Americans heard a lot about the Founding Fathers during the Republican convention last week. The Founders' names are sure to be dropped this week as the Democrats meet. But James Madison and George Washington said a few things you didn't — and won't — hear at national party gatherings.
Both men repeatedly warned of the danger to our republic inherent in the growth of political parties.
"The arts of electioneering will poison the fountains of liberty," Madison wrote.
In his farewell address, Washington sounded the alarm about the "baneful effects" of parties, saying that they would eventually become the country's "worst enemy" and would leave liberty in ruins.
"In the course of time," said America's first president, political parties would become "potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."
In his new book, "The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans," Mickey Edwards, a former GOP member of Congress from Oklahoma, sounds the warning again.
Mr. Edwards writes persuasively that the two political parties have overtaken our electoral system, leading to the current era of partisan demagoguery. Slavish party loyalty trumps political philosophy, be it liberal, conservative or something in between.
Here in Missouri, we have the perfect example of that. GOP strategists are desperately trying to push U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a Wildwood Republican, out of the race against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.
Mr. Akin became the nominee because the party system encourages extremism. He successfully ran for Congress six times in a safe Republican district, having to fear only challenges from his right, not from the center — and nobody gets to Todd Akin's right.
He won the Aug. 7 Senate primary by espousing the same ideals that have guided his entire career. His more moderate opponents, knowing that Republican primary voters are extremely socially conservative, embraced the same ideals.
Now party leaders are demanding loyalty to some different set of ideals and are shocked that they aren't getting it.
They have themselves, and a broken electoral system that has been hijacked by party professionals, to blame.
Mr. Edwards lays out a better system that is worth a serious look. He has three key suggestions to fixing the process by which we elect members of Congress. They closely mirror the suggestions we have put forth to improve Missouri's Legislature.
First, join Louisiana, California and the state of Washington in adopting open primaries. In those states, thanks to citizen initiative drives, independent voters no longer have to wait for the general election to have a say in who the top two candidates should be. All candidates, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and others, run in the primary together.
The general election then pits the top two candidates, whether or not they are from the same party. Imagine what would have happened in the Aug. 7 Senate primary had Ms. McCaskill also been in it. The Republicans would have had to seek independents, moderates, and, yes, even Democratic votes.
Both parties fought this change in California, which most recently adopted the system. The parties lost. The people won.
Second, Mr. Edwards suggests redistricting reform, taking politics out of the process by which congressional districts are divvied up. This page has urged several times in recent months that Missouri adopt a nonpartisan redistricting commission similar to those in Iowa and 12 other states. That's a far better way to draw boundaries than allowing politicians to cut deals to protect their own turf.
Finally, Mr. Edwards writes that the influence of money is destroying political campaigns. Again, Mr. Akin's example helps prove the point.
When powerful Republican interests outside of Missouri can put pressure on a candidate to step out of a race by threatening to withhold millions of campaign dollars, the system has been turned upside down.
At a fundraiser at the Republican National Convention, Karl Rove, the king of GOP strategists, told a crowd, "We don't care who the candidate is," as long as it's not Todd Akin.
At the same event, BusinessWeek reported, Mr. Rove joked about the possibility of Mr. Akin being mysteriously murdered.
Other GOP leaders seem to have no problem with Mr. Rove's tactics. Mr. Rove controls tens of millions in secret campaign donations. Therefore, he rules.
George Washington never knew Karl Rove, but he is the embodiment of the "cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men" the nation's first president warned about.
Mr. Edwards, a conservative Republican, describes almost perfectly what the nation just witnessed in his party's convention:
"Candidates who seek to be on the November ballot find themselves under great pressure to take hard-line positions. This tendency toward rigidity — and the party system that enables it — is at the root of today's political dysfunction."
This is the great challenge for Americans: It is time to fix our dysfunction in Congress, not by sending a new batch of extremists or party loyalists to Washington, D.C., but by changing the system to one more in line with what our Founders intended.
Mr. Edwards puts it this way:
"As a citizen, take back your democracy. End partisan rule. Do it now."