Pre-Partisan America, 1789-1801

By David Swanson

I’m not a big fan of post-partisan America, a notion that seems to amount to running the government through two political parties but taking care that one of them not perform in any significant way better than the other one. But I am a fan of the idea, which nobody ever seems to consider, of actually disempowering parties.

That idea has a precedent in the first dozen years or so of our republic whose Constitution never planned for party rule, although nonpartisanship would obviously have to look very different today. I suspect we could imagine ways of making party-free government work if we tried. At the moment, however, Americans’ political thinking is so party-saturated, that any talk of opposing parties is met with the question “Which one?” or with the statement “Yeah, I’m for a third party too!”

Read the following blog post by John Caruso titled We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas

“John Feffer bewails the lack of any alternative to the Democratic Party:

“‘We don’t have our own party, which would say yes to things we like. True, we have the Green Party and assorted groupuscules. But I’m talking about a viable, national party that secures the votes of the 16 percent of Americans who identify themselves as progressives, and can win a governing majority by crafting arguments that appeal to the two-thirds of Americans who support progressive ideas.’

“Got that? We don’t have a national party that says yes to things we like, except for the national party that says yes to things we like. But the Green Party doesn’t count because it’s not ‘viable’—meaning it hasn’t somehow managed to garner the votes of the 16% of Americans who identify as progressives, but who refuse to vote for it until the 16% of Americans who identify as progressives have already voted for it.

“Call me pedantic, but I can’t help but sense a subtle logical flaw here.

“Liberals like Feffer (and he’s far from being the only one) apparently want to see a new ‘progressive’ party spring to life fully formed like Athena popping out of Zeus’s skull, somehow instantly gaining ballot access in all 50 states and going directly from non-existence to 16% of the national vote in a single election cycle—though they themselves won’t actually vote for this miracle party until the next election cycle, once it’s a known “viable” quantity. And until all of that happens, they refuse to throw their vote away! On anyone but the Democrats, that is.

“I sometimes imagine a dialog with a drowning liberal:

DROWNING LIBERAL: Help! Help!
ME: You seem to be drowning. Here, let me throw you this life preserver.
DL: No! How do I know that life preserver is viable? It might dissolve on contact with salt water! I won’t grab it unless I see twenty million other people use it first!
ME: Well, that’s up to you. But I have to say that no matter what, I think it’d be better than what you’re holding on to now.
DL: You mean this anchor?
ME: Yeah, that.
DL: Well, it’s very easy to say that, but how can I be sure? That life preserver may never have been tested in the water, whereas this anchor is obviously a viable seafaring device! Sure, in some ideal world the life preserver might be better, but this anchor is serving its intended purpose in the actual ocean right now! And furthermore .
“You might be tempted to feel sorry for poor DL, but don’t worry—there are millions more exactly like him.”

But, of course, the life preserver really does dissolve. Ballot access rules, debate rules, corporate media policies, unverifiable elections, and a legalized system of bribery and patronage make it very difficult for a new party or an independent candidate to compete without first finding their way into the arms of the same corrupting forces that have possessed the Democratic and Republican parties. And if we could create clean financing, useful media, verifiable vote-counting, and fair access for candidates, it would go a long way toward fixing the Democratic and Republican parties. It would also make it possible for the Green party and other parties to compete. But it would, in the same way, also make it possible for independent party-free candidates to compete.

The winner-take-all design of our elections, and our election of an executive independently from the legislature, nonetheless, encourage either the dominance of two parties or the abandonment of parties altogether. Having shifted almost all power to the president, it is hard to imagine a Congress made up of three or four or 17 parties that was capable of any action at all. Each party would simply advertise its agenda and refuse to back that of whichever party currently owned the White House. And if we succeed in restoring power to Congress, why should we think that negotiations among the leaders of three or more parties will produce a better result than negotiations among hundreds of independents whose constituents expect them to get things done?

How exactly does multiplying parties help us? If we want elected representatives to represent their constituents rather than the leader of a party, how is creating more parties any more than a very partial step forward at best? If instead we begin to think in terms of the ideal of independent statesmen and stateswomen, we can begin exploring ways in which the current money-soaked system might be reformed by reducing the powers of parties, through which much of the money passes. Of the thousands of ideas for fixing the Supreme Court’s attacks on free elections, that’s one I haven’t seen touched.

