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Political competition could strengthen American democracy

Posted: March 4, 2012 - 1:11am

It’s called Super Tuesday. It will be the most significant presidential primary and caucus polling so far this year. Alaskans, along with nine other states, get to vote for their Republican Party nominee. However, let’s not mistake this process as a shining example of American democracy. For one, voter participation is beyond dismal. And in most states you have to be a registered Republican to vote. But the real shortcoming of our national elections is that political leadership is limited to the either/or of a two party system.

On the GOP side, Mitt Romney has been the establishment favorite. But right now former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is leading the national polls among registered Republicans. How did Santorum become the choice of the party’s faithful conservatives? A lot’s been written about him being the last anti-Romney standing. His recent rise to the top came after winning two caucuses in which voter turnout was less than five percent and Missouri’s nonbinding primary where only one in five voters cast ballots.

Voter disinterest isn’t just a Republican problem. In 2008 the Democrats also saw much smaller turnouts in caucuses and primaries that restricted voter freedom as compared to open primaries. It suggests that the majority of Americans don’t like to be bound to one party or the other.

It’s also true that both parties have been suffering from embarrassingly low approval ratings for the past several years. And regardless of which party has been in power during this period, the public’s opinion of Congress’ performance has been near record lows.

So doesn’t it seem the country is looking for alternatives to the Democrat/Republican duopoly? New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman is one whose been making the case for a third party to enter the presidential race. Even if he or she isn’t likely to win, Friedman believes an “intelligent independent candidate just taking part in the presidential debates … would make both Obama and his Republican opponent better.”

That’s called competition. Increase the playing field and everyone has to work harder to succeed. “In America, we believe that competition strengthens us. Competition elevates our game” Sarah Palin told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference three weeks ago. “Let’s make sure this competition brings out the best in our party.”

However, our former Governor isn’t interested in making President Obama stronger as the election approaches. That might make him more attractive to independent voters and propel him to another four years in the White House. Palin’s real interest is in making sure that the eventual Republican nominee is “someone who will instinctively turn right” and heel to her blend of conservative values.

The problem with Palin’s idea of competition is that it puts the party before the country. This has been the general attitude of Republicans in Congress for three years. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated a year and a half ago, their main goal was to make Obama a one term President. In other words they prefer Obama fails to fix the nation’s problems because it will make it unlikely that he, and the Democrats in general, will be serious contenders in the November general election.

The side effect of putting that strategy into practice is the Republicans haven’t had to work hard to oppose the President. Instead they’ve been little more than obstructionists in a ‘do nothing’ Congress who helped inspire the party’s cast of mediocre wannabes running for president.

Are the Democrats any better? Not if they’re measured by how much they relish the GOP candidates fighting over support of the party base. They’re hoping the race for the nomination weakens the candidate Obama will face in November. It means that they too put the fortunes of the party ahead of the health of the country.

How do we get out of the rut of being governed by two self centered political parties? Having more competition will help. Who should form them? The liberal and conservative factions that are dissatisfied with their respective party catering to the center could break away and establish independent minorities. They won’t make governing our country easier, but if they all have to work harder it might make America stronger.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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