Staff Columnist

The problem isn't Republicans and Democrats - it's partisanship itself

Congressman Justin Amash left the Republicans out of frustration at party politics. Now he's dropping out of the Libertarian race too.

Corn maze near Manchester shot August 13, 2006. The politcal party symbols, the donkey and the elephant are seen in the
Corn maze near Manchester shot August 13, 2006. The politcal party symbols, the donkey and the elephant are seen in the maze.

When U.S. Rep. Justin Amash announced last year he would leave his party and be an independent, his frustration wasn’t really directed at the Republicans or the Democrats.

His Fourth of July column in the Washington Post sparsely mentioned the two major parties. The real target of his criticism was party politics itself. He included a lengthy quote from George Washington, the country’s only no-party president, who famously lambasted partisanship in his farewell address.

Amash wrote, “I’m asking you to join me in rejecting the partisan loyalties and rhetoric that divide and dehumanize us. I’m asking you to believe that we can do better than this two-party system — and to work toward it.”

Amash would not stay an independent for long. He announced last month he is a Libertarian Party member — becoming first third-party congressman in more than 30 years — and that he would seek the party’s nomination for president.

That, too, was a brief endeavor. In a shocking announcement after only about three weeks in the race, Amash said this past weekend that he is ending his presidential exploratory committee. Amash appeared to have been turned off by intraparty politics in yet another party.

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Partisanship is an ugly form of collectivism that turns smart individuals into stupid groups. In Amash’s journey from a lifelong Republican to would-be standard-bearer of an insurgent party, Americans of all political ideologies find a cautionary tale about power and influence in politics.

How Trump made friends out of his foes

Amash was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 to a red district in Michigan. He was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, which today is known as the home of President Donald Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in Congress.

It’s easy to forget, but Trump did not start off in good standing among the anti-establishment right.

In 2017, the Freedom Caucus dealt Trump an embarrassing legislative defeat when a GOP bill to repeal portions of the Affordable Care Act was withdrawn in the Republican-controlled House because it didn’t have enough votes. Key Freedom Caucus members withheld support because the bill didn’t go far enough. It looked like Trump and the hard-line right would be enemies.

Trump eventually realized he could earn his critics’ support by inviting them to White House events and including them in policy discussions. It worked. Amash watched people he thought were ideological allies fall hard for Trumpism.

“It created a sense of relationship and camaraderie that I think a lot of them appreciated, and it made it harder for them to criticize him. It’s hard to challenge someone who you have a good relationship with. If someone is golfing with you or inviting you over for dinner or whatever, it becomes a lot more difficult to challenge him,” Amash told me in an interview shortly after announcing his presidential ambitions.

Conservatives who deplored Trump during the campaign and early presidency have become his biggest enablers. They’re also the harshest critics of Trump’s critics. Last year when Amash, then still a Republican, said Trump had committed impeachable acts, the caucus voted to condemn his position.

The cozy relationship between the Tea Party remnant and new Trump establishment has not been fruitful, Amash said.

“What actually ended up happening is most of these people changed in pretty significant ways, and Trump didn’t. They got into his orbit thinking maybe they can change him and influence him, and it’s a good thing. But in most respects, Donald Trump is the same Donald Trump as before, and the opposition has been silenced.”

New party, same problems?

If parties are bad, I asked Amash before he dropped out, won’t Libertarians be susceptible to the same dynamics?

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“It’s important to grow the party, but we must never get to the point like the Republicans and Democrats where we put the party first, where the party is more important than the principles we believe in.”

“The Republican and Democratic parties right now are gone beyond repair. I don’t think you can fix them. They are trapped in their partisan death spiral. We can prevent that from happening in the Libertarian Party, but it will take a real effort,” Amash said.

That optimism about the young party’s integrity apparently wore off in the couple weeks after I spoke with Amash.

His entry in the race was polarizing in some Libertarian corners, initiating predictable debates about who is and isn’t a “real Libertarian.” There was some consternation about the prospect of nominating a Republican convert who might not adhere to the party platform on every issue.

In social media posts announcing his departure from the race, Amash blamed political dynamics and the coronavirus outbreak, but he also hinted at frustration with the organization itself. Libertarian Party leaders have argued among themselves about how to host nomination votes while in-person meetings are threatened by the pandemic. Amash said “lingering uncertainty” about nomination voting and “unity after the nomination” were factors in his exit.

All together, those are signs of in-group allegiance rearing its head in party philosophically opposed to in-group allegiances.

Maybe there is no other way. Political scientists tell us plurality voting systems such as ours will tend to produce a two-party system. As much as many of us hate it, that’s our system now.

In Washington’s farewell address, where he called political parties dangerous, he also acknowledged partisanship may be “inseparable from our nature.”

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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