One of the many amusing contradictions and absurdities of the Tea Party phenomenum is that for all of their noise about the perfection and inviolability of the Constitution, it seems that what little they know of the document they want to change or ad-lib. They are no doubt having a party and being oh, so Constitutional when there isn’t even a mention of political parties at all in the Constitution. Our two-party system evolved naturally from the American love of a good prize-fight, the mano y mano, head-to-head, two-fisted contest with all the sanguinary thrills of gladitorial drama writ large. Parties are like street-gangs or football teams, they give us an identity and a side to cheer for.
(little-known Apocryphal Article from the first draft of the Constitution. Found in Madison’s hotel room soaked in strong cider. On the back it said Party Directions, so the maid thought it was just an old invitation and put it in the circular file.)
Article I.1 — The Parties
There shall be Established several Political Parties to represent the various Special Interests who will appropriate funds for their support. The Parties shall have the Powers of Demagoguery and Obstruction and Gridlock. Congress shall make no law abridging their hypocrisy or graft.
I’m no Constitutional scholar but I read it from time to time and because it’s a living document, I get new laughs with each reading. As I understand history, the original intention of our bicameral legislature was that the lower house should represent the people and be directly responsible to them. The Senate was conceived to represent the interests of the States within the Federal system. As our system has evolved in practice, with the unforeseen influence of political parties and direct election of Senators, all the members of Congress have come not to represent the people and the States respectively, but to represent their own political parties and be responsible more to them than their originally specified constituents. Count the number of straight party-line votes in the last session of Congress if you need proof that the legislators are more loyal to party than to the people they ostensibly represent. So, with the advent of political parties within our system, the original theory and intent of the Constitution was bent and thwarted or at least was forced to adapt.
The famous letters between Jefferson and Adams during the first years of our Republic are wonderfully revealing. By the tone of their correspondence, we can see that neither of these men were at all sure that our experiment in government would last beyond their generation. Certainly they would both be amazed that our Constitution has persisted as long as it has without being torn to the ground and reconstructed several times at least. But of the many ingenious aspects of our Constitution the most important to its survival has been its elasticity. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a communications revolution that will surely test that ability to adapt. The internet has already revolutionized several institutions and industries. I’m thinking of the postal system, publishing and broadcasting, newspapers and magazines, banking, stock trading etc on and on. It is already changing our election marketing and it’s only a matter of time before our government itself will have to adjust to the realities of a connected populace.
What ‘realities’ do I mean? Here’s one.
With the web, it is technically feasible for every citizen to vote on virtually every issue. We could very practically have a true democracy. It’s possible because of technologies that our Constitution never foresaw. Representative democracy was a practical compromise to accommodate the logistical impossibility of direct voting. In those days it took two weeks for a letter to get from Boston to Baltimore. But today it is literally possible for every citizen to vote by touching a screen with results tabulated in minutes. Whether this would expedite the business of government or not is subject to question, but it is technically possible for us to have a true democracy.
Not only did the framers realize that direct democracy was impractical, they also thought it was unwise. Fear of mob rule was a presence in their minds in the wake of French revolutionary enthusiasm. I happen to agree with them on the grounds that majority rule is just as likely to find the average of ignorance as it is to measure the golden mean of wisdom. So, even if pure popular democracy might not be wise, it is possible and because it is possible it will likely happen in some form or fashion. Already we see that the internet and cable TV are as influential in framing our national debate as the parties have been for generations. When an air-head like Sarah Palin can be mentioned in the same sentence with the word Presidency without a chorus of raspberries, you know there is vast change afoot in our electoral system. The major political parties have been losing market share for years but now we feel the presence of new exciting upstart brands like Grizzly Girl, the Alaska Amazon and eBay Meg from Silicone Valley and Ayn Rand’s bastard namesake, the young John Galt from Kentucky, Mr. Paul. Must I mention the No-Whackin’ Wiccan from Delaware? Anybody with a web connection can start a political party. I have one myself.
It’s only a matter of time before each of us has his own political party. There will be a website — MyParty.org, where you can make your own platform and choose your special interests and party mascot etc. There is a button to click for public campaign funding. There will be so many political parties that we’ll have to establish shelters for them, there will be junkyards full of old, worn-out parties and party prisons and party landfills. insane asylums full of political parties with Thorazine eyes and the twisted intuition of zealots in the cause of what does it matter? The Poet’s Eye wanders across empty tabletops and overturned chairs and soggy confetti and notices that, in terms of relevance, the party might be over for the two-party system.
However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they 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.
From George Washington’s Farewell Address
September 17, 1796
The party’s over
It’s time to call it a day
They’ve burst your pretty balloon
And taken the moon away
It’s time to wind up the masquerade
Just make your mind up the piper must be paid
—-by Comden. Green and Styne
best version, Nat Cole