In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address to the nation, he took the occasion to warn his young country about a number of potential pitfalls such as foreign
entanglements and political parties. On the latter Washington said, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to
party dissension…is itself a frightful despotism.” He added, “…the common and continual mischiefs (sic) of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and
duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
It’s easy to understand Washington’s concern about political parties. When he was first elected in 1789, both he and John Adams were independents. Political parties
didn’t exist. Four years later, the party system was in full swing. And the nature of the beast was revealed by the parties’ names – Federalists and Anti-Federalists.
The black-and-white world of a two-party system had arrived.
Since then, there has only been one presidential election – 1824 – where all candidates were independent. And, since 1856 with the emergence of the Republican
Party, it and the Democratic Party have ruled the voting booth. Third (or fourth and fifth) parties haven’t had much of a chance.
The Greenback Party participated in three presidential elections and totaled zero electoral votes. The Prohibitionist Party lasted through four elections – zero electoral
votes. The Socialist Party – 12 elections, 13 electoral votes (all of those votes were won in 1924). In fact, the Populist, or People’s, Party, which saw its zenith at the
turn of the last century, has been the only one to make any noise, gaining 353 electoral votes over three elections and finishing second twice.
Independents have fared far worse. Over five elections since 1856 that saw independents run, they have earned 46 electoral votes, all gained by George Wallace in
1968. When Ross Perot ran in 1992, from all the fanfare one would have thought he almost won. Yet, Perot over two elections never a single electoral vote. And
while his nearly 20 million popular votes were impressive in 1992, he only polled slightly more than eight million in 1996.
Partisanship starts at home
Since a young man, I have always viewed our two-party system with some disdain. It always struck me as peculiar, and wrong, that America bills itself as the leader of
the free, democratic world, yet election year in and election year out we only really have two choices: a Democrat or a Republican. That conviction has only deepened
with time, and has never been more troublesome to me than now.
Remember Jessie Jackson’s strong run at the Democratic nomination in the 1980s? Remember his speech at the Democratic National Convention that had everyone
talking? Where is he now? He has been abandoned by his party as too far left and not electable.
How about Pat Buchanan? He was a serious Republican candidate, a darling of conservatives until his stance became much too right of center for comfort and he was
run off to the Reformists.
John McCain’s actions I think speak volumes about the situation. The U.S. Senator from Arizona ran on the platform of giving government back to the people and
garnered a coalition of voters from across the political spectrum. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow losing the nomination to George W. Bush, a candidate for whom
he holds an obvious disdain. Yet, running as an independent wasn’t an option for McCain; he wouldn’t run against his Grand Old Party. So, it would seem his party is
more important to McCain than the welfare of the country and its people.
I think McCain was being earnest when he claimed party loyalty as his prime reason for not running independently. But let’s be honest, it would have been political
suicide for him to run on his own. Even a John McCain, a formidable and appealing candidate with loads of experience and charisma, would have been ground up by
the party system.
I know I’m not breaking any new ground when I write that there’s a mass move to the middle by both parties. It has been well documented that Bill Clinton is a shining
example of this strategy that is pervasive in both parties.
Where are we? Where are we going?
Where has this left us? We now have an even more firmly entrenched two-party system which has a stranglehold on the center leaving other parties to hustle for the
scraps left on the fringes. President Ralph Nader? I don’t think so.
Let me say that I fully understand why political parties exist. Even though the two parties now seem more alike than different, a candidate’s party choice does at least
give some idea of where he or she stands on the issues. And parties serve to cut through the clutter and give us a workable list of candidates.
In 1824 when all the four candidates were independent, Andrew Jackson pulled the most electoral votes but didn’t gain a plurality. Thus, the vote went to the House
of Representatives, which summarily chose John Quincy Adams. The last gubernatorial election here in Mississippi proved one thing to me – I don’t want legislators
choosing my executive.
But it’s hard for me to understand all the carping and frustration over partisanship in government when we, the electorate, are so partisan ourselves. Love of party, or
hate of the opposition, seems the prime motivator for most in determining which handle to pull.
Once there was a record label that was thinking of signing a musician. He was big, handsome and carried himself well. On a whim, the executives called in the great
singer-songwriter Sam Cooke. Cooke sat and listened, and pronounced him a dud. The executives were shocked until Cooke challenged them to turn their back and,
without looking at him, listen to him sing. He didn’t sound nearly as impressive as they first thought and the musician wasn’t signed.
That’s what I’m advocating. What if we all turned our backs, let party affiliation be a secondary issue, and chose our leaders on their merits? What if we weren’t told
on the front end whether a particular candidate was either a donkey or an elephant? What if we weren’t dictated to by the Democrats and Republicans?
This isn’t Ole Miss versus Mississippi State. It’s not a game. It matters.
Wally Northway is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.