political parties, as we have known them for two
centuries, are disintegrating. They are being
replaced by shifting coalitions that are forming
and reforming constantly. This transition is leaving
an awful lot of Americans adrift.
most of our founders did not trust the idea of
political parties, they came into existence only
reluctantly. Parties seemed too much like the
dreaded "factions" that had arisen in Europe,
what today we would call interest groups, concerned
more with their own good than the common good.
America's founders, steeped in the ancient Greek
and Roman republican ideal, wanted their new fellow
citizens to be concerned with the commonwealth.
The more people fell into or formed narrow or
special interest groups, the less they would be
committed to the ideal of the new republic, that
which was held in common by all and over which
all were sovereign.
of the highest compliments for a citizen of the
founding era was to be called "disinterested."
That did not mean uninterested. It meant not interested
in one's own concerns at the expense of the commonwealth.
The founders held the quaint notion that if we
were all concerned, or interested, in what we
held in common we would all benefit individually.
Likewise, the more a citizen was interested in
getting only what was best for him and those like
him, the more corrupt the American republic would
by the late 18th Century, parties arose, largely
dividing between the Federalists led by Hamilton
who saw the need for a strong central or national
government, with a national bank and national
army, and the Republicans led by Jefferson who
suspected the power of the state and preferred
local authority and local control. As the Federalists
were by and large Northern merchants and traders
and the Republicans were by and large Southern
landowners and farmers, the issue of slavery,
unresolved in the founding era and documents,
also came forcefully into play.
the following two centuries the industrial revolution,
the Civil War, and America's emergence as a world
power all caused tidal waves and tectonic shifts
in power structures and coalitions. Well before
the 20th Century the two major parties had come
to exert hierarchical control over virtually all
political processes, including the nomination
of candidates for office, at the national and
state levels. They were the conduits for campaign
financing, access to the media, dissemination
of political information, the structuring of ideas
and policies, and the exercise of political discipline.
recent years, however, the parties' entire role
and therefore their power has been collapsing.
If a candidate is clever enough and has something
to say, he or she can get direct access to the
media. As political entrepreneurs, most candidates
now raise their own financing and depend on money
from the parties less and less. Candidates form
their own policy groups or court the flourishing
idea forums that span the political spectrum.
Self-confident and ambitious candidates put themselves
forward for any office they desire, up to and
including the presidency, without seeking the
approval of party officials. Individual office-seekers
form their own coalitions by shopping for support
among the smorgasbord of interest groups.
for the ideologically devout, voters likewise
are shaking loose the bonds of party loyalty and
more and more joining the third party, the independents,
either figuratively or literally. To a degree,
the process becomes self-fulfilling. As voters
less and less need the party to tell them what
to think and whom to vote for, the parties more
and more retreat to their hardcore ideological
bases, thus further alienating mainstream voters
who are less doctrinaire partisans and more eclectic
the information revolution disintegrates old media
and political structures. Virtually anyone in
America today can organize his or her own individual
information network tailored to his or her increasingly
individual concerns. Nothing symbolizes this stunning
fact more than the explosion of personal blog
sites. Now everyone has opinions and a forum,
the Internet, for expressing them. We are all
consumers and producers of opinions if not also
"news." You can choose to focus your attention
on defense and foreign policy, or fiscal and monetary
policy, or health care and education, or the environment,
or anyone of hundreds of individual areas of interest,
or any collection of them. You don't have to adopt
an entire party platform, in any case a kind of
19th Century exercise that has become basically
meaningless. You can write your own platform.
You can be a party of one. And that is increasingly
what millions of Americans are becoming.
of power, the watchword among Democrats, and many
independents, is: "I don't know what the Democrats
stands for." That's because the Party's old coalition
-- traditional liberals, labor, minorities, women,
environmentalists, and internationalists -- is
in the process of disappearing and a new one has
yet to be formed. Millions of people wait to hear
what the 21st Century Democratic Party stands
for, and Democratic Party "leaders" are not saying
until they see what the new coalition is going
to look like. They are afraid of taking principled
stands for fear of alienating some group they
think they need. So there is a kind of stand-off.
Voters afloat want to hear what the Party has
to say, and the Party is trying to find out what
they want to hear.
many traditional Republicans don't know what their
Party stands for either. It used to stand for
balanced budgets, resistance to foreign entanglement,
laissez faire economics, smaller government, and
individual freedom. Not any more. That old coalition
has disappeared as well. The new Republican Party
stands for big government, huge deficits, pre-emptive
warfare, massive nation-building, neo-imperialism
in the Middle East, intrusion on your privacy,
and a semi-official state religion dictated by
new Republican Party is merely a temporary diversion
because its new political base is too far out
of step with mainstream America, an America which
includes the traditional Republican base. Democrats
used to be the Nanny Party in the secular realm;
the neo-Republicans have become the Nanny Party
in the religious realm.
Americans, though, are a nation of independent,
socially tolerant, fiscally cautious, environmentally
concerned, well-informed, globally-conscious citizens.
This pretty much leaves most of us adrift, at
least from the two old parties and the increasingly
dogmatic, rigid, orthodox, intolerant neo-Republican
party, a cabal that seems intent only on consolidating
political power in fewer and fewer hands, reducing
its elected officials and judges to disciplined
automatons, protecting corporate excess, secret
policy making, and forcing all of us to become
fundamentalist Christians of the sort that would
make even John Calvin appear liberal.
however, are sadly mistaken if they rely on this
fact to assume that the power pendulum will automatically
swing back to them. Until the dust settles metaphorically
and politically from 9/11, the neo-Republican
Party will hold an advantage where security is
concerned, despite its almost totally inept performance
on homeland security and the hornet's nest of
radical fundamentalism it has thoughtlessly kicked
open in the Arab world. But that advantage will
also not last very long, and Democrats would be
well-advised to use this time, which they so far
have not done, to create a sweeping new understanding
of security and how to obtain it in the 21st century.
and beyond this traditional party-based struggle
for power is the greater tsunami overtaking the
very nature of partisan politics itself. The old
party structures are becoming obsolete. The prize
of future power will go to the next Machiavelli,
the next Montesquieu, the next Bismarck, the next
Jefferson who both appreciates, before all others,
that we are in a totally new political age, an
age beyond traditional political parties, and
then creates the next political paradigm.
I provide some hints: this paradigm will be based
upon authentic and original American principles,
it will also be enlightened and informational,
it will be participatory and decentralized, it
will be empowering, and it will incorporate the
ideals of the democratic republic. Most of all
it will be politically transformational and it
will become so by restoring our deepest beliefs,
our sense of national honor, integrity, dignity,
courage, and duty.
Hart is a former U.S. Senator for Colorado who
twice ran for the Democratic nomination for president.
Posted: June 24,