Thursday, July 04, 2019

Justin Amash Declares His Independence from the Two-Party System

"Today, I am declaring my independence and leaving the Republican Party."

That was Justin Amash's announcement on this 4th of July in an article for The Washington Post.  He is in his fourth term as the representative for Michigan's 3rd Congressional District in the House.  A few weeks ago, he provoked Trump and Republican Party leaders by becoming the first Republican in Congress to call for Trump's impeachment.  I wrote a blog post (here) about a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids where Amash explained his position.  Now, this announcement of his independence from the two-party system prepares the way for his running for President as the candidate of the Libertarian Party.

Many of the arguments that Amash makes in his Washington Post article were stated at his town hall meeting.  What is new in the article is his claim that George Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796 warned against the dangers of the excessive passions of a party system that we see today in the hyperpartisanship of American politics.

As Amash indicates, Washington said that the "spirit of party" or "faction" was "inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind," and so it exists in all governments.  It is natural for human beings to divide into competing political factions fighting for dominance over their opponents.  (This is what Frans de Waal has called "chimpanzee politics.") Washington also concedes that "parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty."  But still Washington worried about the "constant danger of excess," which he saw emerging in 1796, and which was fully displayed in the intensely partisan presidential election of 1800.

Amash quotes two paragraphs from Washington's address.  I have added the three questions in brackets:
". . . The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an Individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors [Trump?], turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty."
"It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public administration.  It agitates the Community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another [through social media and cable news networks?], foments occasionally riot and insurrection.  It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption [Russia?], which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.  Thus the policy and will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another."
By laying out his reasoning in this article, Amash indicates what would have to be said by his critics to refute his positions.

First, the critics would have to argue that the American two-party system today has not become dangerously excessive in its partisan passions.

Second, the critics would have to argue that congressional party leaders recognize the constitutional mandate for the Congress to act as an independent branch of government that checks the executive branch, even when the congressional party leaders belong to the same party as the President.  Alternatively, the critics could contend that the country is better off when the Congress allows the President to rule as the supreme leader without any limits, and so the constitutional system of separated and limited powers needs to be set aside.

Third, Amash's critics would have to show that he is wrong in claiming that the Congress no longer functions as a deliberative body, where outcomes are discovered through congressional debate over policy, because most major outcomes in the Congress today are dictated by the president, the speaker of the House, and the Senate majority leader. Or the critics could argue that there is no need for the whole body of Congress to deliberate about public policy, and it's better to allow policymaking by the President and a few congressional leaders.

Fourth, his critics would have to show that he is wrong in saying that most Americans are not rigidly partisan, because they don't see either of the two major parties as representing them, and that the two parties have become more partisan because they are catering to small groups of partisans (playing to the "base").

Finally, the critics would have to argue that most Americans support the existing two-party system, and so very few will vote for an independent or third-party candidate like Amash.  Over the next few years, we will see whether this is true.

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