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Party time

It’s probably not the ideal time to write about it, but this Op-Ed by Phil Keisling and Sam Reed in this morning’s yesterday’s Times and this segment on Morning Edition piqued me into talking about political parties.

You see, I’m a Democrat. I think it means something to be a Democrat. And I hate open primaries; when we Democrats get together to decide our candidate, I don’t see why we should give a damn what anybody else thinks. I think people are Democrats because they believe in the same basic idea: that it is a good thing to use the might of the federal government to help those people who could use help, particularly against the power of the powerful. As I understand it, in general, Republicans believe that the might of the federal government is what people should be shielded against. Neither party is particularly extreme about it, not in this generation, although we each welcome those who are along with their more centrist neighbors.

I think the Democratic Party has a reason for being. I think that individuals, when left to their own politics, don’t achieve as much as groups, and besides I think groups are on the whole Good Things. I have my own policy opinions. They’re good ones, I think, but they’re not worth much. They’re worth more if I find people who share them, and they are worth even more if I can talk about them and throw them the hell out when I see better ones. They’re worth even more if I don’t let them blind me to getting something tangible that people can live with. I’ll say it again: without a party, my policy opinions, good as they are, aren’t worth much.

Now, I think that the Party would be better with more people in it, and I think it would be better if the discussion were wider-ranging, and focused less on who would win the next election and more on how to govern well. But I also think it would be better if the Giants were up against the Sox next week. I don’t get what I want; I’m OK with that.

The real question, I think, is whether the two parties dominate the political landscape because between them they really do comprise eighty percent of the electorate, or whether they use their previous dominance to maintain future dominance. That is, are there so few Libertarians because lots of people who might be persuaded to join and vote Libertarian never get the opportunity, or because Libertarianism just hasn’t been very convincing? After the bizarre success of H. Ross Perot, the idea that it just isn’t possible to get non-third-party candidates heard is hard to believe, but then did H. Ross Perot have any ideas? His platform was, if I recall correctly, a combination of protectionism, deficit hawkishness, and personality. None of those ideas was outside the mainstream of the two parties, although neither of the policy aspects was persuasive enough to win primary battles. Still, the genuinely out-of-the-mainstream ideas, such as those of the Libertarian and Socialist parties, remain out of the mainstream.

I think, on the whole, it’s because those ideas aren’t persuasive, and aren’t presented persuasively. The other explanation has merit as well. Note, though, that I’m talking about persuasion, the most important thing in a democracy, not correctness, which is incidental at best. I am a socialist, myself, if we’re talking economics; I don’t want to impose a socialist system on a culture that so clearly doesn’t want it, but it seems more sensible to me than the Market. But on just that point, if socialists can’t make the country want socialism, then socialism would be bad for it. If the Socialists can’t get votes, then why should anybody be bothered by their inability to get votes?

And then, on yet another hand, when I’ve watched debates that include Socialist and Libertarian candidates, it seems clear that anybody with any political talent or skill steers clear of third parties, whatever their policies. So they get no chance to have the most persuasive people argue their positions, and in debates generally look like the amateurs they are. Those restraints are almost demanded by the constitutional set-up of the country. A parliamentary system, with coalitions of parties and proportional representation, could in some ways lead to better and more wide-ranging deliberation (and be as well-governed as, say, Israel?), but that isn’t what we have or will ever have in our current borders.

Look, you can do what you like, of course. Perhaps the fundamental issue is not really one of governance or deliberation, but one of social networks. I think it’s a good idea to be part of a party, even if and especially if there are disagreements within it. I think that the more those parties develop and maintain some sort of coherence, the better it is for the people in them and the people outside them. I think that the more we view voting as something we do together, an ultimately co-operative effort by the people voting with and against you, the more we succeed at democracy. I’m not, here, talking about a path to good government, which would certainly be nice; I’m talking about being Better Together. Really, I think open primaries and inclusion of third-party candidates with minimal support in debates and such detract from the norms of politics, and that those norms are good for us as a democracy in ways that are more important than the implementation of policies.

Which is one of the reasons I didn’t vote today. I’m going on the 2nd, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republicans (and, yes, the Libertarians, the Socialists, the Greens, and the Reforms, and whatever Nader’s electors will call themselves) and say I am voting for a candidate, but we are voting for democracy.



and here i thought from the headline you were going to talk about life in boston 'roundabout this morning...

new york yankees' owner george steinbrenner, terrified that his famous and storied baseball franchise was in danger of choking to death, has strongly instructed team manager joe torre to teach the heimlich maneuver to team players in the coming spring training. "george sees it as a matter of life or death," said torre. "frankly, i think the sox just outplayed us. but it's his team."

