As the House Republicans struggle with how to approach the subject of immigration, a much more significant issue is in play. It is the issue of whether we will continue to have a viable two-party system as the core of our form of governance in America.
There are many who feel that the two-party system is an anachronism in today’s multi-faceted, fast-changing and complex nation. I do not count myself among them. This is not because of a commitment to traditionalism or a tendency to look back through rose-tinted glasses at the good old days, which in fact were not necessarily all that good compared to our time.
Governing a nation as large, as dynamic and as confusingly intricate as ours cannot occur in an effective manner unless there are places that people can come to sort things out and move toward consensus.
Of course the great genius of our founders, especially James Madison, was that they fully understood this. They set up a system with several branches, one of its main purposes being to safeguard governance by consensus rather than by majority fiat. Their checks-and-balances system made sure that little would happen unless there was broad agreement.
In order to execute this form of constitutional government over time, we evolved into a two-party system. The importance of the parties is that they represent a preliminary but necessary step in the critical process of reaching consensus. It is only then that governing can occur.
The parties are designed to be large tents built upon broad ideological ground around which many people can gather. In that way, we can begin the process of moving to agreement on critical issues — and on determining who our leaders will be.
Without the two-party system as an initial, yet big, step in this process of “sugaring off,” as we say in maple syrup country, we would have political chaos.
For a nation as large as ours, with all our different streams of thought, culture and prejudice, it would be impossible to get coherent governance if we did not have the preliminary steps of consensus building that the two-party system orchestrates. If everyone went their own way in their own party, it would be a disaster: The nation would be in a constant state of turmoil, little would happen and we would suffer from a true inability of the national government to function.
But for the two-party system to play its role and to survive, each party must have as part of its core principles the willingness to be inclusive — albeit within the context of the broad values it represents.
The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party of the early ’70s, is on the verge of abandoning this critical element of inclusiveness.
How House Republicans handle the issue of immigration will be a key test. Can the party continue in its role as a national force for consensus and good governance in the near future? Or will it take an exclusionary path that will inevitably lead to it being a permanent minority voice?
If it chooses the latter course, it will have abandoned its large and critical responsibility to be a part of a reasonably well-governed constitutional system built on the need to reach consensus.
It is a key moment. One can only hope that the party selects the right path.
Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. He is the CEO of SIFMA, a financial industry lobbying group.