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Life Inside a Political Party

For those observers on the outside of a political party, it seems party members have a fairly unified vision of how their society should be run—and are working toward winning the hearts and minds of the voters for permission to enact that vision. So simple, right?


Imagine a mountain summit. The party leader is sitting on that summit.

This mountain is created by three ridges leading up to that summit. The ridges are full of party members. Many are trying to get to a higher place, which means toward the summit.

But any attempt to climb higher is obstructed by another party member in the way. That person wants to climb higher too. That person is not going to give up his/her spot, which took a long time to acquire.

One way to advance to that spot is to push that adjacent higher party member off the ridge. When he or she is pushed off, the person behind advances one position.

And the player must be careful. The party member behind might be plotting the same thing.

In this case, it might be beneficial for two people next to each other on the ridge to form an alliance. The lower person promises not to push the higher person off the ridge. In this alliance, lower person can watch the person behind very carefully—and the higher person can focus on pushing the person ahead off the ridge. When that person is pushed off, both people in the alliance can advance one place.

Once in a while, the leader is pushed off the summit. Then one entire ridgeline gets to move one place ahead. But just one ridgeline.

Life in a political party is competitive. It is an interesting game of how to get closer to the leader.

I’m going to subdivide the mountain into two vertical sections. The higher section is reserved for all the party members who have won the general election. They have official status and sit in the legislature. The media is attracted to them.

But most elected politicians know they cannot be the leader or even be in the leader’s inner circle. They just don’t have the political edge to climb much higher. So they sit at the middle of the mountain, content they are drawing a salary greater than their free market value. They also have a higher degree of status than what their previous non-political occupation had ever provided. While they still play the ridgeline game to maintain their status quo, they are happy with this life position.

So too are the more talented politicians at or near the top: they don’t want too many talented politicians competing for their jobs. The talented politicians need mediocre politicians below them to feel secure.

The lower half of the mountain has the party members. First, we should understand that many party members really don’t want a lot to do with politics. They will happily sit in the valley: writing small checks, attending rallies, and maybe putting in some drudgery work in the election campaign. They have no desire to rise higher. They have hobbies and entertainment that are more interesting to them than politics. They don’t play any ridgeline games.

But other party members have more ambition. Some may want to be an elected politician someday, so they are putting time in the trenches gaining experience and contacts. A higher ridgeline position is advantageous when they make the jump from volunteer to more professional. Some members are expecting small favors to come their way after the election, like a job within government or a government grant. Again, ridgeline position is important to get this reward. And some party members just like the drama that comes with being inside a political party. Life in a political party can easily turn into a soap opera in which one can be an observer or an actor. A higher ridgeline position just adds to the excitement.

Active party members are playing the same kind of ridgeline game as elected politicians, trying to get a little further ahead in the party hierarchy. And they happily do this without any salary. If any pay happens, it comes later.

The Analogy

Pushing people off the ridge is just a metaphor for getting ahead in politics. But pushing people off the ridge isn’t really how it is done, literally speaking.

Instead, ambitious party members need to be patient to acquire a position on the ridge. The best way to start is to take on some work in an election campaign: putting up signs, canvassing, poll watching, etc. Yes, some free time is lost, and it will be spent on tedious tasks that many party members would not pursue as a paid occupation. But getting these things done will put one in contact with people a little higher on the ridge.

Usually there are lots of social functions around party politics. Attend these social events. Get noticed. Try to sound smart. Try to sound loyal. Wear nice clothes.

Maybe the campaign manager gives a youthful party member $200 cash to make a quick trip to the beer store to buy some refreshment to keep campaign workers happy. Something like that just might be the start of a political career.

If a campaign worker is good at his/her tedious political jobs and socializes well, he/she may be asked to sit on a small party committee or local association. Attend these meetings. Get noticed. Try to sound smart. Try to sound loyal. Wear nice clothes. Take on bigger responsibilities.

When a newbie political player is taking on these responsibilities, he/she is making it a little more difficult for other ambitious newbie party members to move on to the ridge. In essence, this is kind of like pushing them off the ridge. There are only so many spots, right? Even the low-level responsible positions are in demand.

