Sunday, August 17, 2008


A Modest Proposal deems its proposal modest: although it is unquestionably important, it should have minimal effect on American political life. The proposal is modest because it only seeks a few good souls to take up the challenge. Just a few such nonpartisans can be an enormous force for good in the Congressional culture. It is quality and character, not numbers, that are wanted.

By the same modest token, a small number of nonpartisan Senators and Representatives will pose no significant threat to the bi-partisan politics of Congress or the nation. So long as Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that to win the presidency outright in the Electoral College (and avoid election by the House of Representatives) a candidate must win a majority of the electoral votes, and so long as most states award all their electoral votes to the winner of their popular votes, the politics of the United States will be dominated by the two major parties. As the noted British scholar of those politics, Denis W. Brogan, has written: “The chief task of the national parties is to induce the heterogeneous mass of the American people to act as two units once every four years for the object of electing a President.”

Each major “national party” is headed by a group of leaders in Washington, a National Committee and staffers, presiding over an aggregate of state and local party organizations. As these latter are peopled by leaders, organizers and workers in direct touch with the voters, virtually all politics from top to bottom is two-party politics. Both houses of Congress are organized and operated as two-party bodies, and the occasional third-party or independent newcomer must adjust to, and learn to live with, and within, that two-party setup. A few nonpartisan Senators or Representatives are hardly likely to threaten this enduring system.
They will, however, bring into the midst of that partisan culture their independent minds, not beholden to a party organization and thus free of party discipline. Free, also, of moral – or immoral – obligation to large contributors to their party coffers. They will be unconstrained by the power of party leaders to reward compliance or punish rebellion.

In a kind of perverse way, Senator Wayne Morse underscored the two-party organization of Congress by challenging it directly. Having been re-elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1950, he decided to leave the party in mid-term, in 1952, and become an Independent. At the opening session of the new Congress, the story goes, he appeared in the Senate chamber with a folding chair which, to the consternation of his colleagues, he either plunked down in the center aisle, or threatened to do so. His colleagues persuaded him to give up that wild idea and to take his old seat on the Republican side. But Morse was not through tormenting them. He told the Republican leaders that as an “Independent Party” – albeit a one-man party – he was entitled to assign himself to the standing committees of his choice. This sent the Senate into a tizzy. Traditionally, the leaders of the majority and minority parties assign senators of their party to standing committees, a powerful privilege, as assignment to a prestigious committee, such as Foreign Affairs or Judiciary, is highly prized. Traditionally, this was the sole route to a committee assignment, and the Senate leaders rose to the challenge. There was a sharp and prolonged debate, during which Senator Walter F. George of Georgia deflected Morse’s demand by asserting that if it prevailed, the Senate “would then be inviting splinter parties in the United States, and coalitions between factions of both parties, and, in a very short period of time, we would have all the ills of the coalition governments which have afflicted practically all of Europe.” The Senate then voted overwhelmingly to reject Morse’s demand.

Despite the endurance of the two-party system, third parties large and small have perpetually challenged it, with some success in state and local elections, but no success at the presidential level, except for the Republican Party. In 1856, when the Democrats and Whigs were the major parties, the Republicans entered the lists as an anti-slavery third party, and lost; but the slavery issue split the Whig Party and wiped it out, the “pro” Whigs going go the Democrats and the “anti” Whigs to the Republicans. By 1860, the two-party system essentially was back, the Republicans, with Lincoln, defeating the Democrats, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Calls for amendment of our curious and idiosyncratic presidential electoral system are hardy perennials, as are proposals of methods for making the popular vote decisive without going the burdensome Constitutional amendment route. One such was an editorial in The New York Times on March 14, 2006 entitled “Drop Out of the College”. Such proposals are subject to the law of unintended consequences, may be unwise, and, in any event, are not likely to bring about change any time soon. Therefore, A Modest Proposal assumes continuation of the two-party system undisturbed, and proposes amelioration of some less felicitous aspects of its Congressional culture by the election of a few nonpartisans to that body.

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