Wednesday, November 9, 2011

#ORP -- and #ODP

Conor Friedersdorf has a semi-smart idea for those who are disappointed by Barack Obama but would never consider voting for a party that elevates such candidates as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich into positions of prominence. His idea? "Occupy" the Republican Party. With nothing happening on the Democratic side and the chances that a rump challenger to Barack Obama would probably have little effect other than giving the Republicans a better chance in November, the next best thing to do would be to register as a Republican and vote -- sincerely -- for the candidate who has the best positions on those issues where one believes Obama falls short.

As I said, it's a semi-smart idea. I'm strongly in favor of people getting involved in nomination politics, and for those who really favor Friedersdorf's mix of issues -- basically, honest libertarians -- I think he makes a good case. If you're equally dissatisfied with both parties, it makes lots of sense to pick the one closest to you or the one where you think you would have the most leverage and try to nudge it in your direction. Even if you suspect you'll fail in the short run and wind up voting the other way in the general election. A vote for Gary Johnson in the primaries followed by a vote for Barack Obama next November may well maximize Friedersdorf's voting-based influence, certainly compared to sitting out the primaries altogether. It's almost certainly a better strategy than joining a third party.

On the other hand, I think Friedersdorf vastly overestimates the number of people with his issue profile. The bottom line is that most liberals and most Democrats are either basically happy or very happy with Barack Obama. Sure, they might disagree with him on civil liberties or Libya or banking policy or Afghanistan, but most Democrats agree with Obama on most issues, even while perhaps blaming him for not being tough enough with Republicans.

But the real story here is that Friedersdorf is making the mistake that Ezra Klein has been warning against a lot of late: he's ignoring everything but the presidency. For many voters, a dull presidential primary season on the Democratic side is matched with important choices for other offices, everything from US Senate on down to state legislatures or even the occasional partisan local office. And after all, in most states, the odds are that the presidential contest will be over long before the show gets to town.

If you're a Democrat generally happy with Obama's policy preferences but upset about Afghanistan, in most cases the highest leverage thing you can do is to push your local congressional candidates on the issue, especially if there's a contested primary, but in many cases even if there isn't. Members really do listen to their constituents. But they're far more likely to listen the most to those who are active participants in their own party.

And it's not just positions on this issues. It's also true that candidates are interested in party intensity on issues -- look at Republicans and abortion, where at least last I checked there was a sizable segment of pro-choice GOP voters, but virtually all of the intensity is on the other side, and with it virtually all GOP politicians. Democratic politicians -- including potential 2012 presidential candidates for that matter, but very much including House and Senate candidates -- are right now choosing whether to emphasize climate change or the filibuster or jobs bills or taxes or the public option on abortion or civil liberties or Afghanistan or, well, whatever else is out there. And what they emphasize will be, more often than not, what they'll try to do when they're in office.

So again, the real advice that I'd give to people who want to affect policy is to get involved in their party. Don't just be a voter; be a voter plus in some way, whether it's with donations or volunteer time, whether it's with a formal party organization or a campaign or a party-aligned interest group.

It's tricky, because the US political system is at the same time impressively permeable (so that you can get involved and relatively quickly gain some influence) while, at the same time, the US is so unfathomably large that there's of course no way for one person to be able to see that influence reflected in national policy-making. Still, it is possible to get a different person chosen to run for Congress in some cases, and it is possible to help push an existing Member to care more about some specific issue. And since individual Members of Congress (especially Senators, but even Members of the House) can really make a difference on ultimate policy, those sorts of choices really do matter.

So, yes, Occupy: Occupy the political parties. Occupy the campaigns of party politicians. Occupy organized groups aligned with the parties, or start your own. I would never tell people not to take the sorts of direct action that the Occupy people have been doing; that's part of the system too. But if you're looking for something else or something next, pushing a political party in your direct, one candidate at a time, is a high-leverage choice. Even if it's not the President of the United States.


  1. But for many other voters (such as in Massachusetts where I live) Presidential primaries and statewide primaries are held at different times of the year. (March and September respectively.) As such, people can jump ship for the Presidential primaries and then promptly head back home to the Dems for the other seats.

    I suppose the cost there is that registered Democrats might have more sway over the Democratic Party than independents, but party registration is porous enough that I don't think you need to be a registered Democrat in order to be a Democratic activist.

    (I probably won't make the swap since there's nobody on the Republican side I like, but I've contemplated it since I'd have nothing else to do on Super Tuesday otherwise and I'm officially an independent.)

  2. Becoming a "voter plus" is certainly good advice. However, given the current plurality winner system, while it beats fighting for a third party (which would only work in very few places, maybe nowhere), it still fail in many districts:

    First, there are the districts where the other party is clearly in the majority. No chance to affect the outcome here, unless you joined the other party (and encouraged others to do so as well) to make sure the lesser evil wins.

    Second, there are the districts where your party might beat the other, but only if your preferred candidate loses in the primary. So you vote for the lesser evil again, except that this time, you might get that "electable candidate" to hold at least some viewpoints you agree with, but not many.

    Then there are those districts where the candidate you really prefer would be electable in the general election, but the party faction you oppose is clearly in control of nominations.

    The number of districts left where your plan might work is clearly the minority.

    Proportional Representation might fix that. And you wouldn't need to change the US Constitution, because the voting system for the House (as well as House size) is ruled by normal federal laws.

    I'd like to propose a system that combines local voter choices and PR, so if anyone's interested, I'd post it here.

    Incidentally, the German Constitutional Court just struck down the 5%-threshold for elections to the European Parliament in Germany. So for the next election in June 2014, parties just need to get 1 of then 96 German seats in the EP.

    Given the results of the 2009 EP elections, that means between 3 and 7 smaller parties would also be represented (7 if it the system was kept as-is, 3 if it demanded getting 1/96 of the votes), with the relatively young center-right "Free Voters" getting 2 seats and the other parties 1 seat each.

    Given the way the European Parliament is organized (members of currently 162 national parties combine to 7 factions) those new EP members might actually influence positions of the faction they would end up joining.

    (Note: I'm not saying that the current US political system of checks and balances - I think JB calls it Madisonian - should become more European, just that keeping the House's power while changing the way Representatives are elected might improve things)

  3. My choice is Buddy Roemer. He takes money out of politics and fixes the trade situation, both long term fixes for the economy. Heads might roll for the next 2-3 years, but the country will be better off for it.

    Political Blogs and Hot Girl

  4. I think the Tea Party IS an ORP movement. But like OWS, we don't really know how many are in their camp. And I have to say that it hasn't been good for the Republican party to have the Tea Party occupying them. They've picked some awful candidates and have extreme rhetoric, but don't have coherent plans for improving what they protest about.

  5. Here is the idea more thoroughly argued from a progressive point of view:

    Conor is a libertarian and is backing a candidate in Johnson who has much less of a chance to win the GOP primary.


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