What If Neither Party Is Capable of Governing?

Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared in The Fulcrum and has been republished in its entirety on IVN with permission from the publisher. The author, John Opdycke, is Founder and President of Open Primaries. 



It’s tempting to finally see the selection of a new Speaker of the House and think “don’t worry, the ship has righted itself once again.” After all, the Democratic and Republican Parties governed the United States effectively for most of the 20th century. Not perfectly but effectively.

But what if those days of “governing” are gone?

Congressional Republicans--85% of whom face little-to-no general election competition--have lost interest in governing altogether. They provoke and disrupt but show outright disdain for doing the people’s business and finding creative solutions to the many issues facing our country.

The Congressional Democrats--similarly insulated from November contests--like passing legislation, which, unfortunately for all of us, is not the same as governing. They truly believe that they know what is best for people, so they pass laws and then scratch their heads and say, “why don’t the American people appreciate how good Joe Biden has been to them?” They believe the country is the same as the highly organized interest groups that make up the (ever shrinking) remains of the New Deal Coalition that Ronald Reagan put on life support. The party is disconnected from much of the pain and chaos that ordinary Americans experience, and with the exception of Barack Obama, they’ve been running “anybody but (fill in the blank)” presidential campaigns for the past 30 years.

One party doesn’t believe in governing, the other doesn’t believe in the American people. Issues pertaining to our border, public safety, energy, foreign policy, pollution, debt and healthcare go unresolved because they function better as fundraising fuel. Trillions get spent on projects to help partisan interest groups, not the country. Debt mounts no matter who is in charge. While there is tremendous innovation, experimentation, dynamism and growth taking place at the grassroots, none of it touches Washington.

The failure of the national parties is obscured by the fact that many Republican and Democratic elected leaders at the local level are doing fine work governing cities and towns that are thriving--and inspiring the trust of the people who live there. Local government is respected, in part because the rules of local politics are mostly nonpartisan. But local resilience is the last gasp of a once effective national two-party system, not evidence that we should stay the course.

The American people are responding to this state of affairs in three important ways. First, people are registering to vote as independents. In blue states and red, the fastest growing segment of the electorate is independent, no-party voters. Voters are creating distance between themselves and both parties. This trend is understudied and misunderstood, but it is happening.

Second, there is a growing appreciation that the rules of the political game are rigged to insulate both parties from the people so that when they fail, they pay no price. Advocates for a constitutional amendment to allow citizens to regulate money in politics, ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primaries, nonpartisan redistricting and election administration are knocking on doors in all 50 states, introducing legislation and promoting ballot measures. A growing coalition sees repealing closed primaries as the single most effective way to empower independent voters and create space for governing - but this movement is bigger than one policy. And it is growing.

And finally, multiple independent candidates/processes are testing the waters: Robert Kennedy, Jr., Cornel West, the Forward Party and No Labels. It’s early, but there are signs that these candidates and processes differ from traditional third-party protest candidacies. Each is attempting to appeal to voters across the spectrum and talking about the need to upgrade our democratic process, not just elect new leaders. Each has the potential to tap into the pent-up desire for a more diverse and dynamic political marketplace. Might one or more of these efforts survive the brutal attacks from Team Trump and Team Biden and gain traction? It’s possible. And if more than one takes off it will be interesting to see whether and how they can work together to create something truly developmental for the country.

Both parties, their positive capacities near exhaustion, are vested in preventing anything new from taking root. This is deeply destructive to the country at a time when challenges at home and abroad are mounting. The problem isn’t that Biden and Trump are too old - it’s that the institutions they lead are calcified and unresponsive. That’s why so many voters are declaring their independence. And it’s also why reforms that allow for new coalitions, new solutions, and new conversations are so essential.