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Those Who Make the Rules, Rule (Part 1) by Omar H. Ali

Political parties are corrupt, and Americans know it. Over 40% of us do not identify with any party, increasing numbers of us distrust parties, and 71% of college-age students want more political options and choices.

Political parties are anti-democratic. Throughout American history, independents - those of us not affiliated with the major parties - have been the driving force behind the expansion of democracy. It's the independents that have changed the rules of American politics, taking them in a more democratic and inclusive direction. Today, independents are the fastest growing group of voters in the country. The demographic trends and statistics pointing towards independence are staggering, yet we exert little political leverage in proportion to our numbers. Our democracy has become dull and lifeless with record numbers of Americans not participating.

How did this come to be?

Political parties have taken over our government. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is there even mention of political parties. And yet, the major parties make the rules through which all levels of policy are decided - from who gets on the ballot in elections, to who is included in candidate debates, to what issues are addressed, how they get discussed, to what laws are enacted, and therefore what policy Americans are ultimately left with. The Democratic and Republican parties make those rules to suit their - not the American people's - interests. Corporate special interests? They don't compare to the power of the parties. The two major parties are by far the most powerful of all special interests and therefore the most corrosive element of our democracy.

By creating explicitly bipartisan laws and regulatory bodies, i.e. rules geared to a bipartisan system, the major parties artificially keep themselves in power. We are given no choice but to sustain the two parties. There are virtually no other options, except to "opt out" - which half the country has done by not voting. The parties have done far more than exert their control over legislatures to enact laws that protect their interests in the election process. In many ways, the Democratic and Republican parties have become virtually synonymous with government. They should not be. Political parties and government, like Church and State, should be separate. But they've been institutionally conflated.

It's important to understand that the conflation of the major parties and government, so deeply entrenched in our culture and in our political institutions, was systematically crafted. It didn't just happen overnight and it certainly wasn't inevitable.

It's up to us, particularly the younger generation of Americans, to help redirect the country towards a participatory, citizen-driven, populist democracy which includes and activates all Americans. That means we have to change the rules. Self-declared independents, along with the millions of others around the country who support having more choices in the political arena, must work to dismantle the ironclad control political parties have as we build the independent political movement.

How political parties have taken over our government, how they stifle the flow of democracy, and what is being done to change this, is what every independent needs to know.

Bipartisan Structural Control

Bipartisan control of our government has become so embedded in the structure of government, so engrained in our political culture, that it's difficult for us to even see. Let's begin by asking some questions.

Why is it that the Federal Election Commission, created by Congress to oversee elections, is itself structured to be overseen by three Democrats and three Republicans? Shouldn't a body that regulates elections be nonpartisan, rather than bipartisan?

Why is it that independent candidates running for office are often legally required to gather at least tenfold the number of signatures as Democrats or Republicans simply to have their name appear on the ballot? Shouldn't all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, be required to meet the same obligations?

Why is it that the presidential debates - the single-most important venue for the American people to assess who they will choose as their chief executive - are organized through a bipartisan group called the Commission on Presidential Debates headed up by none other than the former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties? Shouldn't debates be a civic rather than a partisan activity?

Why should Congress be structurally organized along partisan lines, and why should the Democratic and Republican Congressional caucuses, along with the majority and minority members of committees, have partisan staff funded by the taxpayers? Aren't political parties supposed to be non-governmental bodies?

Why should state election boards and commissions around the country be comprised of appointees of the Democratic and Republican parties? Remember Florida 2000? Election boards and commissions should be neutral, nonpartisan bodies to facilitate elections for all Americans.

How such distortions of democracy are permitted and how the electoral playing field has become tilted such that the major parties insidiously dominate the political arena is a history of great importance for all Americans. Substantial gains have been made by independent movements to expand democracy - first, with the enfranchisement of poor white men, followed by black men, then women, and then the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. But despite the expansion of who can vote in our country, political parties have rigged the game so that no matter the outcome of a particular election, they remain in control. They make the rules. And as Douglas Muzzio, a professor at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York recently observed, "He who determines the rules, rules."

