Is the Political Party Over
Open primaries and non-partisan races may bring an end to political parties

Fouad Ajami, professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote last month on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal about civilization sage and Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis. According to Ajami and others, Lewis is best known as the scholar who, before 9/11, predicted the rise of Islamic Fascism in his work, “What Went Wrong? Ajami writes of Lewis’ work:

In the American academy, he may be swimming against the currents of postmodernism and postcolonial history…but countless Arab and Iranian and Turkish readers recognize their tormented civilization in what he has written. They know that he has not come to the material of their history driven by bad faith, or by a desire for dominion. They take him at his word, a man of the Anglo-Saxon world, convinced that the ways of the West today carry with them the hopes of other civilizations. In one of his many splendid books, “Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery,” he gave voice to both his fears and to his faith. “It may be that Western culture will indeed go: The lack of conviction of many of those who should be its defenders and passionate intensity of its accusers may well join to complete its destruction. But if it does go, the men and women of all the continents will thereby be impoverished and endangered.”

In the battle to save our civilization, University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer has emerged as a combatant. In a speech last month, Frohnmayer was clear about what he believes to be the negative drift of our culture. “If you leave with only one memory today, one sense of being filled by anything I say, it is this—that bitter partisanship, which is the political equivalent of road rage, threatens to leave us, a state and a people, a tangled wreck on the side of Oregon’s road toward progress…with every attack ad, with every ratings-driven no-holds-barred talk show program, with every ballot measure that divides, we grow sicker, more wrecked and more insane.”

Frohnmayer admonished the audience to “count to ten” before engaging in this destructive dialogue.

Days later, ironically, Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly would forget to count to ten when he ended his “O’Reilly Factor” broadcast shouting, “Dave Frohnmayer is a coward who needs to be fired.”

The controversy that caught O’Reilly’s attention was the publication of a university-supported anarchist student newspaper, The Insurgent, which depicted Jesus in blasphemous sexual positions—“The Da Vinci” code on steroids. To Frohnmayer’s credit he withstood two days of O’Reilly’s national television campaign for his resignation and didn’t bite. Frohnmayer counted to ten, and refused to participate in what he called “a ratings-driven publicity attempt.” Well, okay, he didn’t have to defend the students’ right to publish obscene material on national TV, but he might have explained his defense of the publication to taxpayers and parents. Instead there was no discourse, civil or otherwise.

Those are the choices? Ratings-driven entertainment or silence? This was no lesson in civil discourse, but rather a lesson in conflict avoidance.

Frohnmayer’s speech went on to advocate for and against certain measures aimed at the Oregon ballot this fall. He asked his audience to vote against a state spending limit, calling it “a cynical trick that would destroy an already emaciated state infrastructure.” He also advocated against a new term limits initiative. But mostly he used the speech to advocate for an open primary and for making at least one chamber of the state legislature non-partisan.

Some leaders would have us believe that partisanship has caused our sometimes ugly public discourse and shortened attention span. The solution: Get rid of political parties—they are the scoundrels. Is Frohnmayer right? Do political parties play a corrosive role in the condition of our democracy?

Blaming partisanship for Oregon’s problems seems shortsighted. Ironically, from the time of Dave Frohnmayer’s defeat in the Oregon gubernatorial election of 1990 to Ron Saxton’s victory last month in the Oregon GOP primary, a span of roughly 16 years, only one political party in Oregon was capable of winning statewide elections. Thankfully, that era may be ending. Rather than blame Oregon’s political parties for our problems, the blame seems better fitted to the state’s 20-year one-party status.

After all, if roughly half of Oregonians have not been represented in statewide office for 20 years, it’s not surprising that the voices we do hear bear a hint of bitterness or anger. It doesn’t make it right, but the lack of access to political representation explains a lot. Meanwhile, the elite in their positions of power advocate further softening and quieting the debate and wonder why anyone would argue. But it’s a lot easier to speak softly from well-positioned pedestals to captive audiences.

Frohnmayer blames political partisanship for angry emails, heated talk radio and the heavy use of ballot measures. We think Oregon’s sometimes monotonous, hardened public dialogue was caused by uncompetitive political situations—a confluence of ’90s Left Coast liberalism, high-tech success and Clinton popularity.

Analyze the problem the way Frohnmayer and Phil Keisling have, and the answer is ridding the state of political parties. Analyze the problem the way we have—that the state has been uncompetitive but is no longer—and the solution looks different: Engage, loudly if you must, quietly if you prefer, in what promises to be a very competitive governor’s race between Democrat incumbent Ted Kulongoski, Republican challenger Ron Saxton and Independent Ben Westlund.

Democracy is hard business, and though George Washington may not have liked them, political parties have proven essential to our nation’s 230-year experiment. Other democracies have also found political parties essential. Recently, Germany entered into its second grand coalition of the postwar era—the two major parties deciding to temporarily share power due to a hung election. They did, however, decide not to rid themselves of party labels.

Proponents of an open primary will argue that they are not ending political parties; they’re creating a system where moderate voices will rise to the general election ballot. Frohnmayer describes the benefits of the open primary this way, “Allow the disaffected independents to have a voice in the primary elections and mute the intransigence of ideological zealots at the same time. Recapture the center, from which both progress and stability usually flow.”

We argue the center has been recaptured. After all, Kulongoski, Saxton and Westlund are no one’s idea of ideological zealots.

Starting with vote-by-mail, Oregon’s leaders have tried to prop up our shrinking democracy by softening and making it easy for citizens, and, most importantly, by making it convenient. Whatever you do, they worry, don’t ask more of the electorate.

Oregon soldiers, right now, are fighting and dying in the Middle East—but only a third of our citizens care to vote, let alone put up a lawn sign, canvass a neighborhood, or, God forbid, run for office themselves. Citizens want democracy lite, and thus far we have obliged ourselves by cheapening the process.

The fault isn’t in our political parties; it is in us, our culture. And so far, political parties have done a pretty good job of helping protect us from ourselves. Each time we dismantle a component that makes democracy cumbersome, we also dismantle a component that makes democracy work, and we move a step closer to tyranny.

A former member of the Blair cabinet, David Blunkett, told the Financial Times in May that what the left fails to understand is that every time the public gets scared they move right, not left. Contrary to Frohnmayer’s opinion, political parties in the long run are a force against reactionary politics, not a force for them.

So before we dismantle, let’s do what Frohnmayer suggests: Count to ten … and then vote No on the open primary.

Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory Writing team Gingrich and Forstchen follow up the success of To Try Menís Souls (2009) with another novelization of a seminal episode in the history of Revolutionary-era America. Once again, George Washington provides both the narrative focal point and the moral core of the story, as he and his fledgling Continental Army struggle to survive the bitter winter of 1777 at Valley Forge.

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