No, I think the mistake the Yankees made was putting up that big banner after game three—the one that said "Mission Accomplished".


I think the presence of democratically elected socialist governments around the world indicates that socialist ideas aren't inherently unpersuasive. Likewise the ideas of the Green party.

Nor are political parties inherently good or bad. Right now, the two-party system in the United States is deleterious to the good of the nation, because (a) the leadership of one of the parties is completely corrupt and is doing everything it can to mess up the proper functioning of democratic governance and (b) the leadership of the other party is significantly, though not completely corrupt. Since much of the corruption in both parties comes from the corporate gravy train, simply voting one or the other party out of office will not solve the problem of corruption. The fact that the two parties collude so far as to prevent the emergence of third parties that might offer a less corrupt alternative deepens the problem, as does corporate interests' hold on the media that might otherwise both unmask the corruptioin of the major parties and give third parties more of an opportunity to present their ideas.

If rank-and-file Republicans help to throw an outrageously corrupt Administration and Congressional leadership out of office (or at least out of power in Congress) we might be able to begin the restoration of American democracy by getting the Republican party to recommit to supporting democracy. I think the Dems _would_ clean house if a Republican leadership committed to democracy called them on it. But only the Republican rank-and-file has a chance of reforming the leadership of their party.

Like social "capital" generally, political parties can be used for evil, but on the whole are a Good Thing (in my arrogant opinion). I do agree that both parties are at the moment on the corporate gravy train, which depresses me as I am anti-corporation myself. On the whole, though, I don't think people like me have done much succesful persuading that corporate capitalism is for crap; I'm not sure then that I can blame the parties for being so much in the middle of that particular polluted stream.

As for the socialist/green successes elsewhere—yes, I agree that the ideas are not inherently unpersuasive, but that we haven't yet figured out how to make them so for US consumption, particularly in regard to the individualist bias here.


As a registered Independent (I have been since I was 18), I appreciate open primaries. A definition: an open primary in Vermont means that you may vote in any one party primary, but not more than one, regardless of your party affiliation or lack thereof. Not all parties hold primary elections, depending on the numbers of people running in that party. So.. is your open primary the same thing I experience?

I don't find any of the parties sufficiently consistent with what I desire, dream of, hope for, or find important to feel aligned enough with one to register within that party. An open primary (as in Vermont) lets me think about which candidate is most in alignment with me* or in disagreement, and vote for/against that person running further. Should I be locked out of the initial run-through? Maybe, but I rather feel a caucus fills that party-only idea better than a primary. Maybe I'm making an artifical distinction.

I suppose in some ways this is because I resist being part of/classified with something that does not reflect even a majority of my thought. I suppose that's my love of precision coming through, in a way, as well as the generally introverted nature, and combined with the fact that identifying myself with one group has never been advocated in my family (for example, we never belonged to any particular church or even one religion). I've always been part of multiple and differing social networks. Sometimes that's led to conflicts (e.g., differing groups of friends not really enjoying each others' companies) or even lack of commitment on my part to a group; mostly it's a richness.

I do think social networks (groups) are much more effective than individuals at making social changes persistant. I think that's important. I think working together is also important. I view voting, in the sense of participating in self-selecting government, as something that requires widespread group participation to have a certain level of validity. The action of mutally/self-selecting government is where the root (and the value) of cooperative government lies for me, not in the mechanics of who votes as a bloc.

In light of your immediately prior comment: "socialist/green successes ... not inherently unpersuasive, but that we haven't yet figured out how to make them so for US consumption, particularly in regard to the individualist bias here."

Can this be done as we are? Or does the relative importnatce of individual/common good need to be altered first?

* I am not going to write chaotic good! OK, not there anyway...

On the whole, though, I don't think people like me have done much succesful persuading that corporate capitalism is for crap; I'm not sure then that I can blame the parties for being so much in the middle of that particular polluted stream.