That's why the independents must be rule breakers!

We have to break the rules of traditional politics and bring the American people into the process of creating new ones. When the people become the rule makers, the people - not the parties, not the special interests - will rule. That's what independent politics, or populism, is all about.

Special Interests

There's been a lot of talk these days about corporations and their power in shaping government policy. We've all heard how Enron has deep ties to the Bush Administration, how under the Clinton Administration corporations were given unprecedented liberties - and how millions of Americans have had their pensions wiped out and their livelihoods taken away.

Everyone's been affected by these abuses on some level.

But for all the power individual corporations wield - be they the oil, energy, telecommunications, tobacco, insurance, or pharmaceutical companies or industries - no matter how wealthy these corporate entities are, their control over public policy relies on the pervasive power of the political parties.

The Washington, DC-based Center for Responsive Politics recently concluded that while the one and a half billion dollars spent every year in corporate lobbying may seem high, these are "paltry sums compared to the amount of money that hinges on congressional decisions." The Telecommunications Act passed by Congress, for instance, alone gave existing broadcasters some $70 billion in rights for digital television on public airwaves. Exorbitant subsidies continue to be given to corporations, such as when defense contractors Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta and taxpayers ended up paying $30 million in bonuses to company executives.

But perhaps more insidious than the subsidies is the distortion of public policy to suit the needs of the corporate sector. Giving the President "fast track" authority to negotiate trade deals and having Congress vote those agreements up or down, without amendment, was an antidemocratic restructuring of the highest order. Incredibly, Congress voted to reduce its own power - to deny itself the right to intervene on the most significant unleashing of global corporate power - which they did at the behest of the political parties.

So let's not be fooled. The parties, not the corporations are the ones in control of government. Ask yourself: Who is more powerful - the lobbyists or the lobbied? If the American people want to bring the corporations to heel - and they do - we're going to have to first bring the party system to heel.

Expanding Democracy

Historically, it's taken social and political movements independent of the major parties to expand democracy in the United States. These independent movements include the Abolitionists beginning in the 1830s, culminating in Reconstruction with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (abolishing slavery, providing citizenship for all African-Americans, and the right to vote for black men). There were the women's rights advocates of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, whose work collectively culminated in the 19th Amendment - bringing women into the franchise. And then there were the many young and courageous independents of the Civil Rights and Antiwar movements, whose work led to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and the eventual pressures to end the Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese called it, the "American War").

However, even as the franchise was being expanded by these independent movements, the two party system was evolving to constrain and limit democratic participation.

The History of Party Takeover

Our nation, which gained its independence from a constitutional monarchy, was founded upon the basic tenets of republicanism and a relatively new form of representative, or popular government. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, Americans adopted the Articles of Confederation. The Articles assembled a loose confederacy of the former colonies into state governments where power resided firmly in elected state legislatures.

These legislatures reformed property and voting laws, bringing a broader cross-section of the population into electoral participation and governance. It installed a form of terms limits, known then as "rotation of service," to guard against legislative incumbency and the despotism they feared would follow. These legislatures also began to take action to relieve farmers, small merchants, and others less propertied of the massive amounts of debt accumulated during and following the war. A number of state legislatures stripped their governors of many powers and gave themselves the right to suspend or even override the court systems when necessary. Local power by local people was paramount in governing.

The efforts by some state legislatures to expand citizen participation and cancel debts to create a stable economic footing for small businesses and farmers - in opposition to bankers, large merchants, and the landed gentry who held the debt - provoked the campaign for the US Constitution. The Constitution's principal advocates were "Federalists," such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who argued that a strong constitution would keep the new nation from descending into the chaos and anarchy that, as they believed, came with the expansion of democracy.

