This essay is the first in a series that the Reform Party of California (RPCA) is publishing to articulate its rationale and approach to reform and politics. The series will explain and justify the basis for the Party’s intellectual framework as a better and more efficient way to implement policies in an intelligent, compassionate and fiscally sustainable manner. Initial essays in the series will focus on the RPCA’s rationale and approach to politics. Other essays will focus on political issues such as an aspect of the economy, education, health care or federal tax policy.
To engage in informed consideration of any given issue, a fair and unbiased context is usually valuable. For this essay, some constitutional context helps to shed light on two questions about how modern political parties think about and do politics. One inquires into beliefs about the role, size and scope of the federal (or state) government should be according to the U.S. Constitution. The second, related inquiry, asks if liberal or conservative ideology is the best framework for thinking about and doing politics and governing in our two-party political system.
Some debates that started before the constitution (the original 1788 Constitution and the 1791 Bill of Rights) came into effect are still debated today. Disagreements among the founding fathers over what government should be and do were profound. Some of those disputes remain unresolved. The original 1788 Constitution was a product of hard fought, pragmatic compromise. The sleight of hand called “finding common ground” that is sometimes passed off as a equal basis for governance today would never have resulted in the constitution we now have. Absent those bitterly fought compromises and the founders’ successful effort to convince ordinary Americans to accept the original 1788 Constitution as something in their best interest, no one knows what modern America would look like, either geographically or politically.
One unresolved dispute was over central government power. Some founders wanted a powerful central government as a means to defend the nation from European powers. Others wanted it to be weak to avoid tyranny. Even the role of federal and supreme courts was unsettled until the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case, where the Supreme Court itself seized, among other things, the power to accept or reject laws that congress passed. Until Marbury, some founders wanted congress to have the power to decide the scope and limits of what is constitutional. Others disagreed, e.g., Thomas Jefferson.
There is historical evidence of weakness in modern partisan arguments about their own ideological superiority. For example, the constitution was the product of compromise on matters of basic principle. That is evidence that no ideology dominated. Weakness is also evident from the fact that Americans can vote communists, fascists, socialists, liberals or conservatives into power. And, the federal government could directly consume 70% of GDP or be so small you could drown it in a bath tub. If there had been agreement over ideology on these points, the constitution presumably would have clearly reflected that agreement.
Possibly because of unresolved disagreements over the preferred scope and ideology for the federal government, the constitution does not shed much light on those issues. It is largely silent. When ideological partisans argue that their way is best or accords with the constitution or the founding fathers’ consensus intent, neither the constitution nor history clearly supports their arguments.
Government’s role and scope
The average person might assume that the only credible approaches to modern governance are linked to the ideology of the modern American left and right. The left vs. right struggle gets the vast majority of attention, credibility and money in the media. It also dominates rhetorical output from nearly all politicians and partisan advocacy sources. Maybe because of that, there is a range of political party choices having ideologies that are located somewhere along the left-right ideological spectrum. Given that, it is reasonable to ask what could the RPCA offer beyond what any other California political party now offers in terms of an intellectual framework for thinking about and doing politics? Since essentially everything there is to offer appears to be available in existing parties, why consider the RPCA?
The answer is straightforward. Things are not what they appear to be. Neither alone nor together, do existing California parties offer all there is in terms of political frameworks or ideologies. Although there are a few other key factors, e.g., the influence of special interest money on politics, firmly held or rigid ideology is a major constraint in effecting creative, effective politics. Ideology is a major impediment to real political change and reform. Depending on the issue, ideology will often significantly or severely limit the capacity of other parties to be as effective and efficient as they should be in understanding problems and finding the best policies.
It is not hard to see ideological blindness in many political disputes. Liberals cannot easily see or understand the merits of conservative perceptions of and logical solutions to problems or issues based on those perceptions. Conservatives have the same problem with liberal perceptions and solutions. For example, consider the firm belief of president Obama and many democrats that we have a federal revenue problem, not a spending problem. Most republicans firmly believe the opposite. To a large extent, these very different perceptions of reality, and there is only one reality in theory, may largely be grounded in human nature. Most people are comfortable accepting realities and facts that conform with preconceived belief or ideology. That acceptance is rarely accompanied with critical questioning. Realities and facts that do not conform are usually denied, distorted or, more often, simply ignored.
