in and or itself, discourages "conscious votes". 

I have severe misgivings that we are ready for such responsibility, as voters, considering that only just above 60% of us vote in presidential elections, barely 40% in midterms, and that a far too big percentage of voters select all of one party or the other, not necessarily knowing anything about the candidates other than their party affiliation.  In other words, we need to shake off our complacency about our democracy, and invest time and energy when exercising our right to vote, or no solution will be successful. 

Enter the educated voter.

I recently commented to a friend of mine that the educated voter was not the friend of any political parties because an educated voter knows that no party will be in agreement with their personal views, but that the best choice is one where there is the most agreement.  An educated voter understands the importance of compromise, because their neighbor's ideas of what is fair and right are just as important as their own, even when they are polar opposites, and that common ground should be  the starting point for all discussions and debates.  An educated voter does not take the word of the candidate, whether that candidate is the incumbent or in their first campaign, but fact checks what is said.  (Also good advice for Facebook posts and Twitter retweets).

Perhaps a starting point would be to eliminate all reference to a candidate's party on the ballot.  Make the voter research the candidates rather than handing them an easy tool, the party vote, so they at least know the names of those they are choosing.  Removing all the restrictions to voting might also be a good idea, especially when it comes to primaries that are only open to party affiliated registered voters, expanding the rules on absentee ballots, expanding the actual voting day to a weekend with a federal holiday on that Monday, establishing an online voting system that allows people with handicaps or difficult work schedules to vote, and who knows, maybe even a fine for not voting. 

I say this last thing, because it seems that money is our great yardstick, so perhaps, rather than pretending that our right to vote is "priceless" we should put a price on that right, and extract its cost for those who choose not to participate.  At least we can then use it to fund election campaigns, which, knowing what we now know, also means reversing the Citizens United ruling which allows even more money to flow into our elections.  If failing to stand at attention before a symbol made of cloth is such an unpatriotic expression, how is failing to vote any less egregious?

I guess, at this point, I am saying that we cannot abolish political parties, yet.  Yes, we might see some progress in the partisanship fiasco that we are experiencing today, but without a governor on the money being spent in our elections, without less voter restrictions that our current trend towards more, without an educated voter who can talk as fluently about the candidates and the pros and cons of their positions as they can about the latest GOT episode or the hottest sports stars' stats, then our votes will still add up to a dysfunctional government that answers to big money, party loyalties, and special interests rather than we the people. 

Sadly, it is up to we the people, and I am finding it difficult to see us demanding the changes that will help us preserve our democracy, with or without political parties.

1 comment:

  1. Who is educating our voters? Are they teaching thier values slanted towards one side or the other? Are our schools and teachers presenting objective ideas so the voter can decide for themselves?