04 September 2009

Political Theory 401: Beyond High School Civics

Over at Square State, I've made some rather long comments on diaries by Something The Dog Said, like recent ones about what it takes to take over the Democratic party and forming third parties.

Something the Dog said invariable reads the relevant constitutional, federal or state law texts or knows what those texts say, and knows how the system is supposed to work on the surface, at a "High School Civics" level. Like Something the Dog said, I am more liberal than conservative, and I have a strong interest in both constitutional rights and our formal political system. Nothing is wrong with either of these things, and this is really a considerable feat given the diarist's status as:

Just a humble (well sort of) talking dog who is lucky enough to have an owner who will type for him.

I assure you that, in contrast, my cat does not give a fig about politics or the United States Constitution, not even cat's rights. The main political issues in my cat's political life are "inside for now" v. "outside for now," and "sleepy" v. "hungry" v. "catnip."

Most people who aren't lawyers, lobbyists or political reporters, and didn't major or minor in government, or a kindred field like politics or political science, who have any reality based clue about the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. political system, understand the U.S. Constitution and the political system like Something the Dog said does. There are, of course, conservatives who believe in a "fantasy Constitution" and conspiracy theorists, but they aren't reality based.

I like Something the Dog said, but a lot of those surface level interpretations of the U.S. Constitution in Square State postings missed the meaning that those provisions have taken on in a couple of centuries of political practice and court interpretation (I made it my habit to supplement those diaries with comments when I could). Likewise, a lot of those surface interpretations of how our political system works lack the insights and understanding of how and why those systems actually work held by academics and political insiders.

One of the important reasons that I am sometimes an independent voice in political discussions (online and off) is because my views on process issues and political tactics, particularly those related to political parties, are informed by empirically based academic political theory, which is often at odds with the high school civics view of the world. This post collects some of the comments I've made at Square State about the political process and ends with some concluding observations about movement politics and the relationship of movement politics to more conventional political approaches.

How Do You Create A New Political Party?

Something the Dog said explains the formal legal steps one has to take to create a new political party and concludes that forming new political parties is harder than co-opting one of the existing political parties, because most existing third parties are dismal failures when it comes to actual results.

My response:

All True, Yet All Wrong.

Your post accurately states the law, and dozens a minor parties try to slog it out this way. But, third parties that take this path inevitably fail.

Third parties that win races do so one of two ways. They either get a good share of existing office holders (or former office holders) from an existing party to defect, giving them people in office immediately, or a dynamic national leader of the party springs up and a lot of dittohead supporters ride that leader's coattails.

In the case of defections, usually they form around some combination of regional/ethnic nationalism or some other intractable national issue.

The party doesn't have to have national support, but does have to have regional support in some culturally-politically identifiable geographic region. They can arise from either a dominant party in a region, or a perpetual loser in a region, but almost never arise when there are two more or less equally competitive political parties.

Probably the most likely place for a third party to arise right now would be in the Northeast, where the GOP is moribund, despite previous strength in the region, with a core of Rockefeller Republicans.

The other way you get third parties is electoral system reform. Every electoral system has a range of parties in any given geographical area that it tends to stabilize at (when it is launched more parties are usually created with most quickly dying out in one or two elections). The U.S. system favors two. Many proportional representation systems favor somewhere between four and nine depending upon the precise details of the system.

How Do You Take Over The Democratic Party?

Something the Dog said then explains the formal process for getting elected to political party positions thereby presumably gaining influence in those political parties.

My response:

This actually does work.

This is essentially what happened in the Republican party in the 1980s and 1990s that allowed Christian conservatives to take over that party.

It is worth noting, however, that change came only after Presidential nominee Goldwater provided leadership for viewing the party as a home for hard core conservatives, and after the "Southern strategy" of co-opting Southern segregationists who had previously been Democrats, was in full swing.

The formula here, as in creating new political parties, is national leadership first, grass roots change to back up that leadership second.

The GOP example also comes with a built in cautionary tale. The Christian conservatives got power in their party, but also lost touch with the party's political base, which ultimately produced a Republican party which did less well in elections, going virtually extinct in its one time stronghold of New England.

Do Political Parties Matter?

How power does a political party's infrastructure (as opposed to political parties as alliances of candidates and elected officials), have?

Someone else making a comment to that post notes:

I'm not sure the State-wide Dem Party is the problem

The main problem with the Colorado Democrats is that the higher-level, establishment politicians are beholden to big donors, lobbyists, State-Lege connections, and their own networks. The DLC is influential in Colorado because they have nurtured these networks.

