“No government can be free that does not allow all its citizens to participate in the formation and execution of her laws.” -Thaddeus Stevens, speech on reconstruction in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1867.
Partisan politics have hit a tipping point. We have become so polarized that we view our neighbors who disagree with us as enemies. Friendships are lost; families are not talking to each other; and isolation and violence are increasing. It is time for us to think anew.
Each of us has had our own journey in coming to terms with the disintegration and debasement of the Republican Party, the party to which we all once gave allegiance and served with joy and gusto.
We know there are plenty of former Democrats who feel the same way about their party, too. How do we know this? Because the number of registered independent voters has been growing steadily year over year, even here in “staunchly Republican” Lancaster County. The three of us have added to those independent numbers in recent years.
However, we know independence from political parties serves no purpose in the long term. The bottom line is not so much that parties are bad — it is that we have bad parties.
Increased partisan polarization in our country over the past 10 years has led to increased animosity and seclusion from meaningful public discourse. A Pew Research Center study revealed that more than 60% of Republicans view Democrats as “closed-minded,” while 75% of Democrats say the same of Republicans. And 55% of Republicans and 47% of Democrats view members of the opposing party as more immoral than other Americans.
Folks now seem to be much more concerned with national news and politics than with local issues that affect them every day. While everyone has an opinion about the current or past president, few can name their elected municipal officials.
We are living the inverse of the old Tip O’Neill adage that “all politics is local.”
All politics are national now, or so it seems. And even local politics now are shaped by national politics.
Two salient examples on the right are the politicization of all things related to COVID-19 — particularly vaccination and mask-wearing — as well as the continuing lies about the 2020 election.
We have plenty of disagreements with the Democratic Party’s far left, too. We disagree with their redistributionist economic policies, nanny-state tendencies and political priorities, for instance. But the Democratic Party is now the only major party in America standing up against authoritarianism and the Jan. 6 attack on our democracy. We join the Democrats in that effort, but in the long term we aren’t looking simply to jump from one ideological group to another.
Culture warriors on prime-time cable news shows believe their daily assignment is to keep the electorate in a constant state of outrage, or exhaustion, thereby forcing the major political parties to adapt their agendas to the extreme voices in the minority.
And then there is the problem of leadership, or really the lack of it.
The founders of this country anticipated the problem of ambition in elected officials, and therefore created a brilliant system of checks and balances to mitigate it. But they did not anticipate widespread cowardice in public officials. The two major parties have rotted from within because far too few party leaders and politicians over the past 50 years care more about their country than their own careers and power. That includes the willingness of many conservative populists now to subvert the democratic process. It pains us to say this, because we worked so closely with many of these people in recent years, but for evidence of this subversion of democracy, see the disgraceful rhetoric and actions — or nonactions — of Lancaster County state lawmakers and our representative in Congress.
These major-party members subvert democracy by making ballot access harder, setting higher voter signature thresholds and requiring more paperwork requirements for independent candidates. In this regard, both major parties have the same incentive. For example, it is in both their interests to keep primaries closed in Pennsylvania, and to keep the taxpayers funding them, even though the process of nominating any party’s preferred candidates should be at the party’s expense.
If all voters could vote in the primaries using an innovative electoral reform such as ranked-choice voting, then the primary system would truly work for everyone and result in choices in the general election that would be broadly acceptable to as many people as possible.
If nothing else, politicians under such a system would have a lot more incentive to care about the needs of all their constituents and not just the narrow and vocal base of their own party, which elects them in primaries now. That problem is particularly acute here in Lancaster County where the primaries are essentially the only elections that matter for countywide and state legislative races because of the Republican Party’s registration advantage. The same problem exists in deep blue areas of the commonwealth and the country.
Thaddeus Stevens’ example
Saying that the Republican Party has failed and needs reform is not a new concept in Lancaster County history. Thaddeus Stevens was a leading Radical Republican in the 1800s who said much the same thing.
The Radicals were described this way in an 1867 pamphlet published by the Union Republican Congressional Committee: “The word Radical as applied to political parties and politicians … means one who is in favor of going to the root of things; who is thoroughly in earnest; who desires that slavery should be abolished, that every disability connected therewith should be obliterated.”
Radical reform means to identify the root of the problem and to change it. To achieve radical reform, Stevens and other reformers realized the need for systemic change. In Pennsylvania, Stevens was a leading advocate for universal public education, and in Congress he led the Radical Republicans in efforts to abolish slavery and eliminate egregious voting restrictions.
While not all their efforts succeeded, they did make progress and paved the way for others to follow. We can thank Stevens and the Radical Republicans for the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery anywhere in the United States, and the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people born and naturalized in the U.S., and provided all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”
Return to pluralism
We are at such an inflection point today. The time has come for a new coalition of radicals to put country over party and work to make our commonwealth and nation stronger.
More people should be involved in the electoral process to ameliorate hyperpartisanship. It is time for reforms such as term limits, transparency, redistricting reform, open primaries and election innovation.
It is time to stop thinking in terms of “left” and “right” when considering what political parties are supposed to stand for. It is time to reject factions and fight for a return to pluralism, as James Madison championed, and to reform government to allow more people to freely participate in William Penn’s holy experiment.
To these ends, we have founded the Pennsylvania chapter of the Serve America Movement, a party founded by former George W. Bush administration members and led by its executive chairman, David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida.
Our platform is focused on principles and reforms rather than a rigid ideology. We are in favor of collaborative problem-solving, transparency in politics, open primaries, term limits for state offices, removal of obstacles to legal voter registration, and voting and redistricting reform.
You can think of the platform of this new movement not so much as the wearing of a team jersey on the sidelines but as the maintaining of the field of play for fairness, access, the open debate of ideas, and fulfilling the ideals of American self-government.
Our commonwealth is rich and diverse, both geographically and ideologically. We certainly do not always see eye to eye and neither do SAM members. That’s why we’re building the first political party that starts with questions instead of top-down answers — one designed to deliver the most good for the most people.
We believe that all voters in Pennsylvania should have a choice at the ballot box every time there’s an election. We have three objectives: We want to help more people run for office to force a broader discussion and increase voter engagement; we want to support major-party candidates who align with our principles-based platform; and we want to run our own SAM candidates.
Together we can fix a corrupt system and restore William Penn’s vision for a commonwealth that can self-govern without persecution or dissension. Join us to help fix the broken politics of Pennsylvania, and America, with fresh ideas and a commitment to working together to solve our common problems (joinsam.org/sam-pennsylvania). Join us for a conversation about the future of America.
This Op-Ed originally ran as a guest editorial on LancasterOnline. Ann S. Womble is a former chair of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County and former community member of the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board. Ethan Demme is a former chair of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County and a supervisor in East Lampeter Township. Phil Lapp is a Lancaster County entrepreneur and community volunteer. They are a part of the SAM Party of Pennsylvania Executive Team.