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Let's Have an Honest Debate About the Role of Parties

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In the wake of the resounding victory of Proposition 14 at the California polls on June 8th, advocates of continued partisan control of our electoral process have begun to marshal their arguments in an attempt to close the breach CA voters opened in the partisan citadel.

Proposition 14 abolished party primaries and replaced them with a system known as "top two." All candidates will appear on a single ballot in a primary election in which all registered voters can participate and candidates can list party preference. The two highest vote-getters face off in the November general election. A similar reform is now under consideration by a New York City Charter Revision Commission, which has the authority to put it before the City's voters in the November 2010 or 2011 election.

The pro-party argumentation -- laid out in syndicated columns last week authored by George Will and David Broder, along with Errol Louis' column in the New York Daily News -- goes as follows. The political parties, they say, are central to our democracy as vehicles for voter education and mobilization, and the selection of candidates who represent their members' preferences. Their right to do so is protected by the First Amendment, as is the right of citizens to form parties to advance their common interests. Without parties, we are told, billionaires and unchecked special interest groups will come to dominate our political system.

At the core of this position is a legal and logical sleight of hand that conflates the right of the people to form parties (and other associations like labor unions) to advance common interests with the control of the electoral system by the parties. The two are not the same. One is a right of the people; the other is a right of the parties. And, of course, we now find ourselves in a situation where the right of the people to determine how our political system functions is at odds with the parties and their assertion of the right to control the nominating process. In a democracy, there can be no doubt as to whose interests are more fundamental and worthy of protection.

Further, "top two" does not prevent the parties and their members from associating and working to advance their interests. They can endorse candidates, they can urge citizens to vote for them, they can say which candidates truly represent the party and which express a party as their preference, but are at odds with what the party stands for. What has been taken away is the selection of the candidates who appear on the general election ballot by a system of partisan primaries in which the outcome is determined by core party activists who represent, in most cases, less than 10 percent of the electorate, and from which increasing numbers of Americans who prefer to be nonaligned are excluded.

As for the dire warnings of special interest dominance, one must ask, do not the special interests already dominate our political process? And, are not the parties the vehicle by which lobbyists get their business done? Why not make things more honest and more open by allowing these special interests to compete directly in the electoral arenas along with other players, including the parties?

Also suspect are the warnings about the dominance of our political process by wealthy individuals. Wasn't it California Democratic Party leader Jesse Unruh who said, "money is the mother's milk of politics?" And Michael Bloomberg and John Corzine used their wealth to win election to citywide and statewide office in New York and New Jersey under partisan systems. John Paul Stevens, noted in his dissent from the controversial Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S. Ct. 876, 940 (2010), (allowing unlimited spending to support candidates by corporations and labor unions), that a likely consequence was to loosen the hold of the two major parties on the electoral process.

Would it be unduly cynical to say that what the parties and the partisans are really upset about is that under the new Citizens United/top two framework, the money could be spent directly on the candidates and would not have to be funneled through the parties; and that the candidates, once elected, would not be beholden to the parties and dependent on them for re-election? Now, one might think this is a good thing. The voters of California thought it was. Others may disagree. Let's have an honest dialogue.

Let's not obscure the fundamental right of Americans to determine through the ballot how they want their political system to function. And let's not forget that it was the partisan system in recent decades which has brought us three unpopular and unsuccessful wars, a near economic collapse and long term chronic unemployment, an energy non-policy that has just produced an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions, and a public discourse in Washington, and in Albany and Sacramento, that has more to do with which party scores points than what is good for state and country.

Errol Louis goes so far as to argue that "top two" and other anti-party measures are un-American. George Washington cautioned in his farewell address "against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally... It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy." Ain't he an American?

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