In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War King George III asked the American artist Benjamin West what would become of General Washington. West answered, “They say he will return to his farm.” To which the king responded, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Whatever temptations might have come from Washington’s military strength, they were no match for his strength of character.
Today George Washington is still revered because he was given great power to perform a sacred task—the deliverance of a nation—yet after he had “not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of [his] country,” he humbly returned that power to its rightful owners: the public. Thus, not only ensuring his place on our money and Mt. Rushmore, but in our hearts and debts of gratitude.
Utah’s current legislature should take advantage of the opportunity before it to display the strength of character that breathed life into our nation. Since Judge Clark Waddoups ruled our current method for electing a state school board was unconstitutional, our legislature has been entrusted with task of fixing this problem. And now they face a tough choice: whether to consolidate power within their parties or to return it to the people. Not only would our legislature be wise to look to Washington’s example, but to his words.
Together with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Washington composed an open letter to the country, later renamed his “Farewell Address.” In it he sought to warn us “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.” He went on to explain these effects:
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
The man who followed Washington to the presidency, John Adams, felt much the same way. He warned:
There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This… is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
Ironically, one of the best national examples of the pitfalls of partisan politics sits adjacent to Washington’s own monument. From 1997 to 2012 the partisan divide in the U.S. Congress doubled. The public did not appreciate an increase in partisanship and approval for our national legislature plummeted from an average of 36% to 15%. The shocking result of this rise of partisanship is that nearly two-thirds of our country feels they are not adequately represented by either of the two parties that control 99.6% of our national offices.
Given this bleak picture, it’s no wonder counties and municipalities are increasingly moving away from partisan elections, and this partisan exodus from local governments has produced interesting data. For instance, when variables such as the size of the city and the timing of elections are controlled, data suggests partisan races offer a significantly bigger advantage to incumbents, provide a greater disadvantage to minorities, and do nothing to increase voter participation. With these negative affects and the dysfunction of Congress fresh in our minds, we are left to wonder why we would want to introduce more partisanship into our school board.
And so far we have only considered general examples of the problems with party politics. It is possible (and slightly alarming) to get very specific with the issues of party politics and public education right here in Utah. In 2010 and 2012 the Utah Foundation conducted a survey of Utah voters and party delegates. In both surveys the foremost concern for voters was “improving the quality of K-12 education.” Yet for delegates this issue was only ranked eleventh in 2010 and sixth in 2012. Given this disconnect between party insiders and the public, it should not be surprising that by a margin of more than 2:1 Utahns want to keep our school board elections nonpartisan.
And thus our partisan representatives are faced with a choice. They can prove themselves worthy of the trust they’ve been given and return the power to us as we are requesting, or they can violate our trust by attempting* to make a law that would give away our power to the party. “Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight,)” Washington counseled, “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
Let us hope we can be wise.
For if you consider whether or not it is better to have a school board that resembles Washington, the city, or a legislature that resembles Washington, the great man, the best course of action is apparent.
*I use the word “attempting” here because I think even if the law was technically passed, it would still be null and void because of Article X, Section 8 of the Utah Constitution which reads:
No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission, or attendance in the state’s education systems.
Meanwhile the very first line of Senate Bill 104 says:
This bill amends provisions of the Election Code to make candidates for, and members of, the State Board of Education and certain local school boards subject to partisan election…
Since State Board of Education members receive a salary and insurance benefits for compensation and have agency to act in binding ways for the State of Utah, they are clearly employees, and since SB104 seeks to make them “subject to partisan election,” the are being held against a “partisan test.”
Many think it would take a Constitutional Amendment to make SB104 law.