Where is America going?
In June, 2010, California voters passed Proposition 14, which instated an open primary system that allowed 3.5 million non-party identifiers, or independents, to vote. Before Prop 14, these independents could not participate in any political party’s primary, which were open only to party members.
But in March, 2011, a US Federal District Court declared Idaho’s open primary system to be unconstitutional, thus compelling the state to employ a closed primary. The ruling is stated in the case of Idaho Republican Party vs. Ysursa.
In that case, the Idaho Republican Party sued the Secretary of State, Ben Ysursa on the grounds that the state’s open primary system violated the party’s freedom of association rights, which are guaranteed by the First Amendment. Because the primary elections were open, non-Republicans could vote within that party’s primary. As a result, the candidates who were nominated for the general election were not the ones that the party members really wanted. Also, the policies of these candidates were just watered down versions of what “true” Republicans wanted to see followed. The Republican petitioners testified that these candidates were too moderate for the authentic party members.
Declaring, in part, that “choosing ideologically extreme candidates is precisely what a political party is entitled to do in asserting its right of association under the First Amendment” (at page 16), the court held that the right of the Party to preserve its integrity was being violated by the Idaho law.
For me, this case raises some interesting questions about the values implicated in the court’s decision. To explain what I mean, I will begin by asking a couple of questions that were not discussed in the court’s written opinion. Then I will show how these questions help to clarify my reading of the opinion.
Facts and Values
What is a “political party”? Can you see it walking down the street? Can you hit it with a stone? Can you make love to a political party? No, of course, to all three questions. A political party is a conceptual abstraction, an idea. People identify with the idea of “their” party, and this influences how they think about political issues, and how they behave in the world, by voting, or contributing money, or going to meetings, etc. Some folks will even declare “I AM a Democrat,” or “I AM a Republican.” But these strong feelings do not make a “party” anything more than an idea in their heads, which they share with many other individuals.
By contrast, what is a “person”? A person is a real being. You can see a person walking down the street. You can hit a person with a stone, and they might bleed, and you might get in trouble with the law. Of course, persons make love all the time, and produce more of their kind. In other words, a person is a concrete and physical reality, unlike a political party, which is an idea in the heads of persons.
The Natural Order of Values
This distinction has implications for civic morality. Ask yourself, what is more important in your scale of values – a person, like yourself, your mother, your brother, etc., or a political party? My intuition tells me that persons are more important, or more valuable, than abstract concepts like a political party.
There are certainly other opinions on this matter. A fellow with extremely intense feelings might proclaim, “for the good of the party I will murder,” or “for the good of the party I will gladly die.” But that does not make the party any less of an abstraction, or that confused fellow any less of a real being.
I think the guy who says these things is “confused” because his proclamations seem topsy-turvy to me. He makes an idea, or abstraction, more important than another real human being, and would kill what is real for some imagined good of the abstraction.
I cannot prove this using the methods of natural science, but my intuition tells me that, in all cases, real people, or persons, are more important than imagined abstractions in the minds of persons. Put as an “axiom,” or value premise, the principle would be that actual persons are more important than mental abstractions. Any reversal of this logical order seems topsy-turvy, even unnatural, to me. For me, at least, there seems to be a natural order of values, which puts people above ideas.*
Sometimes it might appear to be necessary to kill other folks in the name of an abstraction. “Freedom,” “democracy,” and “justice” are abstractions, but sometimes killing others for the good of the abstraction seems like the necessary thing to do. In such cases, it might be “necessary,” but to me the killing would still feel topsy-turvy and regrettable. So, if there is a natural order of values, there may be times when necessity requires that the order be violated; such as in a revolution when oppression must be stopped, and liberty (an abstraction) instated. WWII is called “the good war,” because it was clearly fought in the name of high abstractions; nevertheless, who does not regret the enormous loss of life?
Having this logical order of values in mind, situations and events can be clarified as to the order of values in them. If a topsy-turvy confusion of values is found, one can then assess whether or not the contradictory order of values was justified by necessity. The recent judicial decision rendered by the federal court in Idaho is an example.