You're letting the parties off the hook too easily, I think. One doesn't have to be against corporate capitalism per se to see that the level of special interest money in politics is corrupting the political process and harming the American people in general. I'd wager that a solid majority of Americans are troubled by it, so it's not that "the people" aren't persuaded that it's a problem. The problem persists because, if neither _party_ has an interest in pursuing a policy reform vigorously, it won't happen, even if "the people" actually support it. That's the weakness of the two-party system. One of the parties would have to reform itself, against its obvious interests, for meaningful change to be possible, or the parties acting together in the best interests of the country would have to overhaul campaign finance laws. Since right now the most corrupt Republican politicians are the most powerful (and this means Tom DeLay, who ought to be impeached and locked up), that's not going to happen.

In my previous post, actually, I was thinking less about money in politics than about efforts by the Republican Party to suppress voter turnout and to arrange the disenfranchisement of voters who likely won't support them. These efforts, to me, are far worse that the parties being on the corporate gravy train.


That's the open primary I mean. I understand why you would want them, I just don't understand why I would. The party (which I am part of) is choosing its candidate; you (as you said) don't think that party represents a majority of your thought. Why, then, should the party invite you, who disagree with it so strongly, to help it choose its standard-bearer?
Part of the problem is that we (the parties) let the state run the primary elections; we gain a tremendous amount of legitimacy and transparency and so on, but we allow people to think that the primary process is somehow about the electorate generally rather than an essentially private matter (albeit carried on in public). It's complicated, of course, but in general, the open primary works to the advantage of people such as your own good self, independent and concerned, and to the detriment of people like my own self, committed to the party and eager for the benefit of the party as well as of the country.

The parties are run by people (except for the Republican Party, which is run by lizards from outer space)(strike that). If people persuasively have an interest in any particular reform, the parties will in their own interest adopt that reform. If people within or outside the parties can't shift the parties, then the parties are not working properly. This may be the case. I don't see it in my own party; I do see it in the Republicans. But then, I'm a Democrat.
I do agree that voter suppression is beyond the pale, and that the allegedly honorable Tom Delay should be impeached, publicly tried, and if he is found guilty of a fraction of the shit I’ve been hearing about locked up for a good long time. And you would think the ordinary Republican, committed to Republican principles and the future of the Republican Party would think so, too. But then, I’m a Democrat.

The problem both of my answers come up against, though, is that the system is designed (and incredibly well-designed, I think) to work with a knowledgeable concerned electorate. It was designed for the leisure class, actually; the expansion of the franchise seems to have failed to solve for some rather serious structural problems. The existence of people like metasilk wouldn’t be much of a problem if 90% of the electorate were as involved as she is. Either the parties would shift to accommodate them, or new ones would grow, or at least their political conversations (even if not overtly so) would feed into the conversations within the parties. Similarly, corruption of the particular kind I see in the Republican Party today could only exist in a society where only about half the potential electorate votes, and only two-fifth seem to really care. In previous generations, such practices were routinely exposed and their practitioners booted out of office (and, to our national shame, booted into the Chief Justice’s seat).
Anyway, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem; is the lack of participation in our government caused by (real or perceived) lack of responsiveness in the parties, or is the party system coasting on the indifference of the populace. At any rate, as Chris implies, it will be hard to reform the parties without an influx of interest.


you (as you said) don't think that party represents a majority of your thought. Why, then, should the party invite you, who disagree with it so strongly

There's a difference--subtle but vital--in a party [platform] not representing a majority of my opinions (relative to another party) and a strong disagreement.

Part of the problem is that we (the parties) let the state run the primary elections; we gain a tremendous amount of legitimacy and transparency and so on, but we allow people to think that the primary process is somehow about the electorate generally rather than an essentially private matter (albeit carried on in public).

Is that the difference between a caucus and a primary, then? Obviously, I'm one who perceives the primary as being of and for the electorate (perhaps, in my mind, it's our nearest approximation to Instant Runoff Voting?). It's interesting to look at it from another angle.

I still am intrigued by the individual psychological aspects of being part of/not part of a group. But I know beans-all about cuturally determined psyche, despite my nagging suspicion that it's a big bart of the answer to the 'why' of all sorts of things.

More thoughts:

Do places with multiple parties and/or other ways to elect people also have primaries and/or caucuses? And what happens there? India, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Spain, Germany, France, Afghanistan...?

Also, when is the activity of a group private and when public? Is it dependant on the size of the group, the role it plays/effects it has on the wider community, or...? Can there even be any guidelines to answer this (thinking about MeetUps, for, say bellydancers, as well as militias, KKK, political parties, PACs, babysitters clubs, nonprofit groups...)?

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