Holding the Government Accountable

The Parties Versus the People: An Interview with Mickey Edwards


With a dismal record of passing legislation, perpetuated by hyper-partisan gridlock, the 112th Congress has been called the “worst Congress ever.” Some prefer to stop at “dysfunctional,” but whichever nickname you choose, there’s something seriously off about Congress these days. Bills are proposed with the goal of advancing partisan interests, and not necessarily the public’s. Debates have deginerated into bitter partisan bickering, not thoughtful consideration of public policy.

In such an environment, it’s natural to search for someone to blame. But according to former Congressman Mickey Edwards, who spent many years as a member of the Republican leadership, the problem in Congress isn’t its members—it’s the system itself.

Fortunately, it’s not beyond repair. In his new book, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Democrats and Republicans into Americans, Edwards, who served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District, lays out the features of the American political order that make it easy for parties to seek power over the public interest.

In order to combat cronyism and get Congress back on track, he proposes sweeping changes to our political system, from ending party-controlled primaries to eliminating corporate donations to candidates. We caught up with Edwards to talk about provoking accountability, moving beyond labels, and encouraging a more effective Congress.

POGO: You've said that partisanship, not polarization, is to blame for dysfunction in and frustration with government today. Can you explain the difference?

Mickey Edwards: Polarization is a natural part of the democratic process; there are more than 300 million of us and a lot of different viewpoints, some of them very strongly held. A democracy depends on a vigorous exchange between those alternative visions. Some of the greatest advances in our history have come not from the political center but from the “poles,” including the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, both of which were radical reversals of long-held practices and beliefs.

Partisanship, on the other hand, is the taking of political positions that seem advantageous to one’s political club. Today, neither Democrats nor Republicans are open to proposals—no matter what their merits—that emanate from a member of the other party. The democratic process requires a willingness to engage honestly in an exchange of views, with an openness to considering an opponent’s perspective; partisanship cuts off that exchange and proceeds solely from a cold political calculus that depends on hurting the other side in order to gain an advantage in the next election. The two terms—polarization and partisanship—are often confused, but they are very different.

POGO: Political parties are an innate feature of the American political system, but hyper-partisanship is a relatively new phenomenon. Why the sudden shift in loyalties away from constituents and towards political “clubs”?

Edwards: The kinds of political parties we have today are a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, members of parties united around a few major issues but were willing to come together on many others. Many of the most contentious issues of modern American politics—social security, Medicare, environmental protection—eventually won the support of members of both parties.

Today, extreme partisans—hostile to cooperation with “the enemy” —have awakened to the enormous power they can wield through closed party primaries to punish candidates who express a willingness to consider alternative viewpoints. It’s not that the American people have become more partisan (in fact, the number of independents continues to grow rapidly) but that the party zealots have realized that the party-controlled primary system that limits voter choice in the general election gives them great leverage to insist on uncompromising loyalty.

POGO: Your grassroots organization is called “No Labels.” As a political leader, how does one move beyond party affiliation in terms of identifying oneself?

Edwards: I’ve been supportive of “No Labels” because I agree with the organization’s fundamental premise, which also happens to be the premise of my new book: that our political leaders ought to recognize that they are Americans before they are Republicans or Democrats and that they’ve been elected to come together as our representatives to address national concerns, not to become knee-jerk advocates for their own political clubs. That’s really all that’s required: understand that it is the United States, not one’s party, to which we owe our loyalty; that we take an oath to uphold the Constitution, not a party platform.

POGO: With the cost of running political campaigns these days, how can members of Congress keep from becoming beholden to special interests?

Edwards: It’s difficult. Ideally, candidates would devote much more of their campaign efforts to grassroots campaigning—door to door, town meetings, coffees—but that’s hard to do if one is running statewide. But we all have to live with ourselves and we have to be able to face ourselves in the mirror without being forced to look away.

Special interests (and parties are special interests, too) will always try to win commitments in exchange for their support; laws and regulations can help make it more risky to bow to those demands, but ultimately, it comes down to a matter of personal courage and a willingness to risk defeat rather than become just another part of the problem.

That said, it is nonetheless possible to reduce the ability of special interests to affect political outcomes. For example, in terms of campaign financing, my own preference is to limit contributions to actual people—no corporations, no labor unions, no political action committees, no political parties. Only real people can vote, and only real people should be able to contribute to campaigns.

POGO: Does accountability to the public rather than a party necessitate complete transparency?

Edwards: Absolutely. Every campaign contribution should be publicly reported, immediately. Every benefit accepted by a public official should be publicly reported. Every commitment made by a public official, every “pledge” signed, every favor done must be transparent.

POGO: Your 2011 piece in The Atlantic on how to combat partisanship received a lot of attention from the media and the public alike. If citizens are concerned about this issue, what can they do to bring about change?

Edwards: In that article, I made a number of suggestions. Now, in the book, I’ve had room to expand on those—everything from eliminating closed primaries and taking away the power of parties to draw congressional district boundaries to creating non-partisan congressional staff and eliminating the power of party leaders to control committee assignments, chapter after chapter of proposed reforms. Some of those can be done at the state level through referenda and initiative petitions; others can be done through the simple means of applying pressure to one’s own member of Congress.

Ultimately, it’s up to us; it’s our country, and only we can change the system to make it work for us.

Anna Meier was a communications associate at the Project On Government Oversight. Image courtesy of Mickey Edwards.