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Partisan divide could be parties' undoing

Congress Health Care

Dawn breaks over the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 6.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Partisan politics is already in high gear for 2018, with both Democrats and Republicans taking action to enforce political purity tests on their members and candidates.

On the left, Sen. Diane Feinstein of California was deemed not liberal enough and was not endorsed by the state Democratic Party. On the right, the Utah Republican State Central Committee took action to consolidate power and establish litmus tests for candidates. It was not an accident that the nation's only truly independent president, George Washington, spent much of his farewell address warning against the partisan fighting of political parties.

In his essay, "the Malice of Parties," early 18th century writer Joseph Allen penned, "There cannot a greater judgment befall a country than a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers, and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different nations."

Many, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have posited that America may be witnessing the beginning of the end of a two-party domination of politics.

Neither political party is providing a reason for voters, especially younger voters, to join their ranks. The days of taking pride as a "card-carrying" Democrat or Republican are gone. The parties have become so divisive in their rhetoric and so brazen in their pursuit of campaign cash that they are alienating their members in record numbers. More than 40 percent of Americans self-identify as independent voters, although most still lean toward one party or the other.

The American people simply do not live in the realm of purity tests or absolutes Democrats and Republicans are creating. Neighbors often disagree on issues, but rather than hyperventilating about an area of disagreement, they set it aside and work together to make a difference for their community.

Would a multi-party system work in America? It is likely that the two major parties would still serve as the umbrella for control of Congress, with independent or small party members choosing to caucus with Democrats or Republicans. Currently in the U.S. Senate are two independents who both caucus with the Democrats. The seeds have been sown. Were this to become a trend, it could completely upend the stranglehold on power and process in both chambers and could lead to more transparency, more rigorous debate and a more open amendment process. All of which would be good for the country.

In the digital age, smaller parties are clearly possible. A party organization no longer needs to have big buildings and a massive army of employees to influence local and national races. Virtual parties based on websites, social media and volunteer engagement could be far more nimble and better able to connect with real people than the bureaucracies of traditional parties.

A potential benefit of smaller parties and coalition government is that it would force people to focus on areas of agreement rather than on areas of disagreement. Most Americans agree with a statement often attributed to Ronald Reagan, "The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor."

A small-party, coalition-style approach to governing could take that 80/20 rule all the way to single-issue, or even single-element of an issue, coalitions. Imagine an immigration debate on the Senate floor, not based on partisan talking points but on the single issue of the need for a better entry/exit system to track who enters and who leaves the country. Voices heard, vote taken, accountability applied.

The two major political parties aren't likely to relinquish their iron-fisted control of national politics. However, the major parties' tightening grip may prove their undoing.

Whether current trends result in small-party politics and coalition governing, at minimum the American people should resoundingly reject divisive, hyper-partisan squabbling and instead join in the kind of civil dialogue that will move the country toward meaningful reforms and real results.

The Deseret News of Salt Lake City

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