There are two organizations here in DC that don’t get as much attention as they deserve and not nearly as much money as they need. They’re called the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), and their mission is to work with local partners all over the world on behalf of the Democratic (NDI) and Republican (IRI) Parties (though I should stress that they are generally not highly partisan organizations) to help build democratic (small ‘d’) political and civic institutions in countries that are still struggling to bring about free elections and full citizen participation in the political process. Their efforts cover a lot of ground: get out the vote drives, government transparency initiatives, election monitoring, civic education, initiatives to bring women into the political process, etc., but a very important part of what they do is to help establish functioning political parties. George Washington’s warnings about the dangers of excessive partisanship are worth remembering, but the fact is that democracies work much better when there are well-established, well-organized political coalitions that can contest elections on more or less equal grounds. Elections should be about ideas, and none, or even worse, only one, of a country’s political parties can effectively get its message out to the public, then elections get decided entirely on bases (tribal allegiance, bribery, personal charisma) that are not conducive to sustainable democracy.
As far as I’m concerned NDI and IRI should be given whatever resources they need to be in as many places as humanly possible, because we see the effects of non-existent or poorly-developed political institutions all the time. It would have been immeasurably better for Egypt if its secular liberals weren’t such an utterly disorganized mess, so that when Mubarak was finally overthrown they could have contested the subsequent elections with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood instead of being beaten on grounds that were at least as much logistical as they were ideological. Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, whose ideological inclinations are in the same conservative/Islamist vein as Morsi’s and who has been the target of large-scale protests in recent months, benefits greatly from the fact that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is much better organized than the fractured, squabbling secular opposition (though Turkey’s well-established democratic institutions limit the extent to which Erdogan can move in the kind of majoritarian direction that Morsi did). What would have happened in 1979 if the secular half of the Iranian Revolution had been as well-organized as the religious half, or had a figure to rally around with the same kind of credibility that Khomeini possessed? I don’t know, but it’s certainly an interesting what-if.
Anyway, I mention the NDI and IRI because I’m starting to think that their next major project should be building a second functional political party here in the US, because we only have one at this point. The only difference is that in our case the collapse of one of our two parties hasn’t led to an ineffective and disorganized opposition getting steamrolled by the ruling party; instead, it’s led to the formation of a tightly-formed cult of pure nihilism that brooks no dissent and will tolerate no deviation from its demands. It has no ability to effectively contest elections or win ideological arguments on the merits, but it has been able to exploit flaws in our political system that had never really been considered before, probably because America’s founders never figured that a rump group within a minority party would so fully commit itself to manufacturing a total breakdown in the governmental process.
Functional political parties are by definition parties that involve themselves in the political process, that try to win elections on the strength of their ideology and plans for the direction of the country. They don’t bend over backwards to exclude groups of voters from the political process in order to improve their chances of winning. They don’t make the drawing and redrawing of absurdly shaped and ideologically safe legislative districts a core part of their electoral strategy. They don’t try to change the rules of elections because they can’t contest them as is. If they do find themselves out of power, they still participate in the process; they don’t use whatever levers they have to try to prevent the government from functioning at all. They accept, at a minimum, that elections have consequences, and they don’t spend outrageous amounts of time and energy in doomed attempts to undo legislation that has been legally passed by the legislature, signed into law by the president, fully adjudicated at the highest levels, and ratified by an electorate that easily returned that president to office. They don’t threaten to literally shut down the government over and over and over again. They certainly don’t threaten to cause the country to default on its loan obligations unless their ridiculous list of demands (this is, remember, the opposition party, not the party in power, and an opposition party that in the last election actually lost seats in the one legislative chamber it controls) is met, as though acting to maintain the country’s creditworthiness were a great concession on their part.
This is not how a modern country is supposed to operate, lurching from one temper tantrum to another with the threat of a government shutdown, or a debt default, or both never more than a couple of months away. It remains to be seen how long this country can survive it. We’re about to face a government shutdown followed immediately by a debt default, and if you think the Republican rump isn’t crazy enough to go through with both, or that the shutdown will somehow excise the crazy that has permeated the GOP for more than 5 years now, and thus preempt a default, then I’d love to know what medications you’re on and where I can get them. It’s gotten to the point where Republicans are wondering why the president will negotiate with theocrats but not with them:
I applaud Pres Obama for working toward better relations w/ Iran. If only he’d work toward better relations w/ Congress for good of country.
— Justin Amash (@repjustinamash) September 27, 2013
…and all they’re doing is pointing out that the theocratic government of Iran is less dogmatic and more open to reasonable dialogue than the Republican House Caucus.
Instead of trying to rig electoral systems or invalidate the results of fairly contested elections, functional political parties try to win the next election, and see their platform implemented as a result. The Republican Party has given up trying to win a fairly contested election and has gone all-in on trying to rig the system or, failing that, using every trick it can find to punish Americans for not electing them. There’s a name for that kind of thing: a protection racket. The GOP has reached the point where its campaign pitch to voters might as well be, “Say, this sure is a nice country you got here. Be a shame if something was to happen to it.” So let’s shut this whole Republican thing down and get NDI and IRI in here to build us an opposition party that will actually participate in governing this country instead of spending all its time working on ways to crash it, OK?