Today is primary day and 3.5 million Flori

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Baneful Effects of Party and California Proposition 14

I recently received a note in the mail from Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News and the nation's premier third party ballot access expert, asking if I advocate making all elections non-partisan. Richard is a long-standing member of the Libertarian Party, and someone I consider a friend and colleague. We have been in the trenches together for many years combating unfair and undemocratic ballot access laws for independent and third party candidates around the country.

Richard said in his note that my blog (The Hankster)'s imprimatur quote from George Washington's farewell address, warning against the “baneful effects of party,” makes it seem that I think all elections should be nonpartisan.  He included an excerpt from Nancy L. Rosenblum's On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship with an underlined passage:
“Party turned out to be significant: Lincoln's leadership was enhanced by political partisanship, and the Republican Party gave the North advantages in waging war....”
I'm guessing that Richard thinks the issue of how to view parties an abstract one, something that resides in his world of absolutes.

Some context is in order here, in 2010, some 150 years after the civil war. The fact is that Richard and I are on opposite sides of the California open primary ballot initiative Proposition 14. Prop 14, a popular referendum that will be on the ballot in Tuesday's June 8 primary, would create a top-two open primary for statewide elections. I'm in favor of Prop 14 because it would give voting rights (i.e. full citizenship) to California's 3.5 million registered independents, who are currently excluded from the first round of voting unless the parties invite them to participate. For me, the issue is historical and tactical. The disenfranchisement of independent voters is a civil rights issue and one that must be addressed here and now as the damage the parties and partisanship are causing to our government and to our country is alarming.

Richard does not support Prop 14 because he puts party ahead of voters’ rights. And I think there is a relationship between this and his “absolutist” view on the “party” question. After all, each party, and in particular the smaller, more ideologically cohesive minor parties, is convinced that its world view, its stand on the issues is the correct one.

The Geo. Washington quote has become quite popular these days because there is a growing anti-party movement in America that is independent not only of the two major parties, but independent of partisan politics and structures altogether.  Our founding fathers -- rich, white and slave-owning as some of them were --  conceptualized a unique form of modern democracy. And perhaps even more importantly, they lead the people -- rich and poor, men and women, frontiersmen and townsmen, farmers and merchants, to make a revolution.  My positions stem from my activity and are closer to both of these traditional American values. Expansion of democracy and revolution.

Was the Republican Party an obstacle to the expansion of democracy in the 1850s? No, it was a new party that rose quickly to national visibility because of the historic political crisis centering around the issue of slavery. I believe what we are witnessing today in the independent anti-party movement might well be nothing less than a second American revolution, one that is being organized from the bottom up and one that is inclusionary of everyone. History (not the parties!) will tell.



Harry Kresky said...

Like this statement and the dialogue -- important politically and methdologically.

Quetion -- was the civil war and the abolition of slavery the second Amercian revoltuion? Or am I being too abstract and looking for absolutes, or at least definitions?

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

I was going to say that "party rights" vs. "voter rights" was a false dichotomy... but on further thought, I think it's actual entirely irrelevant.

Look, first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting is pretty horrible; it falls face-first into the mud the second that there's more than two "viable" (I hate that term) candidates.

The only logical action that a group (party) of like-minded voters (potential candidates) can take is to collectively support just one of their number... and since FPTP can only really handle two choices, parties will tend to coalesce until there are only two "viable" (arg, again!) options.

The ONLY purpose of a political party is to hold a primary.

But I guess if you believed that you have a "right" to participate in a self-selected groups internal decision process, despite refusing to join their free-to-join group, supporting prop 14 could make sense...

But that's beside my point, which is that the problem with prop 14 is more that it makes the primaries not an internal decision process, but PART OF the electoral process. It takes away this group, this party's, ability to maximize its potential in the election.

In many ways, primaries already are part of our electoral system, and the proliferation of restrictive ballot access laws is strongly to blame. But it's only further entrenching an already-extent two-party system. But I think it's unfair to characterize concern over that as being against "voters rights". It's an on-going struggle, Winger's fight to keep the meager hopes of third-parties alive in the fast of FPTP's incompetence coupled with the two dominant parties attempts to ingrain themselves within the body of election laws.

And you can say you're for "voters rights" all day long, but it doesn't win elections. When was the last time an independent candidate--an ACTUAL one, not an elected Democrat or Republican who was behind in, or who lost, a primary and went on to further wins--actually won an election in this country? What's it matter what rights "voters" have if it only ever ammounts to one of two parties winning?

Everyone wants the "best" candidate to win. And there is no "perfect" voting system (at least, not one based on ranked-order ballots (thank you Kenneth Arrow)).

Empirically, there IS reason to say that a FPTP vote followed by a top-two (TTR) runoff leads to better results (by a hair) than a FPTP vote alone. But there's nothing to show that FPTP+TTR is better than party primaries followed by a FPTP vote, and if Louisianna's experience is any guide, there's strong reason to suspect that the results can be rather worse!

This voters vs. parties rights thing though, I think it's a smokescreen, a distraction, navel-gazzing, obscuring the real goal: an electoral system that can count to three.