As I have mentioned, that court declared Idaho’s open primary law unconstitutional. The judge found that the state’s law violated the right of the Republican Party to determine its policies without the interference of non-party outsiders.
At first reading, it may seem that the judge’s ruling favored persons over abstractions, and was therefore a correction of a topsy-turvy condition. That is, Idaho’s open primary law – an abstraction – was limiting the freedom of the Republican Party members – real people – to determine their own party’s policies. He found this constraint unjustified by any necessity, and held it unconstitutional. Judge Winmill envisioned that, as a consequence of his decision, persons identifying as “Republicans” would have more freedom to shape their party’s policies and to pick its candidates.
However, the judge’s vision of the consequences that his decision would have seems too narrow to me. He has failed to take into consideration the interests in freedom and democracy of all the other people who live in Idaho. When these folks are considered, the decision itself becomes a topsy-turvy placement of an abstraction over the value of these persons.
By requiring Idahoans to follow a closed primary system, the court has caused two consequences that its written opinion did not consider. One is that the decision will deprive many voters of the freedom to vote which they had had under the open primary system. All those non-Republican identifiers who refuse to declare that they are “Republicans,” will be denied the vote in Republican primaries.
As Judge Winmill noted, the Republican Party is by far the dominant party in Idaho. The vast majority of top jobs in the Idaho government are held by Republicans. Thus, if a person wants to participate meaningfully in the democratic process in this state, he or she will have to participate in that party’s policy making and nomination processes. That is precisely why many non-Republicans did participate in the Republican primary – it was the only way to engage in self-government. But now, to do that, one will have to declare oneself to be “a Republican.” There’s the rub (as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet).
The second unanticipated consequence is that this decision has thrust many folks into a moral dilemma that did not exist before the ruling. Before the ruling, in the open primary, anyone could vote in any party primary – even if the voter had not declared membership in a political party when he or she registered to vote. In fact, Idaho does not require a declaration of party or non-party membership when folks register to vote. So long as one is eligible to vote, one merely registers as a voter.
Now, however, non-party identifiers, or independent minded folks, cannot vote as freely as they used to, and must make a difficult decision that they did not have to make before the federal court handed down its ruling.
Suppose one agrees with only three planks in the Republican 12 point platform, and disagrees strongly with the other planks. One may feel that one is being untrue to oneself by declaring that “I am a Republican.” Thus, one must choose between either lying about oneself, so that one can participate in self-government (which is every American’s birth right), or remaining true to oneself, refuse to say “I am a Republican,” and suffer disenfranchisement.
When California had a closed primary system, 3.5 million voters were denied the right to vote in primary elections because they remained true to themselves as “independent” thinkers. If they had wanted to vote in any party primary, they would have had to lie about themselves when they registered to vote, and declare, under oath, “I am a Democrat,” or “I am a Republican,” etc., even though they did not truly see themselves that way. In effect, they were punished for their honesty.
California Proposition 14 instated an open primary system, freed the voter from this moral dilemma, and enfranchised 3.5 million folks in the primary elections.
Now, Idahoans who remain true to their personal integrity will be faced with the same moral dilemma that Californians had just gotten rid of. So, what is an Idahoan to do? Keep one’s moral integrity, and be barred from participating in the democratic process? Or, violate one’s moral integrity and declare “I am a Republican,” when one really doesn’t see oneself that way?
The Value Contradiction
The court’s decision, then, raised the right of a political party to control its inner workings, over the right of all non-Republican identifiers in Idaho to participate in self-government. Now, non-Republican identifiers can only participate by being untrue to themselves; but this, like a poll tax, seems an onerous burden to place upon them. So, as a matter of value logic, the court has valued an abstraction over its value of persons.
Finally, as a matter of personal judgment, one may ask oneself whether the disenfranchisement of so many real persons in Idaho is justified by the court’s grant of priority of rights for an abstract entity called the “Republican party”? And, as Shakespeare also wrote, that is the question.
William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
*In his book Progressive Logic, the author applies this conception of “the natural order of values” to several issues in American politics and culture. Other posts of his on issues of interest to independents, and Prop 14, can be found here