Bringing the People Back to American Democracy

ReidMcConnellThe Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans by Mickey Edwards. Yale Press, 2012; 208 pp.

Mickey Edwards served the people of Oklahoma in the U.S. House of Representatives for sixteen years before leaving office in 1993. During his tenure, he held various senior positions—from the chairmanship of the highly visible Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Relations to the chairmanship of the back room House Republican Policy Committee. Edwards has remained in the public discourse, teaching at various prestigious universities; appearing on public television and radio; and chairing task forces for the Brookings Institution, the Constitution Project, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, he also wroteReclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost—And How It Can Find Its Way Back, which implores Americans to return to valuing the Constitution in the way that the Founding Fathers did.

Why should we listen to what a retired Republican congressman has to say about the current state of American politics? Why should we not greet his clamor for reform with a roll of our eyes, and leave this book on the shelf alongside other vapid rants? Because Edwards, unlike more disillusioned observers, knows what happens in the bowels of the Capitol. And unlike many former (and current) elected officials, he is not a cynic. He believes in the institutions of American government. He recognizes our current state of partisan gridlock but does not believe we need a fundamental overhaul of the three branches of government.

Instead, in The Parties Versus the People, Edwards puts the blame for our sclerotic politics squarely on the political parties:

“We have engendered a political system in which the necessary and inevitable ‘interest-based factions’ the Founders anticipated, understood, and worried about have been supplanted by permanent factions whose primary focus is on gaining and retaining political power.”

Edwards believes the labyrinthine rules that dictate the daily functioning of government are in serious need of gut renovation. The book—through anecdotes and long-term (mostly depressing or disturbing) statistical comparisons—makes this case clearly and emphatically. Edwards is an excellent writer who crafts his arguments sincerely and simply, making this book accessible to both scholars and casual observers of American political science.

In his book, Edwards vividly demonstrates how the political parties engage in a spiral for control that increasingly suffocates democracy. He does not hold back from criticizing any individual of either party. This tack is fair, as although Republicans have come in for much well-deserved criticism of their obstinacy and obstructionism, Democrats are equally culpable. The will of the parties in either chamber to stifle their opposition transcends party allegiance. This applies to using closed rules in the House as much as filibustering in the Senate. To lay blame at the feet of either party alone for escalating these tactics is to ignore the culture of preemption and one-upmanship in national politics. Edwards rightly believes that John Boehner is no more to blame than Nancy Pelosi, nor Mitch McConnell more than Tom Daschle.

Edwards then takes the reader through ten suggestions for re-opening American government to the People. These include doing away with closed primaries; establishing nonpartisan commissions to draw electoral district maps; combating the mistaken Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision on campaign financing; creating nonpartisan congressional leadership (such as the speakership of the House, which is not dictated by the Constitution but rather convention) and policy committees; restoring democratic rules in the House; reconfiguring the furniture in both chambers; creating longer workweeks; eliminating one-party strategy in the White House; and ending the bullying of politicians’ behavior by media members or activists such as Grover Norquist.

Some of Edwards’ suggestions (limiting campaign contributions) are more obvious than others (ending the reliance on “closed rules” in the House that prohibit real debate on bills). Of the ten recommendations, changes to redistricting would most directly shake the grip of the parties on our political process. Shifting the seat arrangement of members of Congress would mostly likely be greeted with laughter, despite the real change that would result from face-to-face interaction with members of one’s opposition. Such is the state of our politics at present that Congress should try them all. Progress will be slow on these reforms, as indeed all reform should be. But the need for action is urgent.

Though a short book, The Parties Versus the People is, in truth, too long to achieve its goal. It could be trimmed significantly without losing its message or detail. In fact, the work is based on an excellent feature article Edwards wrote in 2011 for The Atlantic. The book’s main themes recur probably too frequently, to the point of blurring the distinct message of each chapter. The major shortcoming of this book, unfortunately, is its omission of many counter-arguments to its planned reforms. Edwards could have tackled many of the rebuttals that these proposals would evoke (in favor of efficiency or accountability, for example). Perhaps by saying that he is optimistic about reform, however, he raises his rhetoric above these detractors, and engaging them would be a waste of his—and our—time. Yet, someone will have to do it eventually in order for reform to take hold.

As Edwards knows, “The leaders of [the two parties] will not voluntarily surrender the enormous power we have allowed them to accumulate.” How, then, can we ever effect the change he calls for? Some Americans are privy to the ballot initiative, a form of direct democracy that Californians used in 2010 to eliminate partisan control of redistricting. In other states, the referendum is an option. The most fundamental way, however, is activism. It can be as simple as voting and calling one’s representatives. Edwards highlights the successes of the Tea Party and Occupy movements in crystallizing a group’s desire for change. The highest hurdles Americans must overcome are apathy and cynicism.

There is no doubt that our political system is broken; we do not need another book from a former elected official to break that to us. The Parties Versus the People is refreshing because Edwards successfully finds a balanced perspective from which to comment on democracy in America:

“I do not object to political clubs; I belong to one. I don’t object to these clubs making their preference known. …But they cannot be allowed to limit our choices when we go to the polls.”

Members of Congress and their aides would do well to read his book several times.

Note: this review appeared in The Wagner Review on January 22, 2013.

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