Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Party Loyalty: Why Expect It?

William Zimmerman


July 16, 2001 

I was puzzled by Jack Boeve's comments on Senator Jim Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party (Capital Commentary, June 4, 2001). What does party loyalty have to do with Christians seeking justice?

I learned in college that in America we have brokered parties that may have platforms but in reality are so amorphous that they barely stand for anything. To try to enforce party loyalty in this system seems to be impractical if not misguided. In fact, it would appear that members of either party are expected to show some independence by occasionally taking a stand and voting against their own party. The insinuation that Jeffords is a "free-wheeling politician who feels compelled to play the interest-group game and even change parties overnight" seems off base to me.

As a citizen of New Hampshire, I can see why many commentators have suggested that the federal funding of special education was a key factor in Jeffords' decision to leave the party. When one considers the nature of small towns in New Hampshire and Vermont, it is understandable that special education funding is critical to the well being of these communities.

The federal government's failure to pay the 40 percent of special education funding to which it committed itself has been devastating to many communities. All it takes is for one student with special education needs to move into a town and, because of federally mandated requirements, the town budget is suddenly in the red. Or, more likely, money that was budgeted for books and other school materials is automatically spent to comply with the special needs requirements.

Jeffords' decision to leave a party that would not follow through on commitments made prior to the election was one of the few options he had if he was going to stick to his long-term goal of achieving full funding. To me, Jeffords made a principled decision. He is supporting some of the neediest members of our society who have little political clout.

The idea being floated that President Bush plans "to continue on his bipartisan course" is difficult to swallow in light of the agenda he has pursued. Why not admit that he is simply pursuing the agenda he ran on? The duplicitous nature of American politics that has its politicians claiming to be both bipartisan and loyal to their party seems to strike closer to the heart of the problem of American politics. It seems fairly clear that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party will ever adequately represent my interests and concerns. Each has to maintain a "large tent" and will always be composed of competing interests.

In contrast to the complaints about Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party, I can't recall hearing such complaints when other Members of Congress switched from the Democratic to the Republican side of the aisle.

The argument for party loyalty may make sense in a consociational democracy—like The Netherlands, Belgium, or Switzerland—where proportional representation is the rule. A system of proportional representation, which encourages the formation of a larger number of more disciplined parties, is attractive. But it seems irrelevant as a criterion for judgment of politics in the United States.

How much should we be concerned about party loyalty? It does provide a sort of basic glue to keep parties together after a fashion. However, party loyalty is overrated if we are concerned about seeking justice in America and globally in the 21st Century. American political parties are not primarily occupied with the pursuit of justice. Therefore, we must reach beyond the parties and partisanship if we want to seek justice as good stewards of the republic.

—William Zimmerman, Center Associate
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”