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'Political parties vs. the people:' How effective is the two-party system?

Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Wally Siewert (left) and Annie Rice (right) talked in studio about the structure and function of political parties and party leadership in the United States, with Mickey Edwards joining the conversation by phone.

The modern two-party system has dominated U.S. politics for decades – but it’s also led to deep-seated divisions among American voters. Mickey Edwards, former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, said political parties are “undemocratic,” citing the American Founding Fathers’ warnings about the rupture political parties can cause among U.S. citizens.

“George Washington’s farewell address said, ‘don’t create political parties.’ He begged us not to create political parties. The founder James Madison said that; James Monroe said that, and we did it – and now we’re paying the price for it,” Edwards said.

Edwards, vice president of the Aspen Institute, joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Tuesday for a conversation on the structure and function of political parties and party leadership. Also joining the discussion were St. Louis 8th Ward alderwomanAnnie Rice and Wally Siewert, director of civic engagement at FOCUS St. Louis.

Political systems will be the subject of a public ethics conference on May 31 sponsored by FOCUS St. Louis and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Siewert said the goal of the upcoming conference is to further discussion about the process of decision making to overcome political divisions.

“We only think about process when we have a certain outcome in mind. My hope for this conference is that we think about the process abstractly and say, ‘generally, without a specific outcome in mind, what would be the best way to make these kinds of decisions?,’” Siewert said.

Edwards said party loyalty has undermined the political process.

“Party loyalty has become the number one thing you swear loyalty to and the constitution sort of slips out of the way,” he said. “It is the democratic process that really matters and party does away with that.”

Rice added that the “either you’re with us or against us” political party mentality is detrimental to elected officials agreeing on issues.

“I don’t find myself swearing loyalty first and foremost to the party,” she said. “If we’re not serving the people, then I think there has to be room for flexibility in there, that this cannot be just an either or situation … that doesn't work for humans, that doesn't work on any level, so there’s got to be some room to move in there.”

Siewert agreed and said “the only reason a democracy works is because every single person in that democracy has a vague belief in the back of their head ... that no matter what decision the government comes up with … at some point in the process their point of view, their perspective, their interest got represented.”

Edwards explained that the lack of confidence in the two-party system has led to more than 40 percent of registered American voters identifying as neither Democrat or Republican.

“This is especially true among younger voters, who see themselves as a la carte voters … people are saying, [the two-party system] is not working for us,” he said.

Related Event

What: FOCUS St. Louis presents "Leadership, Ethics & Political Parties"
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday May 31, 2018
Where: University of Missouri-St. Louis Millennium Student Center, 1 University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121
More information

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.