Political parties are meant to help win elections. By providing their extensive behind-the-scenes networks, parties lend their infrastructure to their chosen candidates to bolster their chances of getting elected.
In this way, parties can be very effective. In fact, the parties have been so effective in providing electoral infrastructure that they’ve locked our nation into a two-party system for decades, with any fledgling movement unable to compete against the vast fundraising and political networks of the two major parties.
But lately, political parties have drifted out of their strict lanes of election infrastructure and into the public discussion of issues. As a result, our public discourse has suffered, devolving into an unproductive screaming match between warring factions with no concern for a productive policy process.
The motivation of political parties is not to solve policy issues, but to win elections. Now this singular focus on electoral success has bled into the public dialog, and it’s ruining it.
When political parties enter the policy discussion, they immediately alienate their opponents. If you’re a Democrat, and the Republican Party is pushing a policy, you know right away you’re supposed to oppose it. And vice versa. Instead of allowing elected officials their chance to make their case and win converts, the parties slap a big R or D on the policy, and the gears of compromise grind to a halt.
In Maine, our whole system of government is paralyzed by the tribalism of political parties. We don’t debate ideas anymore, we have standoffs with Gov. Paul LePage and his GOP followers. There are no bills being worked on behind the scenes with bipartisan blocs of supporters. There is only tribal warfare.
And it makes no sense ideologically. The Maine GOP pushes whatever the governor says — sometimes it’s a tax increase, other times it’s a tax cut. The Maine Democratic Party resists whatever policy the governor puts forward. The parties put out warring press releases to signal to their supporters what side of the argument they are supposed to stay on.
A good idea in Maine has very little chance of becoming reality because it’ll be labeled as Republican or Democrat, and then fed into the wood chipper of partisan rancor.
The only way to get beyond this, and to actually pass decent policy, is for the political parties to back off.
Go back to running field operations, raising money, and recruiting candidates. Turn off the megaphones, cancel your email accounts, and bolster your networks behind the scenes. No more low-level party employees ginning up anger about Medicaid expansion or tax cuts — that’s just throwing noise into the discussion.
As a Republican, the emergence of a louder Republican Party in the age of President Donald Trump and Gov. LePage is brutally depressing. We aren’t passing conservative policies and we aren’t making conservative reform because we don’t even have the chance to make our case to voters before the party and the governor tribalize the issue.
Which is a shame, because there’s a strong case to be made for conservative public policy, one that Democrats and independents can be convinced of.
In fact, recent referendums showed that pro-growth policy can be sold if it’s done the right way, even in ultra-liberal Portland. A proposal that would have allowed neighbors to nix development projects and severely impede Portland’s growth was defeated soundly last week, as was a proposal to institute the iconic progressive policy of rent control. The rent control initiative, supported by Portland’s mayor, Ethan Strimling, was beaten by almost 30 points, losing in all five wards in a city with 60 percent renters and only 13 percent registered Republicans.
I managed the anti-rent control campaign, and one of the firm decisions we made was to keep the parties as far away from the effort as possible. We made the case to voters on the merits, not on factionalism, and the result was sound public policy consensus across political lines.
This is what Maine needs to get back to. Our political identity for decades was of an electorate that valued people over parties. The gridlock in Washington was something we were proud to distance ourselves from. All that has changed, and our political process now is just as nasty and unproductive as it is anywhere else.
The parties are dividing us on lines that make no sense, and the result is a state government that doesn’t do anything to address the most pressing issues of the day. Republicans and Democrats need to tell their election machines to go back to the jobs they were meant to do, and to leave the policy discussion to those actually elected to handle it.