Thursday, March 8, 2012

Political Regulation and the Parties

Scott Lemieux takes on the argument I made that government should back off on regulating the political parties. It's always a pleasure to have someone I respect so much giving my stuff a critical reading. I think we do in fact disagree on some of the issues involved, but I think I should clarify my position a bit.

Lemeiux doesn't have any particular problem with the caucuses as they are (and I'm not as much saying they're great as I am saying that they should be within the scope of party choice), so we're basically in agreement there. What he objects to is this:
But party nominations are different. They are how parties govern themselves, and the parties should be trusted to know what works best for themselves...It should be up to the parties to decide whether they would prefer a relatively high-turnout delegate selection scheme that would put more influence with mass electorates or a system that empowers smaller, more dedicated groups of party activists. The parties are also best positioned to figure out which influences they prefer (including second-order influences; mass electorates give more power to the media, which parties might not like). More to the point, it’s the parties who have everything at stake here, so they should be the ones to choose.
Here's Lemieux:
Given that we have an electoral structure that limits voters to at most two viable choices in most elections, primary and general elections cannot be neatly separated. Barring a greatly accelerated economic recovery, any nominee chosen by the Republican Party has a reasonable chance of being president of the United States. For many House and some Senate elections, the process of candidate selection is the only practically meaningful election given the ideological makeup of some states. Thus, the government has an interest in ensuring some level of fairness in the candidate selection process...
On the other hand, Matt Glassman would go the other way entirely: "I’ll even go further: normatively, there should be no relationship between the parties and the state. As far as I’m concerned, the political parties do not, and should not, exist in any public sense."

I'm squarely in the middle on this. In my reading, not only are political parties necessary for democracies, but  parties must be both permeable and internally democratic for a polity to be truly democratic. So, contrary to Glassman, I do think there's an important state interest in limiting the extent to which parties are conspiracies of some against the whole.

But "internally democratic" can cover a very wide range of practices, and I'd want to see a very light regulatory hand.

So: if parties design procedures which give activists (and other party actors) more influence and voters-as-just-voters less, that's fine with me as long as those voters can, if they choose, become activists. But I'd have a very big problem with anything that says that some groups can't become active party members, whether explicitly or implicitly, and I'd be okay with the state stepping in to prevent that.


  1. I'm coming in a bit late here, so I hope my comments aren't too off-point or haven't already been made. I am rather on your side here -- and one of the issues that rather clarifies the issue is the question of open versus closed primaries. I recently had a discussion with a young politically oriented friend of mine about open vs. closed primaries -- she regarded it as almost a desecration of democracy that Democrats can't vote in GOP primaries and vice versa. I, on the contrary, said that the whole practice irritates me greatly, and that the purpose of a Republican primary (in a year with no contest on the other side) is to find out which candidate Republicans prefer, and that it's highly improper for people of other ideological stripes to chime in and skew the vote. As we were discussing it, I hit on the phrase, "This is an internal party matter," which clarified my thoughts on the subject considerably. I have a friend who is a liberal and has registered as a Republican in order to do his tiny part in causing Republicans to nominate poor candidates -- the irony being, his GOP status prevented him from expressing his preference in the exciting Obama-Hillary race of 2008. As a registered Democrat, I was allowed to vote in that primary. Another thing going on here is that in the US tradition, "party members" are not asked for much -- in some central European countries, as a party member you have to pay dues, party membership helps greatly with getting certain jobs, and so forth. I'm not suggesting that the USA go in this direction, but the benefit of being able to dictate what happens in your favored party is a nice benefit that gets thrown out in an open system. There should be SOME benefit. In any case, a primary election has a double status as a part of the electoral system and as a part of each party's internal system. It's important that the elections be maintained to have the integrity of anything else in the electoral system, but beyond that, it's up to the parties. I think you're right on, the parties should not be expected to change their preferred system because of some external claim that the presidency is too important or what not. The parties know that, and they should be allowed to do what they want to do.

    1. My first friend, the one who was offended at her ability to express the franchise had been denied her in Republican primaries, I feel like the operative conclusion here is, The general election belongs to you as a citizen, it's yours and it is important to safeguard your rights as it pertains to the general election, or any election in your jurisdiction that puts a candidate into office. But the primaries don't belong to you as a citizen, they just don't. They belong to you only as a member of this or that political party. Again, I think this does clarify the issues involved here somewhat. If you're a Democrat, the Republican primary does not belong to you, and you have no intrinsic "right" to demand this or that when it comes to Republican primaries, and vice versa.

  2. If you stop and think about it ... the Democratic and Republican Parties spend about $50 Billion every four years. EACH. When you take into account all the State and even local big city elections.

    That makes them $10+ Billion a year businesses.
    And what is their product?

    Think about it.
    The Republican AND Democratic Party are in essence, legalized Bribe machines to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

    And you really want to defend them?

    1. 50 billion? That sounds way too high.

      I'd say 3-5 billion top end.

  3. I'm with Lemieux on this - primaries are just as important as general elections. If anything should be within the bounds of society's control, it should be how we choose our elected officials and representatives. Where I live, the primary and delegate-allocation process is dictated by state law. Of course, these laws are written by members of the major parties, but relying on state law does limit the potential for manipulating the system... besides, it's the principle of the matter ;)

  4. Professor Bernstein, are you familiar with Smith v. Allwright and Terry v. Adams? The Supreme Court, faced with "White Primaries" in the South that essentially decided officeholders (i.e., a de facto ONE party system), held that these sorts of elections were subject to constitutional scrutiny.

    Obviously the issue here is different, but it's an interesting historical backdrop to this argument.

  5. One possibility to give citizens more choice would be switching the election method for the House to Proportional Representation. That way, citizens could break up the two party system relatively easily compared to now.

    While the Constitution plus amendments specifies that every Senator is elected individually, for the House it defines only the requirements for candidates, that the seats are filled by election, and how the seats are distributed among the states. The election method - one plurality winner per district - is given in a normal law, not the Constitution. (And states had held at-large elections for multiple seats in the past)

    Unfortunately, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress won't change that law...

  6. Good point, Ambi, but we could work to an Amendment that went the other way, too.

    I think the biggest things that need to happen in law isn't control over the party or their actions, but oversight for fairness and legality as well as scheduling that is fair across the country.


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