Divided We Stand

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Mickey Edwards is the vice president of the Aspen Institute, a nationally recognized organization dedicated to policy studies. He served several tours of duty as an Oklahoma Congressman from 1977 to 1992. He’s taught at Harvard, Georgetown and Princeton. He thinks up a lot of important things about government, and his new book, The Parties Versus The People, proves it.

In your book, you refer to Republicans and Democrats as “tribes.” Why is that?
A lot of people in Congress tend to hang together based on what seems to be to the best advantage of their parties for the next election. They’re not thinking of themselves as legislators first. They think of themselves first as party members. They stick together wondering, “What will help my party?” instead of, “What’s the right thing to do?”

Also in your book, you list many threats to American democracy. What’s the most pressing?
The most important is the loss of a vital part of American constitutional democracy, the separation of powers. It’s the role of the legislative branch to serve as a check on the executive branch. But when you think of things in terms of party identity, what happens is that if you have a Republican president and you’re a Republican in Congress, your instinct is to support the president unconditionally. Democrats do the same with Obama today. Legislators need to be thinking, “My job is to keep a check on that person. That’s the head of a different branch of government.” Tribal thinking undermines one of the most important concepts of the American system of government: separation of powers.

You’re frustrated with legislators that toe the party line. What’s a good, recent example of this?
There are a lot. It happens with one issue after another. For the most part, it’s all the Republicans on one side and all the Democrats on the other side. We saw it with Supreme Court nominations. If it’s a person nominated by our guy, we’re for him. If it’s someone ominated by the other guy, we’re against him. What bothers me so much is that when you take the oath of office, your loyalty is to the Constitution and the country, not to a party and not to a president. You’re supposed to use your own judgment, listen to your constituents and decide what the right thing to do is. That gets lost when party becomes paramount.

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