Commentary: Our 2 failing parties need to be shaken up by independents

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Dan Lipinski campaigns and bumps elbows with Brandon Piatkiewicz in front of Byrne School in the 23rd Ward in Chicago on March 17, 2020. - Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS

For 16 years, I had the privilege of representing the people of Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District until I was narrowly defeated in the 2020 Democratic primary. I lost that race because I dared to not always follow in lockstep with my party in an era in which extreme partisanship and polarization rule. In a number of primary elections last week, both parties continued to reject candidates willing to ever deviate from the party line, including Illinois’ 15th District in which Rep. Rodney Davis lost the Republican primary. This trend is causing more extremity, more intransigence and more gridlock in Washington. Both parties are failing our country and hurting the American people.

Last year, some Republican Party officials asked me to run for Congress as a Republican, but I declined. A few months later, some of my supporters from previous campaigns asked me to run in the Democratic primary in the 6th Congressional District because their analysis indicated I could win in a three-way race against the two incumbents vying for the nomination. When I responded that I was fed up with both parties and would only consider a run as an independent, they told me they would start a “Draft Dan Lipinski” campaign to get my name on the November ballot.

It is difficult for an unfunded grassroots effort to gather the 5,000 signatures needed to qualify as an independent for Congress — more than 12 times the 400 needed by a Democrat or Republican — but I understand that goal is within reach.

As I weigh my decision on whether to run now, or in two years, or find other ways to contribute to the fight to set our country on a better path, I want to explain the importance of running as an independent. The partisan gerrymandering of districts, the outsize influence of interest groups on elections and the concentrated power of congressional party leaders have created a situation in which most members of Congress no longer represent their approximately 800,000 constituents. Instead, they represent the small, often ideologically extreme minority of voters who cast ballots in their party’s primary.

In Congress, they follow the instructions of their party leader. In 2021, Democrats in both chambers set records for voting in unison, 98% in the House and 97% in the Senate, when a vote pitted a majority of one party against a majority of the other. House Republicans tied their record high with a 93% average. Any member who displays independent thought is usually coerced into following the party line or they lose their next primary. The only representatives who can get away with ever bucking the party are those on the extreme wings.

Just as members are displaying historically high party unity, the parties have become increasingly extreme and unwilling to compromise. Both parties are putting short-term personal and partisan gain above the good of the American people. These parties do not represent most Americans, with working-class and middle-class families being especially harmed. As Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said recently: “The Democrats have gone from being the party of the factory floor to being the party of the faculty lounge.”

As I’ve repeatedly argued, the Democratic Party needs to get back to being the party that prioritizes workers, not the woke. The debacle surrounding last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill is emblematic of how both parties are failing the American people. Despite the country’s clear needs, the bill’s overwhelming popularity and the strong support of trade union members, the legislation was held hostage for months by progressive House Democrats. When they finally relented and the bill came up for a vote, only 13 House Republicans supported it.

Voters now appear ready to toss out Democrats because of the party’s failures, but the only choice they have is electing Republicans who seem to have no plan other than attacking President Joe Biden and focusing on the next election. We saw the same situation play out four years ago in the last midterm election but with the parties reversed. America cannot afford to continue this vicious loop in which Democrats and Republicans cycle in and out of power while accomplishing little and blaming each other for the country’s problems.

Today, more than three-quarters of Americans believe that our country is on the wrong track. We are facing sky-high inflation, the threat of an impending recession, fears about safety in our communities, concerns about our schools and a nagging uncertainty about our republic’s stability. Our two parties got us here, and neither seems willing to change. We need to shake our parties out of their complacency so that they put the country first and serve the American people.

America remains the greatest nation on earth, but to embrace the opportunities that lie before us in a rapidly changing world, we need leadership with a positive vision that will break us out of this partisan doom loop.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Daniel Lipinski was U.S. representative for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District from 2005 through January 2021.

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