By Tom Lamia
“Greed is good!” is a memorable line from the movie Wall Street. Not long after the movie finished its run, the financial condition of most Americans, and of the country at large, was significantly worsened by what appeared to be a greed-induced recession.
There is an analogy here to the current state of politics. The accelerating partisanship in our politics reflects ideological greed that could soon (or has already) caused principles necessary for successful democratic governance to slide into political bankruptcy. The greed I speak of is that of two wholly dominant political organizations, each of which seems to believe that it has a monopoly on good ideas and is therefore entitled to pursue them by any means available.
- Two parties represent the highly disparate views of all Americans.
- A majority in each of those parties appears to believe that gaining control of the mechanics of voting is worth bending rules and traditions.
- The commonplace practice for gerrymandered districts to warehouse and sideline voters in districts where their views are not likely to prevail.
- The existence of blatant restrictions on voting by those in control of voting procedure.
- The use of litmus tests for would-be candidates to assure that party lines are not threatened by free thinkers.
- The proliferation of big-money donors for whom political contributions are an investment on which a financial return is expected.
- The monopolization of small-money donors by data collectors using closely protected algorithms developed at great cost.
All of this has left us with the two parties that contend everywhere, for every elected office. All of our efforts to sift through individual experience and form an opinion that translates into a choice among candidates and issues must be adapted to one of the two options offered. And, it is getting worse, because a monolithic rival is easy to demonize.
This polarization of views and control of voting is not new. The big city machines of the past controlled voting by friendly and foul means. What was, or is, ‘walking-around money’ if not a bribe to vote? If a voter is known to favor a candidate or position, an effort is made to facilitate that vote by those who would benefit from it. This is obvious and innocent, even necessary for democracy to work. What happened to that benign system?
Greed is what happened. It was not enough to get your voters to the polls. You could deter other voters from exercising their franchise. You could get control of the voting apparatus: the size and location of districts, the hours and days of voting, and of absentee voting procedures (to extend the dates when votes might be cast). If you were in control of government (where voting rules were made), you could use your power to maintain your control.
The principle that prevented these manipulations from ruining our democracy in the past were primarily legal principles (Baker v. Carr, in which the principle of “one person, one vote” was established by the Supreme Court), but there was also the principle of good citizenship, of loyalty to democratic values, and the expectation that the efforts of all were needed for the survival of constitutional government. Until recently, those principles were enough to allow our system to work. There was not enough of a divide between the two parties to justify skullduggery. Now there is.
The solution to this problem could be a retreat from two-party dominance. Until recently, Maine politics was a case study: independent candidates whose views were their own and who won elections despite their independent status. Conditions in Maine favored these candidates. The media market is small and affordable. Income and wealth inequalities are modest. No big city power elite exists. And, Maine has a history of good citizenship, of true patriotism, and of people working together to achieve common goals. But, these favorable conditions are not unique to Maine and they are not the only conditions that could favor a pullback from the two-party system.
The evidence of this is the success of independent politicians from all three party denominations who have served or are serving Maine in the U.S. Senate: Republicans Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and William Cohen; Democrats George Mitchell and Edmund Muskie; and Independent Angus King. The independent thinking and manifest competence of these political leaders have been hallmarks of Maine politics. But even here in Maine, the virtues I have described may be losing their traction. The current governor is both highly partisan and intolerant of dissenting views. May we all survive until November.