Steffen Schmidt, IAFC Blogger
Steffen W. Schmidt, University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Iowa State University, WNYC blogger, and chief Political correspondent of Insider Iowa.
As we perennially wait for Washington to implode under partisan strife it may be helpful to remember that there has been a sizzling debate about the failures of strong majority government, party loyalty and politics in the United States from the beginning of the Republic.
By majority government we, of course, mean a government elected on a specific political party ticket to have a majority in the House and Senate and also hopefully in the office of the president. In the ideal world, voters are asked to choose at election time from among several and preferably two political platforms offered by two political parties.
In this world all candidates running under each of the party labels would agree and comply with the party position on issues of the economy, foreign affairs, civil rights and liberties, and so forth. In that idealized world voters would then select from the choice and vote into power the party and the candidates with whose position they most strongly agree.
Once this has occurred, again in the ideal world, one of the parties would then, by virtue of being the majority, implement quickly and efficiently, the policies spelled out by the party and agreed upon by candidates running on that party label.
In other words, the majority having been given a legitimate go ahead by voters would now actually comply with their decision and “make so” the promises spelled out by the candidates of the winning party.
In reality that’s not how it works.
My now deceased colleague Austin Ranney wrote extensively on this matter in his 1954 book, The Doctrine of Responsible Party Government. Ranney went back to writings starting in 1870 and dissected the many fallacies and contradictions of the simple theory of majority rule and in doing so revealed the frustrating truth about American government and politics, a truth that has not been spoken in as articulate a manner as Ranney did for many decades.
As a result Americans are terribly confused as well as frustrated when they see their representatives in Washington quarrel, quibble, and achieve so little except gridlock.As we stagger towards November in the hope of some political relief to the quarreling, squabbling, and “check-mating” that takes place in our nation’s capital, it is worth remembering that there really is no way out of this miasma. The American political system was constructed and remains a machine designed to slow down - not expedite - policy.
The truth is that the American political parties do NOT have party discipline. It’s every man and woman for himself since Senators and Representatives are “free agents” who must account only to their state or district constituencies as well as their campaign donors and can ignore and even contradict their own party and its leaders. Even worse, the Democratic and Republican parties are mere loose coalitions of often-conflicting philosophies.
One has to look no further than the Republican Party of Iowa which is led by a backer of Texas Libertarian/Republican Ron Paul while a very strong second wing of the party is “led” by an extremely doctrinaire conservative Bob Vander Plaats. Thus for example on the issue of reversing the legality of Iowa’s gay marriage court ruling, the Ron Paul supporters and the religious conservative wing of the party do not see eye to eye at all. On that and other issues the “Libertarian Republicans” and the “Strict Conservatives” are as far apart as one would expect Democrats and Republicans to be.
No wonder we simply can’t have “majority rule.” The political party system and the Constitution work against it every day.