A powerful centralized authority that could tax, regulate trade, form a national army, and govern powerfully from atop was what the Federalists called for in the implementation of a constitution. "Anti-Federalists," such as Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine, were wary of such centralized power, and fought against such a formation, which they saw as a violation of republican government, with power residing principally at the local level, with local legislative bodies.

In 1787 a constitutional convention was held in Philadelphia, which led to the drafting of the US Constitution. Ratification of the Constitution would take two years, and often only by narrow margins in many states where conventions had been created to bypass state legislatures which, Federalists feared, would most likely vote to reject it. Despite the number of compromises that were reached, namely over core issues of freedom, such as slavery, a Bill of Rights (the first ten Amendments to the US Constitution) was also ratified. Since 1791, the Bill of Rights has served as a protection of citizens from our own government with regard to free speech, free assembly, and all the basic freedoms of critical importance that have helped independents advance democracy over time.

It was in this period of our nation that two major political factions emerged: The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists (or Democratic-Republicans).

George Washington in his Farewell Address warned against such factions or the "spirit of the parties," because of their potential divisiveness to the Republic. Americans weren't alone in their caution against parties. Half a century earlier, Robert Walpole, the British Prime Minister, argued that parties were the malign result of "gratifying … private passion by public means." Scholars, by and large, agree on this point. Robert Dahl, Yale Professor Emeritus, wrote in his latest book On Democracy that "Political 'factions' and partisan organizations were generally viewed [in the 18th century] as dangerous, divisive,...and injurious to the public good."

The function of political parties was not merely to express and advocate support on any particular issue or position of the day. Their primary function almost immediately became to mediate between the people and government, and in so doing to limit direct participation by the American people in the political process.

Politics became less and less the active and direct participation of the citizenry in making the decisions which impacted their lives, as had been the case in the decisions to break away from England, to carry out the War for Independence, and to establish the nation's earliest institutions of governance. Instead, politics came more and more to mean wheeling and dealing between and within the parties, which set themselves up as vehicles to government, jobs, influence, and as the mediators of government policy. Slowly the parties were taking over, though the process would take some time to complete. But by the end of Washington's term as President, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists had formed into powerful and discernible factions.

The revolutionary character of our government in its early years had experienced a virtual coup d'etat by the political parties. The popular revolution of 1776, with mass participation of colonists, was compromised in what was a second, more conservative revolution of 1789. What to some, as Tom Paine believed, was the most important feature of the American Revolution - that it be an ongoing revolution towards democracy - was shut down. The political parties further compounded the problem by distancing the American people from the government they had themselves just created. Within a generation these proto-parties would be supplanted by the Democrats and the Whigs, and since the Civil War, we've been under the rule of the Democrats and the Republicans. That's 150 years of bipartisan rule! More than the life span of many dynasties in world history.

The system of political parties, which inserted itself into our government so early in our nation's existence, would create the basis for the corruption of our political process that is at the heart of America's crisis today.

During the late 19th century and early 20th century, independents in the Populist and Progressive movements attempted to wrest control over the economy and reform politics through the formation of independent parties. The 1890s had, for instance, witnessed the coming together of black and white farmers and laborers in the formation of the People's Party. The party posed a considerable threat to the Democratic Party in the South until it was co-opted by the Democrats, using the issue of silver coinage to blunt the edge of its independent sword. The co-optation of independent movements by the Democrats would continue into and throughout the 20th century - most notably in the 1930s, with the rise of the labor movement, and then in the 1960s, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement

Omar H. Ali is a doctoral fellow in History at Columbia University,
Director of Research at the Committee for a Unified Independent Party, and
a District Leader of the Independence Party of New York. He is a
contributing author to History in Dispute: American Social and Political
Movements, 1945-2000 (St. James Press, 2000). Professor Ali can be reached
at: 212-962-1811/800-288-3201 or by e-mail:

Omar H. Ali

Monday, October 14, 2002

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