I was sad to receive a campaign mailer from the Progressive Coalition for Amherst. This isn’t because I’m opposed to their program or have substantial disagreement with their positions on most of the questions currently at issue in the next town election. Rather it is because I see the formation of political parties as necessarily pushing people farther apart. Political parties tend to stifle debate by taking hard positions on the questions of the day. They lead to extremism and resistance to compromise. They encourage the narrowing of opinions to the lowest common denominator of that which is supported by everyone in the party, and work against the expression of nuanced positions. They engage in branding, with logos and abbreviations, which pushes people into the tribalism that has created such dysfunction in our national politics.
Of course, the PCA isn’t the first political party in our local politics. Amherst Forward (AF), formerly named “Amherst for All”, has been engaged in this process from the very beginning of the change in our form of government. It organized and raised funds to support the campaign for the change from town meeting to town council, and by advancing that process ended up in control of town government.
With, up to now, not enough in the way of effective resistance, AF has managed to steer the town in what some consider an extreme change in the direction and speed of development. The forces pushing development were formerly held back, to the extent that they were, by the cumbersome nature and inherent resistance to change of the town meeting form of government. With town meeting out of the way there has been no counteracting force to slow down the program advanced by AF. It’s hard to argue that the chaotic nature of town meeting was the best form of government, but the absence of checks and balances when a single party is in control is worse. The formation of an opposing political party, the PCA, is the inevitable and necessary result.
There is no way in our society to prevent the formation of parties and factions and the tendency toward tribalism and extremism, but it’s not a good thing. The only defense would be the wisdom, good will, and common sense of the people. Would that we could depend on that. I don’t know what a practical and achievable solution is, and it makes me sad to see things moving in this direction.
Lou Conover is a resident of Amherst.