Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Political parties key to the future of grassroots politics

Editor's Note: The Northwest Progressive Institute is pleased to present the following special guest editorial on political parties and grassroots politics, written by Reed Davis.

Dr. Davis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Seattle Pacific Univeristy. He received both his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

Dr. Davis teaches courses dealing with American politics and political theory. He also teaches a summer study course in France.

Dr. Davis has a history of political involvement in the Republican Party. He was Chair of the King County Republican Party for eight years, and also ran for U.S. Senate in the 2004 primary against George Nethercutt.

In recent years, political parties have become punching bags for people who believe they undermine democracy. NPI asked Dr. Davis to write a counterpoint to explain why political parties are indeed vital to a healthy democracy, and lead to stronger grassroots political involvement.

Five years ago, the Supreme Court declared the blanket primary unconstitutional. Astonishingly enough, the aftershocks of that decision are still reverberating wildly across Washington State.

Because the supporters of the blanket primary have refused to go gentle into that good night, voters in Washington State have had to weather one more blanket primary, a Montana primary, the Top Two Louisiana primary system, and a caucus and convention process.

And when the courts rule later this summer on the constitutionality of the Top Two initiative (which voters passed last fall), I believe we will be confronted—yet again—with the Montana-style open primary system. And all of this in just three years.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to designing a primary system that is both popular and legal is Washington State’s historical hostility towards political parties.

As a political science professor at Seattle Pacific University and a former chairman of the King County Republican Party, I have been chagrined to discover that asking the good voters of Washington State whether they prefer the Republican or the Democratic Party is a bit like asking them who their favorite Menendez brother is.

For that reason, I am already bracing myself for the inevitable sound and fury about the injustice of it all should the courts rule against the constitutionality of the Top Two system, especially in light of the popular margin of support that the initiative enjoyed.

But the good people of Washington State need to know that a primary system which actually strengthens political parties—as opposed to emasculating them — would be a good thing, especially for a state that has worked so long to make public office accessible to extraordinary people of ordinary means.

I want to clarify one issue from the outset: When I speak of parties, I am referring to local grassroots organizations dedicated to getting out the vote on Election Day.

In other words, a real party is not a national or even a state committee. Those are professional organizations whose primary function is fundraising; whatever else they may be, they are most certainly not volunteer organizations whose primary function is to mobilize voters on behalf of candidates.

When I speak of the importance of parties, then, the parties I have in mind are the grassroots organizations that exist for the sake of, well, real people, and not political professionals.

It used to be that American politics was dominated and driven by local parties. Those days, unfortunately, are over: politics is now a big business dominated by leadership at the national level.

And that, I believe, needs to change. Parties need to be driven from the ground up—and not managed from the top down—if they are to reach their full significance.

What, then, do parties bring to democracy? First, party labels are an enormously useful cue for voters. It is likely that voter turnout for nonpartisan elections is lower than it is for partisan ones for the simple reason that voters simply don’t know enough about individual candidates to cast what they feel is a responsible vote.

When our hometown of Maple Valley was first incorporated, for example, my wife and I pored over the list of candidates for the newly-created city council.
Now, my wife and I attend one of the largest churches in Maple Valley, we have children who played every team sport in Maple Valley, and we’ve volunteered for countless community service activities in Maple Valley.

On top of that, I had been the GOP county chair for four years and a political science professor for twelve. And despite all that, I stared at the list of candidates, turned to my wife and whispered, “Do you know any of these people?” I recognized absolutely no one.

Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, has recently written that in response to a survey he conducted, fifty-three percent of voters agreed with the statement, “If I don’t know anything else about a candidate for public office, knowing the candidate’s political party helps me decide whether or not to vote for him or her.”

Second, parties convert the cacophonous clash of hundreds of interest groups into what one scholar has described as “a two-part (semi)harmony that is much more comprehensible, if not always on key and pleasing to the ears.”

Now, reducing this enormous variability to two choices may be overkill, which is one reason why some countries opt for multi-party systems.

But I believe that a sane and decent system of representation would be well nigh impossible in a country the size of ours without some system of simplification.

Moreover, I am convinced of this much: those who would suffer from the absence of a simplifying force like a party would not be the wealthy few who will be heard under most any circumstance.

Rather, the losers would those who, as Walter Dean Burnham put it, are the many weak and powerless who find in parties the only effective institution that can amplify their voices and mobilize collective force on their behalf.

Third, parties are a powerful force for stability and moderation. If I hear it said one more time that political parties are nothing more than hotbeds for hotheads, I’m going to scream. Party activists can add: they know that in order to win elections, they must either tame or shut up their own extremists.

I mean, did anybody else hear Pat Robertson all but endorse pro-choice, pro-gay rights Mayor Rudy Giuliani the other week? Robertson simply fell all over Giuliani, gushing that the Mayor would make a “great President.” That’s right, Pat Robertson. Turns out that winning once in a while isn’t such a bad thing after all, even for a Christian conservative.

