Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer decided to break ranks. He was a conservative but had always run for office as a Democrat, a lean towards the partisan tilt of his State Assembly district in eastern Wisconsin near Manitowoc. His votes had touched off a primary challenge from a liberal member of the party. So instead of taking the risk of losing because he was his own man and didn’t follow the party line, he decided to run as an independent.
Of course it easy to go this course when you are a sitting member of the state legislature and the voting public in the district already knows you. Even so, it will still be difficult for him to raise money without one of the two major-party campaign committees paying his bills. Now picture yourself as candidate without office trying to do the same thing.
There’s nothing in the Constitution of the United States that even mentions political parties or factions of any kind in the role of government. They came about well after the document was ratified in 1787. Parties have always justified their existence as ensuring the blessings of liberty and democracy by keeping each other honest and on their toes. But in this day and ages of parties adhering to starkly different ideological viewpoints and using all manner of discipline and coercion to try and keep their members in line, what we see are parties more akin to socialist political entities rather than traditional American ones. Even in a state like Wisconsin, where party control is traditionally supposed to be weak, legislative campaign committees and caucuses dictate their candidates’ votes in office with control of the purse string and seniority on committees. In so doing they have harden both major parties into warring camps rather than partners in government.
But while the state capitol in Madison (and Washington D.C. for that matter) resembles a World War I battlefield with its political equivalent of artillery barrages, trench warfare and no-man’s land covered by barbed wire, local government in the rest of the state functions without partisan rancor. Not that there is peace and harmony, but with seats on county, village and township boards along with city councils and mayors offices all designated non-partisan, the two sides of any concern over the budget, road maintenance or garbage fees, is dealt with rather than becoming part of the back and forth bickering that finds both sides looking to score political points rather than accomplishing what they were elected to do.
Perhaps it’s time then to bring practice of non-partisanship from the bottom up.
Only one state legislature in the nation designates its member’s non-partisan, meaning no party whatsoever, and that’s Nebraska’s (it’s also a unicameral legislature, another reform well worth considering). Minnesota’s once was (it reverted to partisan designation in the mid-1970s). This is not to say that members of the Nebraska state legislature don’t identify with political parties in particular, many of them do. But what it means is there’s no divide of seats in the chamber, no first consideration of the party line and no worry that a vote to make the best decision for the state doesn’t end up costing a member funding for his or hers next re-election campaign.
A non-partisan legislature will also be boon to those outside the two-party monopoly (or perhaps a better description is the two-party trust given that a monopoly is a single company overlording a particular field of business. Here there are two or more companies colluding to control the market.). Greens, Libertarians, Constitutionalists and Socialists of all stripes could run for the state legislature without having to worry about competing against the big two with little money or organization. They could also work in coalition with the majors to back a candidate in a particular Assembly or Senate district. The fluidity to the political system that a non-partisan legislature would create would make it easier for bills and resolutions to be debated and worked over without the calcifying effect that partisan politics has had on the Wisconsin state legislature over the past decade and a half. It would eliminate the partisan campaign finance scandals such hardening of party lines created. It also can eliminate the need to gerrymander such districts to favor one party or another. The same could also be said for closely contested legislatures across the country. Indeed, California’s budget crises could have been solved more quickly without parties trying to whip deal-making legislators into line. Perhaps a way to mitigate the affect the newly passed Prop. 14 and the establishment of so-called “jungle primaries” where all the candidates of all parties run on a single ballot, is to create a proposition which would have said candidates be declared officially non-partisan.
George Washington warned against the “spirit of the party” that would paralyze the nation in factional strife whether by region or by economics throughout his term in office. Little did he realize how ideology would make such factionalism even more contentious. To set free state legislators to do what’s right instead of chaining them to a party standard, perhaps it’s time for Wisconsin and more states like her to work as its local governments work every day, without regard to party or faction.