The actual "Party", i.e. the PCPs, activists, and even state committees, are relatively ignored. The Democratic Party is very strong on Single-payer health care, worker's rights, and environmental issues, but it's like pulling teeth to get Ritter or our federal delegation to actually stick their neck out.

That said, the real ropes to piss up, are the lower-level elections: school board, state House or Senate seats. That is where the Christian right really took over the Republican Party. Yes, they also had a network of extra-Party organizations, from right-wing think tanks, to single-issues like anti-abortion groups, to Christian mega-churches, to talk radio.

For these smaller elections, the PCP and state-house district is where to work. We've had four or five appointment committees in this past year, and because the PCPs did the voting, these elections were all about low-level Party activists, not so much about Party higher-ups or State-level Pols.

A very key place to have influence is in running fund-raising for State Senators and Representatives. A $1,000 house party (10 friends times $100 each) is a huge pile of cash for a State Rep who worked his or her butt off for your cause the past session.

To this I responded:

Colorado is a mixed bag.

On one hand, Colorado's political parties are quite powerful as political parties go.

Colorado's political parties can fill vacancies in state legislative offices held by elected officials from their party, and the Colorado caucus process is the overwhelmingly preferred method of access to the primary ballot. You can count on your fingers the number of partisan state elected officials who were placed on the ballot via petition rather than the caucus process.

On the other hand, in Colorado and every other state, (1) campaign funding is overwhelmingly given to candidates rather than to political parties (in Colorado political parties must also expend private funds to run the statutorily required caucus process before there is money left to spend on advocacy and voter turnout), (2) party platforms aren't worth the paper they are written upon, and (3) voters who aren't otherwise active party members, rather than active political party members, resolve close fights for party nominations in primary elections (the exception to this rule in Louisiana which doesn't have primary elections).

Colorado's state constitution doesn't even allow legislative caucuses of political parties (e.g. the House Democrats) to take positions that bind the members of the caucus, even if the only penalty is expulsion from the caucus.

Also, most municipal, school board and special district governments are officially non-partisan. So, European style political parties that coordinate political action at the local, state and federal level are effectively impossible.

Political parties in the United States are weaker than those in almost every other country in the world, where active party members control the process of nominating the party's candidates, considerable financial power is centered in the political party, and party platforms tend to have more of a meaningful effect.

Political parties were legally gutted by the progressive movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, in response to perceived corruption from "political machines" like Tammany Hall, and have never recovered.

Even if political parties were not legally hogtied they wouldn't be that powerful. Our electoral system automatically favors having two political parties in any given geographic location. This means that to be politically viable candidates have to have the backing of plurality political coalitions before the election, rather than forming them after the election. There are few geographic locations where a plurality political coalition can be very distinct ideologically. Hence, organizations like the DLC which aim for a bigger tent and less policy clarity have an inherent electoral system advantage over, e.g., progressives who want more policy clarity.

Why Not Defect To The Green Party?

A different comment to the post argues

Long, long-time fact: "Democratic Party" is a hollow label for several different parties. Most obvious example: Dixiecrats. Contemporary example: "Western Democrats" in the Mountain Man Time Zone. Another (if you're not convinced yet): Blue Dogs, including J Salazar from our very own SqSt.

Second fact: The two parties, GOP and Democrats, have long been vehicles for corporate interests to buy the government (see: M. Bennet). Slight differences, to be sure, but not profound. Both are stout defenders of the Rights of Private Property, including artificially low rates of taxation on the top 1% of income earners.

The Dog Said would have us believe that there are only two choices here: start a brand-new party, or organize to take over the Democrats from the inside. New Party? Too hard to thread through the maze of BS required to get onto the ballot ... procedures largely designed to prevent a European-style multi-party democracy and to retain a two-party monopoly that clings to the Center (as if this were philosophically the home of the Best Answers, sort of like Adam Smith's glorious Marketplace).

There is, however, the Green Party, which to my knowledge is on the ballot in CO (pls correct me if I'm wrong) and which has been associated with One Issue (not an insubstantial one, btw) but need not be so and is not incompatible with the Progressive agenda on other issues. Might not the Greens be amenable to an infusion of people and support from disillusioned ex-Dems?

My response to this argument is that:

In our system, third parties hurt their friends.

When the candidate with the most votes in the general election wins, even if that candidate doesn't have support from a majority of voters, and there are more than two candidates, ideologically similar candidates split the pool of voters that either one of them would probably have shared if only one was running.

