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Spence Perry: One wish - for parties to meet in the middle

December 05, 2012|By SPENCE PERRY

Now that the election and Thanksgiving are past, perhaps it would be useful but not necessarily fun to reflect a bit on partisanship, the institution that has done much to put us where we are.

The Founders, by and large, envisioned the United States as a kind of nonpartisan assembly of a country. Most of the “framers” hated the idea of party, associating it with the interminable conflicts of European public life, endless corruption and subversion of the public purpose.

Franklin and Washington and many of their colleagues detested partisanship (although bowing to emerging realties Washington did become a marginal Federalist). It is interesting to note the Constitution makes no reference to parties, their organization, qualifications or functions.

This new world hope did not last long. In the first two presidential elections, Washington was to all intents and purposes elected unanimously. By the time John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had at it, however, party feeling and organization had emerged in full cry.

It only took a few months for mudslinging, media corruption (Jefferson made hidden payments to a major national newspaper to bash his opponents), and payoffs to appear in full bloom. The federalists and National Democrats were at each other’s throats. Without going into the policy differences (which would keep a warehouse of columnists busy for life), it can be said that whatever the transitory issues of the moment, the two major parties reflect two different views of life. They are able to coexist thanks to their ability to arrive at temporary treaties to achieve specific purposes (a skill they seem to have temporarily lost).

Parties do many functions well. They focus issues, develop political talent and give a local and individual immediacy to issues. One key party activity is an informed policing of the political system and those who operate within it. This is a review independent of more formal and legalistic checks and balances. It is the failure of this function that poses one of the most serious dangers of one- party politics.

The most graphic American example of the peril of one-party politics arose in the states of the former confederacy in the 1890s and lasted until the rise of the Southern Republican Party in the age of Nixon.

There was an almost frightening unity of party view (my father said that in his small town of Camilla, Ga., there was only one registered Republican and on election night the townspeople paraded around his house with torches and a tar bucket.) This unity of purpose and the suppression of competing ideas allowed the southern states to preserve a segregated society for almost 100 years after the Civil War, in the face of enormous external moral and political opposition.

Change only came when a two-party political system brought the issue into local Southern politics.

One-party politics plague our own time.

In Washington County, we are seeing a period of one-party politics as it comes to an end. For a number of years, all of the county commissioners and most other elected officials and their appointees have been of one party. Local debate has been effectively minimized. The same reality has existed in the so-called nonpartisan city government and the school board.

In one-party jurisdictions options are restricted, the range of public discussion narrows and the operations of the affected government become lax and more inclined to cronyism.

At the state level, Maryland as a whole is apparently moving in the opposite direction, toward one-party rule by the Democratic Party. The Republican opposition has become almost impotent in terms of its ability to influence state direction.

It may have lost its ability to carry on effective oversight of state government. So while the Republicans’ grasp on Washington County begins to loosen, the Democratic vise on the state becomes tightened.

It would be nice if these trends could meet in the middle with a happy partisan balance at both levels of government. This result is not likely and we shall have to continue the struggle to obtain fair debates of the issues with effective participation by all sides. This is a sad reality for a democracy to face in difficult times.

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.

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