Republican Party, Democratic Party
To its credit, the California Republican Party is open and honest about seeking conservative solutions to problems and governance. That mirrors the party’s stance at the national level. Conservative political and religious ideology clearly dominates the Republican Party’s perceptions, thinking and policy options. The Democratic Party is mostly quiet on this point, but liberal ideology nonetheless dominates that party in the same way with the same effects. Despite its overwhelming popularity and powerful dominance over modern California and American politics, the RPCA sees standard political and religious ideology as a major impediment to efficient governance and needed reforms.
That is not just grounded in concern over gridlocked liberal vs. conservative two-party Washington politics. Ideology is an impediment because it tends to have a polarizing effect on many people. Polarization engenders distrust of political opposition, competing ideas and government itself. That makes governing more difficult and less adaptable than it should be. Collectively, those effects result in governance that is less efficient and effective over time.
Reform Party of California
Unlike other political parties and much of the federal government, the RPCA’s approach to reforming and doing politics is not based on traditional or mainstream ideology. Instead it is focused on common-sense problem solving or non-ideological pragmatism. The RPCA is open to a fair and neutral consideration of viable solutions to problems that might be considered liberal, conservative, centrist or something else. Reasonable policy options are not overlooked or rejected simply because they do not accord with one of the dominant ideologies. To some degree, ideology of any type tends to distort thinking, perceptions of reality and facts. Non-ideological politics more grounded in reality and logic should therefore be more effective than ideological politics. Because of that, the RPCA’s focus on non-ideological pragmatism or common sense differs fundamentally from other political parties.
Because the RPCA has no traditional ideology to defend or conform to, it is easier to be neutral about and comfortable with assessing policy options. In that milieu, no reasonable competing solution or policy is a threat to any dearly held belief. The RPCA’s political focus is on efficient, intelligent problem solving, not making reality or policy options fit into ideological frameworks. Such options will not always accord with personal values or inclinations, but at least the RPCA’s ideological openness makes it easier to more clearly see and fairly consider the merits of all options. Individuals can then accept or reject policy options that the RPCA ultimately adopts.
From a point of view that is not based on mainstream traditional ideology, it is easier to accept the notion that for a given issue the proper size and scope of government is no more or less than what is needed to be effective. Obviously, that begs the questions; Effective at what and for whom? That will be addressed in subsequent essays. The point is that policy options favoring bigger or more government is no more threatening than ones that suggest smaller or less. It bears repeating, when there is no ideology to defend or to make reality conform to, it is much more comfortable to see and assess problems and options more accurately.
From the foregoing, one can raise the criticism that important issues are left unexplained or are not even addressed, e.g., how are personal values included in this kind of politics. That is a fair criticism. Since this essay is only the first of a series, the unexplained and not addressed will be dealt with in due course. A single essay cannot suffice.
Defenders of the two-party status quo would likely reject the argument that non-ideological pragmatism is a superior framework for reform and politics. That may be true for partisan sources who articulate theories in support of their beliefs. Although this is partly grounded unresolved disputes that go back to the founders, modern belief in left or right ideology comes mostly from a biased and self-serving two-party system, not the constitution. As a practical matter, there is significant discontent with two-party politics. Many voters are registered as independents. Ideologies of the left and right and their parties cannot claim to have performed so well that a large majority is satisfied with their performance. Both sides have had power and, if public opinion or our current state of affairs is any indicator, both parties and their ideologies have arguably failed more than they succeeded.
1. The two-party system is roughly defined here to be the key influence or power sources that directly affect modern politics and policy. Those sources are voters, the two main parties at the state and national levels, democratic and republican politicians, which are not strictly synonymous with the two parties, the mainstream media, special interests, special interest money and general/public interests such as at least some non-profit organizations.
2. This description of the depth and nature of disagreements among the founders and what they envisioned for government is probably very much at odds with what the majority of Americans might believe. Other discussions of the founders’ misunderstood character and conflicts: Link 1, Link 2.
3. For people who whose ideology demands a large, intrusive government, there is the California Democratic Party and for those who want more, there is the Green Party of California. For people who want a governance-light, fiscally and socially conservative government heavily laced with Christian religion, there is the California Republican Party. People believing in rigid, hard core anti-government ideology with less religion can select the Libertarian Party of California. The American Independent Party is available for people who want an ideology based on domination of government by the Christian religion.
4. Common-sense or pragmatic politics probably does dominate some non-governmental organizations and it likely exists some places in government. For example, the Office of the National Taxpayer Advocate appears to be largely pragmatic in terms of thinking rationally about tax policy. Other than some exceptions, polarized ideology dominates mainstream political thinking and rhetoric.