There are ways to prevent this from happening. The primary system was invented to prevent members of the same political party from undermining each other.

Some jurisdictions (even some in the U.S.) require a majority vote to win, and hold a runoff election if no one candidate gets a majority in the first round. A slightly more complex system called "instant runoff voting" (a much better name than the previously used "single transferable vote") has essentially the same effect.

Something called proportional representation, where you use multi-member districts to elect officials, and seats are allocated to parties based upon their percentage of the vote in the district is also neutral to third parties (and allows parties without plurality support in any one place to have a political voice). A variant on this system used in Germany, the Ukraine and some other countries requires a political party to get at least five percent of the vote in an election to get any seats.

One can also have proportional representation by having people vote for candidates in single member districts. Each vote is both a member for that person in that district and a vote for that person's party statewide (or nationally). Parties whose candidates collectively get a bigger share of the statewide vote than the share of single member district seats that they win, get bonus seats in legislature to make up the difference (at least in part).

New York State deals with the issue with a system were one can run in more than one political party at once, providing ideological clarity in primaries, and designated elected officials for third parties to turn to as allies.

Finally, two political parties that have political common ground in our system can agree to concede seats in races where the other party's candidate has a better chance of winning. This has been done in similar electoral systems in Canada and the U.K., but the alliances tend to either be fragile or lead to the merger of the political parties involved. (In Western New York State, the Democratic and Republican parties had a similar gentleman's agreement to alternative judicial elections; Democrat's ran a judicial candidate for a seat in one election while the Republicans intentionally didn't nominate anyone, and the Democrats returned the favor for the Republicans in he next election; perhaps they still do, I no longer live there).

Unless your third party is so on fire that it swiftly wipes out the competition on your side of a political spectrum (as the Republicans did when they emerged in the U.S.), they are not just irrelevant, they are counterproductive.

In short, third parties could be relevant and useful, but that would take electoral system reform.

Beyond Parties

It isn't that I believe that major political changes in an ideologically positive direction aren't possible.

Seemingly against the narrow politics of self-interest, the franchise was consistently expanded in nations across the world, to broader groups of people. In the end, the abolitionists and the suffragettes won, not just in the United States, but worldwide. The Progressive movement, for better and worse, had an immense political impact in what was then viewed as a liberal direction, a century ago (culminating in the ultimate political experiment, Prohibition).

The Civil Rights movement was so effective that most leading segregationist politicians and religious denominations who outlived it ended up endorsing an end to de jure racial segregation and the legalization of interracial marriage. Almost every non-European country has gone from being a European colony to achieving sovereignty and independence, the largest share in the 1960s. In the 1960s, abortion was illegal or highly regulated in the vast majority of the world. Now, it is legal in most of the developed world with only modest regulation. Government safety nets for those in need were once non-existent and are now the world norm. The death penalty has been abolished is most of the world and a minority of U.S. states; in many of the countries and U.S. states where the death penalty is still on the books as an available punishment (e.g. Kenya which just commuted the sentence of more than 2,000 death row prisoners, or the U.S. military), it is carried out rarely or not at all in practice, even in aggravated murder cases.

Women have vastly more career options than they did half a century ago, and domestic violence is now taken much more seriously by the legal system. Gay rights have dramatically expanded in the last generation.

In the United States, today's progressive Democrats are the intellectual heirs to the advocates of these earlier, stable, yet progressive political sea changes. Conservatives, meanwhile, have consistently opposed these changes.

When these issues emerged, they were highly partisan, even though many are the subject of a broad bipartisan consensus now. There aren't a lot of Republicans out there publicly arguing that the vote should go back to being restricted to white, male property owners (although the less overtly racist and sexist argument that the vote should be restricted to those with sufficient civic education is popular among conservatives today and isn't dismissed out of hand by liberals).

Even in the midst of a national debate about health care, where an impotent "public option" has become a poster child for people fear mongering about "socialism" sweeping America, very few legitimate political figures with any actual power are arguing that the taxpayer funded American single payer health care system for the elderly (a classic example of a "socialist" welfare state program), or its welfare state fellow traveler, Social Security, should be dismantled. Socialism is a lot less frightening when encountered at a personal level (something also true of immigrants, homosexuality, and transgender individuals).

How did these big changes come about?

