George Washington was not a fan of political parties. He believed strongly that factionalism, from whatever quarter, was a pernicious, even corrosive, influence on the new nation’s politics. A whiff of his disdain for the sordid machinations of political parties may be discerned in his Farewell Address:
“The disorders and miseries which result [from partisan politics] gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
Several of the other FF’s also routinely deplored political partisanship, including James Madison (see Federalist 10), John Dickinson (The Cost of Liberty, William Murchison), James Wilson (The Founding Conservatives, David Lefer) and others.
In the interest of full disclosure I should here note that I myself for many years have, in this space and elsewhere, inveighed lustily against codified political factionalism – but, in the last few years, I have come to believe that organized support for a cause, even to the point of chauvinism, is not necessarily a bad thing.
While I am loath to disagree even minimally with the Fathers of Our Country, it seems to me that they may have been fixated only on the brambles, and, in their single-mindedness, missed the blossom. I grant that contemporary party politics can and often do become rough-and-tumble, to put it charitably, but it is also undeniable that no more effective mechanisms for vetting and characterizing prospective office-holders (and initiatives) exist than political parties running at full tilt.
For example, if an organized party endorses and supports a candidate, we can be reasonably sure that said candidate adheres rather closely to the philosophy and policy preferences of that party. If the Dill Pickle Party gets behind Fred Farfle, the voters, even if they never heard of Fred before last Tuesday, can be reasonably confident that he won’t go for Gherkins in a big vote on the floor. Put another way, voters over time have come to know what a particular party stands for, and can have a reasonable expectation that any candidate sanctioned by that party will generally follow the same credo.
My point is simply that a political party of whatever stripe generally provides a valuable “winnowing” function for an electorate that is notoriously averse to obtaining its own accurate information. It can be rightly claimed that this could result in inaccurate and/or misleading data being foisted on Joe Sixpack but this is less likely than might be assumed.
Intelligence concerning a candidate, whether positive or negative, will be viewed by the opposing party as injurious to their interests and every effort will be made by them to counter/correct the claim(s). To use a relatively recent example, if a candidate falsely claims to be a decorated hero who spent time in a well-known theater of war, it becomes a relatively simple exercise for the opposition to expose such prevarication. I do not mean to imply that this process is perfect, but it is surprisingly effective.
Said all that to say this – the patron saint of the Unicameral, Senator Norris, was thunderously explicit about his distaste for political partisanship, crediting it with every form of societal misfortune but sun spots and pink-eye. Norris is characteristically muzzy as to his actual reasons for disliking factionalism, but I suspect he simply didn’t like anything that interfered with the implementation of his Progressive vision – and mainstream Republicanism certainly did that (not to mention moderate Democrats’ ideology, whose numbers in the plains states were significant even back in Norris’s time).
Today, thanks to Norris-inspired institutionalized “non-partisanship” in our state legislature, We The People are essentially prevented (with malice aforethought I am convinced), or at least mightily hindered, from discovering what a legislative candidate’s true political proclivities may be. One need look no further than a few well-known names in the current Unicameral to understand the game that is played. The acronym “RINO” has been over-used, but it is appropriate here.
Sure, the candidates register as Republicans (candidates from out-state Nebraska would have to be morons to register as anything else), or Mugwumps or whatever, but there is no force that holds them accountable to that commitment. They are free to pursue whatever course of action their hidden ideology or whimsy or cronyism dictates – secure in the knowledge that no political price will be paid, because much of such action takes place in secret … plus which, they are, after all, “nonpartisan.”
So, as previously promised, here are a few suggestions that I believe would strengthen/improve what now passes for a legislature in Nebraska:
- Reinstate bicameralism; failing that, increase the size of the legislature to at least three times its current membership. In legislating, too many cooks do not spoil the broth – but they may keep it from being inedible.
- At least quadruple the salary of state senators/representatives. We sorely need to attract increased numbers of young, vital legislators. The current salary level of $12,000 per annum makes that essentially impossible – we need to reduce the number of folks looking for a retirement project, who don’t need to be concerned about money.
- Reintroduce partisanship – let’s establish at least some level of accountability.
- Ban secret balloting – at once and forever, in all aspects of the legislative process – and allow any member to demand a recorded roll call vote on any issue, on any motion, at any time, in committee or on the floor.
- Limit the number of bills that can be introduced during any session to something like 100 – make it slow and difficult to pass any law. To paraphrase an old saw: “Legislate in haste, repent at leisure.”
I am not naive enough to believe that any of the above proposals will be adopted anytime soon, but I believe that our state has suffered greatly under the travesty perpetrated by Norris and his chums, and I would end by reminding everyone of the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca –
“Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum: ‘to err is human, but to persist in the error is diabolical.'”