The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fixing Our Primary Problem

As President Obama begins his re-election campaign, he's walking a line between exciting his base and keeping swing voters, while simultaneously wooing the business community whose big dollars underwrite modern campaigns.  I've read many comments on Facebook expressing shock or outrage at one thing or another that the President may be planning to do, and I find myself wondering: so what if he does?

It's not that I'm indifferent to policy decisions.  I'm just being realistic about the politics.  If you're a progressive or especially a liberal, you don't just want Barack Obama to be re-elected.  You actively fear what Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich would do in his placeespecially Gingrich, because as I explained a few days ago, there's far more reason to think that he would follow through on his promises.

So if Barack Obama decides to break with your preferences and and go another way, what are you as someone on the left going to do?  Stay home?  Is it more important to you that you risk every major government social program being outright eliminated by a President Gingrich than that you help President Obama get re-elected?

Not likely.  Threatening to abstain out of indifference works well for people who are truly in the middle, because neither candidate usually appeals to them all that much.  The farther that one strays from the political center, though, the more that it's a matter of staving off defeat rather than claiming victory for one's own positions.  This is America's primary problem, where people who feel passionately are forced to accept candidates whom they realize don't represent their ideals but whom they are fairly sure are closer to them than the opposing candidates.

Restoring Choice

We could fix this by requiring all major partiesI'll say "all" on the off-chance that we were ever to get another, but I am at this point talking about Democrats and Republicansto run primary challengers.  Democrats who think that Barack Obama has been insufficiently progressive should be able to make that known by backing someone with a stronger committment to progressive ideas.
 
Does that mean that a sitting president could be dropped by his or her own party?  Sure it does.  But that's happened before.  What I'm talking about is mandating that the party processes include a chance of it, rather than requiring a full-out revolt.  I'm saying that the party in power should be required to go through the same process that the party out of power does.

Restoring Balance

Just as important as who we get to vote for is how we decide who will be on the final ballot.  The current system that gives preference to a handful of always-the-same states known years in advance is silly and tends to deliver as finalists people who many Americans did not want, while eliminating some who were better choices.  We've seen it play out this time around for the Republicans as it always does:
  1. The Christian conservative draws big in Iowa's caucuses before a pragmatist wins New Hampshire.
  2. Negative ads come to bear and deliver South Carolina to the big money. 
  3. In Florida, everyone scrambles to moderate his or her message, and whoever can do it the best walks away with the win.
We should scrap that whose process.  Instead, let's divide the country into three blocks

At the beginning (January 1) of an election calendar year, we draw the member states of each block using a lottery system.  February 1, the first block votes en masse.  March 1, the second follows.  April 1, the third wraps it up, and before May, we know who is running.  Better, since no one knew in advance which states would matter, any candidate seeking the nomination had the same amount of time to get his or her message out and convince people. 

Even if you're in Group Three, your state is likely to matter.

Conclusions

Some might think that "messing" with the parties' internal workings is somehow an infringement on their freedoms.  Others might think that for the Federal government to prescribe the primary order, whether by lottery or other means, is unfair.  I disagree. 

Certainly, these changes would require Constitutional amendments.  But why should that be such a high hurdle for such an important issue?

America has written in election laws in ways that overwhelmingly favor the two major parties.  We need to accept that they are de facto arbiters of our entire system of government.  In that context, the people of the United States have every right to insist that the parties offer them real choices.  A democracy based on a slate of pre-selected candidates is hardly free and open.  Without changes like these, we have little more than an Iranian-style Guardian Council, where only those deemed acceptable to the elite are permitted a chance at being heard.

Look at the partisan gridlock that what we do now has delivered.  Is this what you want?

2 comments:

  1. I have to disagree; the issue with this is it means only a candidate who is rolling in money would be able to do the wholesale campaigning necessary to be competitive.

    The suggestion here about utilizing Delaware as the first state makes a lot more sense than three large blocks.

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    I see Iowa and New Hampshire not so much as choosing as winnowing out the weakest contenders. They are both states that you can do door to door politics which is the easiest/cheapest form to do - no need for huge ad buys, don't need an incredibly competent on the ground team. So it shakes out the bugs in the system and gets rid of the chaff. South Carolina and Florida, on the other hand are large expensive races.

    What is interesting is watching how Citizen's United is allowing contenders to stay in longer than they used to be able to - no clue how that is going to affect the dynamics of the race, at least initially it looks like a longer race, which in general, I think is better for the country (if worse for the party as a rule).

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  2. I'm a native Delawarean myself and agree that Delaware is far more likely to represent the national norm than Iowa. However, I challenge the implied claim you're making here that someone who doesn't have the money to run a national campaign coming into an election year can somehow transition to election success if he or she competes first in a "retail politics" market (i.e. a small state).

    Iowa and New Hampshire "weeded out," all right: they eliminated Jon Huntsman, who was by far the most articulate and visionary of the Republican candidates, in favor of moving forward Rick Santorum, whose odds of national election are virtually nil.

    I don't necessarily think that the three-blocks model would solve our problem unto itself, but when paired with the one-month-out timing of the lottery, I think it would. Anyone running for President needs to seek national coverage. In such a short time, there'd be no way to tailor dozens of expensive, nuanced ads for each state to hear what its polls say people want. People planning to vote would get some directed ads, of course, but they'd also watch the national debates to inform their positions, and the "blocks" model would reduce the "vote for the winner" syndrome.

    I also favor open primaries with simultaneous balloting, so that one can choose any of the candidates but can't vote on both slates. Coupled with both parties having to run primary campaigns, that'd give everyone a chance and also provide openings for third-party emergence.

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