Partisan system: Is it working? Is it fair?

Above: Author Paul Johnson, former mayor of Phoenix, is chairman of The Nonpartisan Movement's 501c4 in Arizona. Politics | 17 Jun, 2015 |

The evidence says that we should be optimistic about the future.  Through innovation, entrepreneurs and dynamic businesses, we are on get verge of driverless cars, new energy sources, a cure for cancer, extending human life and untold millions of other wonderful discoveries.  Here in Arizona we have an amazing potential for job growth and an expanding economy. 

If businesses and entrepreneurs are our greatest hope, our political system is our greatest threat.

Burdensome regulations, a mounting $17 trillion debt, the possibility of not extending the debt ceiling, and destroying the good faith and credit of the United States. The failure to pass immigration reform.  An educational policy where one party continues to cut spending while the other wants more money but fights any meaningful reform to hold the system accountable.  And Arizona elected leaders pass laws that make us the ridicule of the nation and cause us real losses in economic development.

The partisan system provides incentives to elected officials to look out for small factions within their political parties, while ignoring the broader interests of the full public they represent.  With gerrymandering, stacked districts and low turnout primaries, special interests have disproportionate power over the majority.  But it doesn’t have to be this way!

The partisan system is exactly what the Founders of the United States of America wanted to avoid. They warned us about it.

Before he left office, President George Washington warned his countrymen about parties: “The common mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

Washington and his fellow Founders believed that wise leaders focused on the public interest are most likely to appear if they avoided the divisiveness of “faction” created by political parties.

To any wise person today, it is clear that we have moved far away from the ideal framed by our Founders.

Our Founding Fathers challenged the status quo, asking two key questions about the Monarchy: “Is it working?” and “Is it fair?”  These are two questions Americans across the country are asking about today’s Partisan System. 

Disdain for the partisan process is evident as large numbers of regular Americans are abandoning the two political parties and registering as nonpartisan, independent, or unaffiliated.  In Arizona, independents comprise the largest segment of the electorate: 35% of registered voters. And this number is more than 3 times as high as it was 30 years ago. Furthermore, national surveys indicate that 70% of the newest voters – 18 year olds – are registering as independents. In time, independents will be a majority of voters.

Washington’s warnings have become reality.  The partisan system is not working. 

Satisfaction with Congress is at an all-time low, while candidates from both parties drive towards the ideological fringes.  A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last summer found that despite the steady pace of hiring, 76% of adults lack confidence that their children’s generation will have a better life than they do—an all-time high. The only issue that ranked higher than the economy as a major problem in a recent Gallup poll was the lack of leadership.  It also showed the partisan system was failing on immigration, education and healthcare.

The failure is the most evident when it comes to debt and deficits.  A $17 trillion debt eventually will result in the need to raise the yield to attract new investors.  This will reduce tax revenue and thus other governmental services.  American corporations, viewed as riskier, will face increased costs to borrow, which will increase costs for goods and result in inflation.  The net worth of homeowners will decrease as the cost of borrowing money to purchase a home increases.  The American people are right.  If nothing changes, our future generations will experience a lower standard of living.  Is that working?

To solve this problem, pragmatic Democrats should support entitlement reform to ensure the sustainability of programs they claim to hold dear.  Fiscally responsible Republicans should support reform to restore the good faith and credit of the United States.  Leaders in both political parties understand this, but it doesn’t change anything.  Is that working? 

In a partisan environment all that matters is who has a majority and who wants the majority.  Compromise is avoided to protect partisan causes.  So Democrats oppose entitlement reform and Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling, resulting in the possibility of defaulting on the national debt.   Meanwhile, we’re facing an impending crisis of default which would create a crisis as big as the hyper-inflationary period prior to World War II.  Is that working?

This isn’t just a national issue.  Arizona has also been ravaged by partisan politics.  Our partisan process elected Evan Mecham, we grew our state budget to unsustainable levels at the height of the housing bubble, passed SB1070, narrowly avoided the SB1062 embarrassment, and defunded education.  In the past few years, our legislature considered bills that looked like secession movements, questioned the right of the Supreme Court to interpret laws, and opposed higher educational standards.  Is that working?

Why does the partisan system fail to match up with the will of the general public?

It is because many of our elected officials are elected in primaries where less than 5% of the public vote in either primary.  Stacked districts eliminate any real competition in the General Election.  So these politicians never really face a majority of the public.  If they did, they could not sustain these extreme views.  Is that fair?

Out of 435 elected members of Congress, because of gerrymandering, only about 35 districts have real competition in the General Election. That means that in the overwhelming majority of districts, a small minority of people has control over the direction of the United States. Is that fair? 

Meanwhile, voters not registered in a party have fewer voting rights than those who are in a party.  Nonpartisan voters have to re-register every election to receive an early ballot in a primary.   Nonpartisan candidates must collect ten times as many signatures for the same office as their partisan counterparts.  Is that fair?

The most insulting of all is that the parties take taxpayer dollars from independents and nonpartisan voters to fund their primary elections at the same time some are pursuing efforts to prevent those independents from even voting.  Is that fair?

This partisan system is destined to fail.  Our founders called those men who advocated for such a system where the few controlled the many as “tyrants.” 

Arizona needs a system that will grant the right of every voter to vote in every election.  In 2016 the nonpartisan movement will propose just such a measure in Arizona designed to pull people together as opposed to split them apart.

The public understands you can’t be pro-labor if you’re not pro-business.  You can’t be pro-business unless you are pro-education and you can’t be pro-education unless you are pro-funding and pro-reform.  But alas, today our politicians are not accountable to the public, but instead care only for the small factions that vote in their primaries.

As popular business author Jim Collins writes, you must “face the brutal facts” to succeed. The facts are clear. 

It’s time to reawaken American pragmatism, heed George Washington’s advice, and move away from the partisan system that threatens the future of our republic.

 

Paul Johnson, former mayor of Phoenix, is chairman of The Nonpartisan Movement’s 501c4 in Arizona: the Open Nonpartisan Elections Committee. For more information, visit www.openprimariesaz.org.

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