Fourth, try to imagine a world without political parties. Who wins? Well, for starters, special interests and individuals with a lot of money. As everyone now knows, politics is about name recognition above all else. And money buys quite a bit of name recognition.

Given the decline of parties, it is surely no accident that the number of staggeringly wealthy candidates like Sen. Jon Corzine or Rep. Michael Huffington who can finance their own campaigns has increased in the last two decades or so, as has the number of celebrities and sports figures.

Another big winner is the political professional, the consultant who lives by television ads, direct mail and automated voicemail messages. As grassroots parties decline in size, political professionals must inevitably grow in importance.

The reason is obvious: candidates need to get out their message and mobilize voters somehow. And if the volunteer energy of parties is unavailable to them, then the professional acumen of consultants becomes correspondingly more important.

In other words, as grassroots party organizations atrophy, politics becomes more professionalized and, for that reason, more expensive.

Finally, the other big winners are the news media, particularly television news. If party affiliation is an important voting cue, then that simple fact acts as a powerful check on the news media, which do have a vested interest in encouraging or at least cheering on the decline of grassroots party organizations.

After all, if partisan voting cues decline in significance, people need to get their news and information about candidates somewhere.

In all of this, the big losers are ordinary people. Who but the wealthiest and best-connected has the money nowadays to run for office?

What voter doesn’t flinch when Dick Morris extols the internet as the future of political communication, or when political consultant Robert Squier declares that “The television set has become the political party of the future”?

What has emerged to take the place of partisan politics is a sort of personality-cult politics, or a politics built around stylistic gimmickry and the promulgation of mass marketing techniques.

Perhaps the single most dismal fact of modern campaigns and elections is this: the single best predictor of political victory is money. Period. There isn’t even a close second.

If you doubt the overweening importance of money, the next time you drive into the city of Seattle, look at the skyline and ask yourself this question: How is it that we in King County voted down one stadium and got two?

To all of the virtues of political parties listed here, many more could be added: parties are the glue that holds together a system of separated powers; parties foster a type of civic virtue by teaching Americans the importance and the mechanics of political involvement; political accountability becomes infinitely more difficult in a world without political parties, and so on.

But there is one final consideration that for me overrides all the others and it’s this: political parties are a crucial incubator—maybe even the most important one of all—for nurturing the habits of support and civility among American citizens.

Tocqueville had it exactly right: American elections, he once observed, set neighbor against neighbor, to be sure, but only for a time. In the long run, Tocqueville argued, strong grass roots party organizations are a powerful force that work to promote cooperation and willing collaboration among Americans.

Think about it: we meet and come to know one another as neighbors, as parents, as parishioners, maybe even occasionally as advocates for a particular cause but how often do we come together as citizens, or as a people deliberating and working on behalf of a vision of the common good?

And what other institution in American politics and government does that?

For all of these reasons, we can celebrate the demise of the Top Two system if the court reasons rightly.

The Top Two, you will recall, advances the top two vote getters from either party to the general election.

Yes, you can cross over and vote for whomever you choose in the primary but there is a huge difference from the blanket primary: the top two vote getters may very well be members of the same party.

Voters will then go the general election and discover that all the choices from minor parties on up to major parties were presented and eliminated in the primary.

And given that only 6.6% of the voting public turned out to vote in Virginia’s primary last week, what sense does it make to reserve the greatest range of choices for the smallest number of voters?

Conversely, what sense does it make for the largest number of voters to be confronted with the smallest range of choices?

Interestingly enough, in order to avoid the possibility of members of the same party running against one another in the general election, both the King County Republicans and the King County Democrats (as well as county organizations for both parties statewide) have met in order to nominate just one candidate for the general election.

That not only preserves voter choice for the general election, it strengthens local parties: now a good candidate is someone who is capable of mobilizing, organizing and appealing to the greatest number of real live people, not someone who is simply capable of raising the most amount of money.

We have designed a system that is today exactly backwards: we tend to place our parties at the disposal of the candidate who can raise the most money rather than giving our money to the candidate who proves that he or she can mobilize the most people.

If the Top Two is struck down, we will then by default inherit the Montana system, in which we pick up a party ballot on primary day and vote for the members of that party only.

We’ve been there before and by most accounts, discovered that it wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, I believe that the Montana system, because it promises to reinforce party affiliations, promises to herald a bright new day for grassroots politics.

Restoring the Montana-style open primary may very well put a dent in the personality-cult politics that professionals have crafted and put in its place a decent, open politics organized and managed by real people.

NPI would like to thank Dr. Davis for putting his valuable time and energy into authoring this guest editorial. Readers are welcome to leave comments in the thread below.

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