Partisanship: The True Constitutional Crisis

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Despite his acquittal in the U.S. Senate on a near party-line vote, President Trump’s actions to put his personal political interest over our national interest should be unacceptable to any leader who takes an oath of public trust, regardless of party.

Yet, however offensive, the president’s conduct was anticipated by our Founders, who wrote the impeachment process into the Constitution.

What was not anticipated by our Founders –– and what presents today’s true constitutional crisis –– is the extent to which critical features of our system of governance are being undermined by our polarized two-party system and its reflexive partisanship.

Take the impeachment vote as a case in point: There are eight states that are each represented by one Democrat and one Republican in U.S. Senate. These senators take the same oath for the same job to represent the same people. Yes, in each case, they voted opposite each other. It defies logic to believe that anything but pure partisanship dictated outcomes.

Rather than a system defined by a “separation of powers” in which each branch of government serves as a check and balance against the others, ours is a system increasingly defined by a “separation of parties” in which both factions align across branches to maintain and grow their own power.

If this shift fully takes root, no longer will an executive branch be held accountable by the legislative branch. No longer will our judicial branch serve as an objective umpire. The delicate balance of our constitutional system, and the protections it provides, will be severely crippled.

Any effort to restore democratic norms and institutions requires not just addressing the actions of President Trump but, more importantly, reversing trends of polarization and partisanship that have enabled him to abuse his power and will similarly enable any president who follows.

Whether or not Trump wins reelection, a truly existential question will remain: How do we dismantle a two-party duopoly that has led a generation-long race to the bottom in politics –– a duopoly that exacerbates, even celebrates, division, dysfunction, and distrust in our democratic institutions?

Although our two-party system is nearly as old as our Constitution itself, the danger presented today is that both parties have distinctively sorted across ideological, geographical, and demographic lines in such a way that our tribal tendencies have become significantly more powerful and potent. At the same time, both parties have created their own rules to entrench their own power in our government.

“We are now in an era in which we have two truly distinct national parties, organized around two competing visions of national identity. It works against, not with, our political institutions,” writes New America’s Lee Drutman. He argues that the incentives for hyper-partisanship are compounding and, unless we act to break the cycle, the consequences for our democracy can be catastrophic.

We must change political incentives by restructuring the rules of our elections so that our leaders put voters first –– ahead of their political parties and special interests. There are no silver bullets, but there are plenty of places to start.

We can end partisan gerrymandering by establishing independent redistricting commissions. Neither party should be allowed to draw their own legislative districts to protect their power and choke competition. Voters should choose their leaders, not the other way around. 

We can replace publicly funded partisan primaries with a nonpartisan public primary whereby the top vote-getters advance to a general election and citizens have the option to rank them by preference. Our election system should allow voters to maximize their voice and choice.

We can make it easier for every citizen to cast an informed and secure ballot. Every voter should have the option of receiving a ballot at their home, where they can research the candidates, fill it out, and mail it back or drop it off by Election Day.

An electoral process with more competition between the parties (and perhaps more parties) and more participation from the voters will yield a political system that incentivizes governance in the public interest –– and disincentivizes reflexive, zero-sum partisanship.

Such reforms may seem daunting, but they are already winning at the local and state level across the country. History has shown that periods of intense division and dysfunction can be followed by periods of reform and renewal, from the Progressive Era to post-Watergate.

So we must act, now.

Let the partisan chaos of this impeachment be our generation’s moment to unite as Americans, transcend our partisan and ideological loyalties, and work together to ensure our government remains one of, by, and for the people.

Nick Troiano is executive director of Unite America, a nonpartisan organization that works to enact election reforms and support pro-reform candidates in order to foster a more functional and representative government (www.UniteAmerica.org).



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