Our political parties are wrecking our democracy — here's what we can do about it

Our political parties are wrecking our democracy — here's what we can do about it
© Getty Images

As the country confronts its third impeachment procedure in fewer than 50 years, and in the midst of a presidential campaign as acrimonious as any in U.S. history, America’s democracy is undermined by extreme partisanship. In the Trump era and beyond, Americans should “change Washington” by drawing inspiration from the man who lent his name to the federal capital.

In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington called on his people to exercise “vigilance” for “the dangers of parties” and “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” on national unity and the honesty of public debates. It is “the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain the spirit of party,” wrote the first president of the United States.

While Washington’s letter is read in the U.S. Senate each year on his birthday, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on only one thing: locking the political system so as to alternate power to each other by preventing independent or third-party candidates from winning elections or even participating in the public discourse.


One stratagem of the two parties that best illustrates their objective connivance is the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPB), a private organization founded by the Republican and Democratic parties in 1987 with a name suggesting a public and independent entity. The CPB governs presidential and vice-presidential televised debates down to their most minute details, effectively reserving access to dozens of millions of voters to their candidates.

Today, as in 2016, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Trump was right about 'trying to end endless wars' Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico Bernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' MORE, two antisystem independents, are seeking the Republican nomination and the Democratic nomination, respectively, because that is the only path to get elected in the current political and electoral system.

Both men are supported by many among Americans who can no longer abide the established political class. A political elite whose supposed expertise has produced globalization with growing inequalities and outsourced jobs, ultra-economic liberalism with the undoing of safety nets and increasing private money in elections, the war in Iraq and the Great Recession of 2008. A political elite that did not see coming the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the so-called Islamic State.

Sick for decades, in a fevered confusion of party interests and the national interest, the American democracy is now in peril. Its revival is crucial, not only to the future of the American people but also to the quality of relations of the United States with other countries.

Any reform must loosen the death grip of power held by the two major parties, at both the local and federal levels.


Ideally, a fundamental reform would include, at minimum, a nonpartisan commission with the mission to end gerrymandering and draw electoral districts, such as has existed in Canada since 1964; a dose of proportional representation in elections to state legislatures and Congress; and the abolishment of the Electoral College through the establishment of universal direct suffrage in presidential elections.

Realistically, the entrenched party duopoly as well as constitutional amendment rules make fundamental reform unlikely.

Yet, changes are feasible — notably, adding a “none of the above” option on all ballots and requiring a minimum 60 percent turnout, in the absence of which a runoff election would take place. Other options include increasing public financing for independent and third-party candidates and shortening presidential campaigns, as well as eliminating the Commission on Presidential Debates, with TV networks reclaiming their independence from the two major parties and opening presidential and vice-presidential debates to independent and third-party candidates. 

In order to cultivate a more representative democracy, each American owes it to her/himself to reject the ambient frenetic cacophony, to mobilize by placing national interests above party interests, and to take counsel and hope from the prime infancy of the republic.

Indeed, the spirit of independence that provided the impetus for the birth of the United States also brought the first Founding Father to run without a party label and be elected the first president as an independent.

In his farewell address, Washington had this premonitory warning for his fellow Americans. Partisanship, he wrote, “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, and foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” 

French journalist and political commentator Marie-Christine Bonzom worked in Washington for 26 years as a reporter for the Voice of America and as a correspondent for the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and other foreign media.