The rising number of political independents has led to the misguided conclusion that we need to change party primaries so that our choices in general elections are more “moderate” politicians not tied to the bases of either of the two parties. Instead, we need more varied voices within the two parties.
The proportion of independents reached a plurality after the 2008 elections and has remained the largest chunk of the electorate. The latest Pew Research Center poll has 31% of Americans identifying as Democrats, 22% as Republicans, and 37% as independents. The three-year jump in the number of independents has come at the expense of both parties, but more from Republicans than Democrats.
You often hear that this potential party de-alignment is good for the country because it will bring more political “moderates” to government and these moderates supposedly always find better solutions to national problems than those who follow a core ideology of right or left. But, when you talk to voters, the people who call themselves political moderates are often less knowledgeable about issues and solutions to political problems. They place themselves in the middle of the road because they do not know or care enough about issues to ride on one side or the other.
Most of the time when we hold focus groups with moderates on political issues, they are unsatisfying. These voters are less likely than self-described liberals or conservatives to know what they think about health care reform, the wars we are fighting, or the economic choices our leaders must face. A two-hour discussion with moderates is much less substantive than one with a group of liberals or conservatives.
Still, the allure of the political moderate persists. A National Journal article on May 7th by Kathy Kiely, entitled “Calling All Moderates,” described how California and Nevada have gone to open primaries, where candidates from all parties run in a single primary and the top two finishers, regardless of party, get into the general election. The article reports that proponents of this “top two” system “say that party primaries tend to be dominated by activists from the Democratic Left and the Republican Right – not voters likely to choose candidates who can reach bipartisan compromise.”
In fact, an open primary is bound to produce the opposite result. You are likely to end up with candidates in the general election with more extreme rather than moderate views. It is a matter of simple math – with more primary candidates, the fewer number of votes a candidate needs to finish first or second. A primary ballot with 10 to 20 candidates will mean any candidate with a loyal following of 20% can get into the top two spots.
That is just what happened recently, in California’s first try with the new primary system for federal office holders. In May, voters could only vote for one candidate from 16 names on a primary ballot to determine which two would run in the general election to replace Rep. Jane Harman, Democrat from Los Angeles. Liberal Democrat and Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn came in first place with 23%. Second place was taken by a Craig Huey, a Tea Party Republican, Christian evangelist, and business entrepreneur. Mr. Huey’s website, ElectionForum.org, says it is about “helping Christians vote for, not against, their Biblical values.” Huey received 21%, just a few votes more than another Democratic candidate, Debra Bowen, who is currently California’s secretary of state.
The open primary is not the answer to our political problems. If we want our political process to solve real problems like unemployment, a failed health care system, and abuses by Wall Street banks, it will have to be done by working within political parties. We will not find more useful solutions to tough issues if our general election nominees are chosen by more middle of the road voters who do not think much about issues, or in an open primary system that favors candidates who appeal to a small slice of fervent followers.
We need a greater openness to a range of views within both the Democratic party and the Republican party. Both parties could use more debate among people with different opinions, even strongly held opinions.
We should seek not more moderate views but more moderation, to allow different points of views to be heard.
We see it at every level, but especially in presidential races. Republican candidates are afraid to challenge the orthodoxy of the hard right, for fear of being shouted down. Democrats do not run a candidate to the left of Barack Obama because they fear it will weaken him. This fear eliminates many ideas from political discussion.
In the 2000 election, the best way for Ralph Nader to have contributed to the politics and policies of the nation was not to have run as an independent, but to have run as a Democrat and challenged Vice President Al Gore in the primaries. Nader would not have won, but his impact would have been positive rather than divisive. Nader’s stump speech in 2000 rattled off approximately 20 real solutions to national problems. If Gore had perhaps adopted just one of these Nader ideas, it might have provided a spark that might have helped him win the electoral vote.
Fear of true debate is best observed at the party conventions. Not long ago, the best fights at the two parties’ national conventions were over platforms, not candidates. The Democratic platform committees would have many hours of contention over women’s rights, civil rights, the Vietnam war, and nuclear disarmament. There are no more fights over the platforms. Soon, there may be no more platforms. They get in the way of winning.
But without a commitment to act on a set of ideas, forged from fierce debates and then put forth as policy, what is the point of winning?
Voters may be leaving the parties because there seems to be no room – more importantly, no desire – within the parties for debating ideas. Their stagnation as problem-solvers has led to the current de-alignment. I do not know the cure, but I am pretty sure it is not the open primary.