By thinking about politics without screening everything through the lens of party-loyalty (or party-contempt as the case may be), we can potentially develop much healthier and more effective attitudes. An elected official ceases to be worthy of either worship or complete condemnation. Instead we reward their good actions and punish the bad ones. And by becoming better activists in between elections, placing less emphasis on elections, we might even help advance the chances of independent or third-party candidates in elections.

A healthier democracy would be one in which we frequently unelect people (in which the forces of money, media, and party that prevent this are defeated). It is easier to unelect people in general elections than in party primaries. But switching around among the various parties in order to unelect the incumbent party is not the ideal approach. Our ideal should be frequently unelecting incumbents in favor of the best individuals available.

I began thinking about this anew after reading a book that advocates nothing of the sort and whose author may not agree with anything I’ve said: “The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy,” by Bruce Ackerman. This is a rare historical and analytical book with a gripping narrative that takes the reader through the actions of the U.S. government in its early years in Washington, D.C., the very first few years of the nineteenth century. The swamp inside the not-yet-imagined Beltway had some disturbing influences on our system of government.

Ackerman tells this story differently than most because he pays constant attention to context, to how what went before this period differed from everything that came after. Here we see Thomas Jefferson, who opposed both parties and strong presidents, play a key role in developing the two-party system and the plebicitarian presidency, effectively placing the executive in charge of a large section of the legislature. At the same time we see John Marshall’s well-known role in developing the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic power to overrule the Congress. But we see all of this through an understanding that the people involved were trying to govern with a Constitution that had not been designed for parties and that did not anticipate numerous possibilities, putting the nation right on the brink of collapse or civil war.

Ackerman opens with these lines:

“For a week in February 1801, America teetered on the brink of disaster. The electoral college had deadlocked, and the job of picking the next president fell to the House of Representatives. Vote after vote was leading nowhere — after thirty-five ballots, still no president of the United States.”

Why not? Well, for one thing, the Constitution had been designed to elect individuals rather than party tickets, and nobody had thought to fix this yet with the Twelfth Amendment, since Washington and Adams had been elected as individuals with the candidates who came in second serving as vice president. Delegations in the House were voting as states and giving neither Jefferson nor Burr the required majority. (The electoral college had left it a tie, at least as Jefferson — who was at the time vice president of the country and president of the Senate — had chosen to count the votes). The House was not the newly elected House which would have swept Jefferson in with a large majority, but the lame-duck House consisting of representatives elected before the “revolution of 1800”.

Meanwhile the Federalists were scheming to install an interim president and hold a new election. John Marshall was writing under a pseudonym, pushing legal interpretations that would have made him the president. President Adams was packing the courts with Federalist judges, including with now-Justice and still simultaneously Secretary of State Marshall. And Jefferson was threatening to bring the militias of Virginia and Pennsylvania to town to shed a little of that blood of tyrants he was always talking about.

And this was all over the question of who would serve as president, but not as the president created in the Constitution, rather as the presidential leader of a party swept into office with a mandate for change. Congress was abandoning its Constitutional role as the leading branch of government responsible to its local districts, in order to fight over which national party would hold the White House. And in the process, the Constitutional amendment procedures for adjusting our highest law to meet the changing times was replaced with the procedure whereby presidents ram unconstitutional changes through Congress, and the Supreme Court codifies them as newly constitutional. Marshall’s court would likely not have developed this power (which really came alive much later) had Jefferson’s push to impeach and remove one of Marshall’s colleagues on the Supreme Court not been narrowly defeated in the Senate, with Marshall on deck for the next impeachment and Burr presiding over the impeachment while under indictment for the murder of Alexander Hamilton. Out of this came a higher standard for impeachment that has allowed abuses to go unchecked for centuries.

But nobody seemed to know much of what was happening when it was happening, and just about everybody who did it didn’t want it done. The Federalists denounced the Republicans not for being the lesser party but for being a party, period. And the Republicans returned the favor. Each group thought of itself as above partisanship, which had become real but had not yet become acceptable.

Now we’re stuck with a president-heavy pseudo-republic with five goons in black robes as the highest authorities and two parties as the major branches of government.

Or are we?