And Prop 14 does not serve that goal.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

I've been so dissapointed that so many independents have put their support behind a proposition that does the same thing that the two major parties have been doing to us independents for decades. Throw us under the bus for their own benefit... and now so many of us are getting behind a bill that MIGHT help our cause (which is in no way clear given the track record of the top two primary in other states), but throws third parties under the bus to get there.

Its just sad.

Nancy Hanks said...

Harry, I was thinking that the Civil War was an expansion of democracy, not a revolution. I think we MIGHT be on the verge of a second American revolution in the sense that we are a long ways from having a government that truly represents the people -- all the people, and I think Americans are becoming organized at the grassroots in a new and "revolutionary" way -- without parties. Just like Geo. Washington suggested! - NH

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

You can't be serious...

If people are free to associate, they gather along ideological lines and organize. This is a right in any free nation, to freely associate and organize.

And the difference between a political party, and a mere political faction, like the CAIVN or CUIP, is window dressing and whether or not they've filed certain forms with the authorities. All are ideological groups organizing for political gain. Whether they call themselves parties, or 501c4 political nonprofits is immaterial.

I've yet to see any polling showing that the American people have a widespread dislike of organized political groups in principle. What I have seen is polling that shows that they are sick of partisanship.

You're fooling yourselves if you don't think independent organizations are partisan. An act like this is not a move away from partisanship, it is a cold blooded act of partisanship... using regulation to marginalize factions we disagree with, just because we can and we think it might benefit us.

Thats not expanding freedom... how could you possibly think its expanding freedom to limit the number of people who make it through a primary election to two?!? You don't need to know what a logical fallacy is to see how amazingly absurd it is to claim that this increases freedom.

I made this point on my blog on the subject over at Donklephant... Independents have been bullied around by the two major parties for decades. Now that they're starting to not be able to bully independents around as much, we're turning around and doing the same thing to the minor parties as the major parties have been doing to independents for so long.

Its shameful.

mikey said...

it seems like a classic straw man argument to make the accusation that Rich Winger "puts party ahead of voters’ rights" based on the little bit of his correspondence cited, and to speculate that he views the issue as an abstraction in an "absolutist" manner based on the quote he provided (one of countless examples which illustrate the real world impact of party politics) just doesn't make sense. If anything is "abstract" and "absolutist," it's the constant, out-of-context citing of Washington's omnipresent quote. Fact is, (and similar to what other commentators here cite about the current scene) Papa George's supposed nonpartisanship is a myth; in fact, he engaged in as much partisan politicking as anyone then or since. Like most famous iconic quotes from the founding daddies, they are just quotes, "abstracted" from and pretty much divorced from their real world activity. In fact, Washington's concerns in his expressed disdain for the purported enemies of national unity was the fears he and others in the new elite had of encroachments by (in no particular order) poor people, Indians, slaves, the Spanish, would-be despots--in general, any social strata that might protest that this revolution left them out (or directly threatened them).

As Solomon rightly points out, the notion that CAIVN or CUIP is not as partisan as the most classic cigar chomping old style machine is just not true; if anything is an "abstraction", it's the fine rhetoric that CUIP (and in NYC, the NYC Indy Party) has spouted about voters rights and reform while they have engaged in the most cutthroat, hyper-partisan, ideologically suspect maneuvering for th past decade and a half. Witness the partnership with Bloomberg, and the selective amnesia over his unforgivable attack on, definitely NOT ABSTRACT assault "voter's rights" with his trampling of term limits. As for the lofty claims of transcending ideology in favor of nonpartisanship, democracy and inclusion, I must call bullcrap: witness just in the last cycle the NYCIP's (CUIP's alter ego) well documented partnership with Bloomberg, the state IP, the real estate lobby and other corporate forces as they waged all out war (funded by Bloomberg, who has been the NYCIP's employer of record for a decade) against the Working Families Party (no angels they either) ON PURE IDeOLOGICAL (and class based) GROUNDS--the hapless WFP is a threat to landlords. Again, the pretty abstractions of the CUIP/IP rhetoric turn to dust in the cold light of political reality and practice (as the spanking new NYC Republican elected officials--some tea Party-positive--can attest to, having won their seats in no small part thanks to Bloomberg's money and the assistance of the (abstractly) "progressive wing of the independent movement--CUIP/IP.

mikey said...


So it seems there is now a bicoastal effort to help the rich do away with the tiresome need for the two parties to serve as conduits for the rule of the wealthy; these efforts at deceptive "nonpartisan" reforms in NYC and Cali simply serve--as it is increasingly clear to many--as ways to help fat cats Chambers of Commerce and billionaires to exercise direct control, with the "independent movement" serving as their political asset manager, and in the case of California, as their hit squad against their former ostensible allies in the 3rd party movement (back when, maybe just yesterday, they were championing such "abstractions."
As for the push for nonpartisan elections being the latest phase in the civil rights movement--that's just too opportunistically insulting to that movement's proud history to comment on (although I don't recall too may instances in the civil rights movement where young people were hauled in to pack meetings and boo and hiss people making reasonable comments and raising reasonable concerns about the nonpartisan effort. A fine lesson being taught these young people--if anyone at a hearing expresses a different view--boo and hiss them!
Shameful indeed.