Yes, there was activism within political parties. In fact, third parties were also created around most of these issues. But, ultimately, the real progress came though movement politics. Ideological and political leaders changed people's views in society as a whole. This happened over time, not all at once. It was done with combinations of electoral politics, legislative politics, public interest litigation, private civic action and public awareness campaigns. The mix has differed with different issues.

Movement politics has its own logic. Philosophers come up with ideas. Pioneers in the movement spend a lot of time engaged in futilely banging their heads against the wall, making sound but not light in formal legal and political institutions, and crying in the wilderness. Effective leaders take up the cause and allow it to gain legitimacy with a progressive "vanguard of the revolution," often an educated elite, and gain traction in formal legal and political institutions.

Two steps forward are often followed by one step back. The abolition of slavery and the political gains of reconstruction after the Civil War, were followed by almost a century of lynchings and the segregationist system. Women entered the workforce, outside a narrow handful of professions, a couple of generations after they gained legal and political equality rights. A great reduction in the use of the death penalty in the United States has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in criminal incarceration and life imprisonment sentences. In most of the world, political independence from colonial powers was swiftly followed by autocratic dictators or autocratically controlled political parties that remained in control for many decades. But, after these social and political movements stall and peter out, the cycle repeats itself and there is more progress. And, gains made in a first round of reforms are rarely completely reversed.

Successes in one movement teach the leaders of the next generation's movements organized around different issues how to bring about change. The gay rights movement, for example, has mostly consciously and intentionally followed the model of the Civil Rights Movement. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., the most prominent figure in the movement, who is now a national and international icon, in turn, consciously modeled his approach on that taken by Ghandi in his efforts to seek independence from colonial rule for India and on the tactics of the union movement. He was probably informed by the model of the movement for women's sufferage and the abolitionist movement in the United States as well; his embrace of the term "progressive" that had advocated both causes, is one of the important reasons that liberal Democrats today embrace that terminology.

As these movements illustrate, the real leaders in movement politics often hold no formal position of authority in the political system. Martin Luther King, Jr. never held elected office outside of civic organizations that he helped to found. The Ghandi that Martin Luther King, Jr. emulated was never a prime minister or president. The leading sufferagists were self-appointed.

The flame that keeps these movements going, in both their dormant and seemingly futile stages, and as they gather steam and become unstoppable global waves of policy change, is the power of ideas. Powerful ideas are pilot lights ready to ignite immense political and policy change when enough fuel for political action is present.

Of course, some ideas are flawed and are left behind by history. Eugenics has entered a well deserved period of dormancy. The limitations of a constitutional right to freedom of contract eventually became apparent. The right to bear arms as a political right to violent revolution, as opposed to a means by which law abiding citizens can defend themselves from criminals, has the political irrelevance that this suicide pact of a political theory deserves. There are few advocates for the creation out of new government run churches like the one established for France after the French Revolution, or the established town churches of New England.

There is nothing wrong with seeking political change through high school civics channels. It is a good way to fine tune the existing system. But, it isn't a path to the real political change that many who take that approach crave.

Understood in the context of movement politics, even people involved in seemingly futile or counterproductive third party politics seem a lot less crazy. Third parties exist to provide a credible threat that they will undermine the parties to which they are most closely aligned in order to pressure the party that actually has a chance of getting someone elected to change itself in their direction, not to get people elected in politically significant numbers themselves.

The optimal third party never has to exercise the threat. When it does, you get ugly situations like Ralph Nader's effective thwarting of Al Gore's Presidential bid in 2000. Needless to say, George W. Bush's election, which hinged on a few hundred votes in Florida and one vote in the U.S. Supreme Court (but would have been a win for Al Gore by an indisputable margin in Florida and the electoral college without Nader), did not advance the progressive causes that Green Party voters for Nader overwhelmingly embraced. Indeed, the fact that the third party threat can get so ugly (and liberals have no monopoly on the tactic or its tactical epic failures), is evidence that our current electoral system is broken.

In the mean time, my goal is to focus on the power of ideas, to not limit my horizons to formal electoral or legislative politics, and to continue to hope and work for real change that will be stable because the ideas have been assimilated by society at large.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Case in point, Justice Douglas, as a conservative by modern legal standards.

Michael Malak said...

More fundamental than the two-party winner-takes-all system problem, we get to choose only from people who want to lead. According to Plato, the only worthy leaders are the ones who don't want to lead. Thus, leaders should be chosen in a manner similar to jury duty.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The Bah'ai do that as do some small civic organizations. But, generally, that hasn't proved to be a very successful model for choosing leaders. Even juries choose their own foremen, usually from volunteers.