As a higher position is attained, it also must be maintained. Attend meetings. Get noticed. Try to sound smart. Try to sound loyal. Wear nice clothes. Take on even bigger responsibilities. If these actions are not done, someone below will soon take that place on the ridge. This is how many party members are pushed off the ridge. Not as dramatic as on a real mountain, but the result is the same.

The more dramatic way is elections. Winning the general election is a good way to solidify a high position in the party. Political parties love successful politicians and will overlook other flaws in character and capacity. Winning internal party elections also builds position on the ridgeline. And winning elections often brings friends and supporters a little higher. In essence, the losing contender and supporters of the losing contender are “pushed off the ridge.” Yes, they can climb back on someday, but much of the effort they acquired before the internal election has been lost.

The bottom line: successful players should attend political events, get noticed, try to sound smart, try to sound loyal, wear nice clothes, and win elections.

The Psyche of the Ridgeline

Like climbing a real ridgeline on a mountain, climbing up the political ridgeline does require a certain degree of skill. Moving ahead in politics is about making the right alliances and dropping ineffective alliances. That’s called “strategizing.” There must be both patience and a good sense of timing to know when an opportunity is ready. And sometimes luck plays a role but being in a high position can really leverage that luck.

And these positions take months, maybe years, of effort and planning to acquire. But a political fall can happen almost as quickly as a fall from the real mountain ridge.

Managing ridgeline position really has little to with being knowledgeable about public health care or police reform or international relations. Ridgeline positions and societal issues are worlds apart in terms of skill sets to successfully manage.

Can you imagine an elected politician serving on a committee about public health care or police reform or international relations—and this politician is worried about a party function later in the evening that could affect his ridgeline position?

Worse, what is the mindset of those people with a major ridgeline mentality? Do we really want them in governance in the first place? Are they still plotting who should get pushed off next? 

Again, don’t get me wrong. There are well-meaning people entering politics. But if they don’t play the ridgeline games first, they cannot bring their good intentions into governance. But after all this playing on the ridgeline, much of the altruism a well-meaning political player may have had has been pushed to the back of the player’s psyche. In other words, ridgelines sap time, energy, and creativity from any good people trying to find innovative solutions. And ridgeline politics scares many capable citizens away from ever taking a serious role in governance, leaving the mountain for the skillful ridgeline players!

And regardless of whatever ideology or vision a political party may profess to have, it is the ridgeline politics that defines and dominates the inner core and spirit of the party. All political parties are subject to this internal force.

Well, my few dear readers, haven’t I just given you a downer? For many years, you have believed that voting was going to change things, right? Maybe protesting? Maybe putting up the right kind of articles and memes on the internet? But the culture of personal advancement within political parties is a stronger force than anything we on the outside can muster—especially if we are not unified. The political parties just cannot save us no matter how hard we try to bend them. Not much hope, is there?

Shouldn’t it be a good time to think differently?

Tiered Democratic Governance (TDG)

For 24 years, I have been advocating for an alternative democratic governance. In brief, the TDG has no political parties or noisy election campaigns. Elected representatives are voted in on their good character and capacity for governance. They earn their position by their previous good work in public service. Their good work will require great consultative skills to reach some very innovative and effective solutions. AND THERE ARE NO RIDGELINE POLITICS TO CLOUD THEIR JUDGMENT.

“Unattainable Utopia!” you say.

Well, this TDG will start when 1% of Americans are willing to put about 10 hours a month into this project. In about 10 years, there will be a kinder, wiser democracy in the USA. If this project fails, not much will be lost. If it succeeds, the USA and the rest the world will learn some lessons for 21st century governance.

This 21st century governance is attainable. I believe the right people are already out there to make it work. They need only divorce themselves from believing that political parties are necessary for governance.

And effort is required. If we—the 1% of us who recognize the current system is breaking down—don’t want to put in the effort into this new system, we will be lucky to retain the ridgelines from 18th century politics. We could be going backward.

The future direction of civilization is clearly in your hands.

And for only 10 hours a month!

Published on Medium 2021

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