Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Larry Darby and the Two Party System

Why bother with Larry Darby? He's just another southern-politician Holocaust denier. Well, there are two things that make him a bit more distinctive: he claims to be a Democrat, not a Republican; and he recently lost the Democractic primary to be their candidate for Alabama attorney general, but got 43% of the vote. And there's a third: the state's Democratic Party has banned him.

It's that last point that I want to talk about here. Mr Darby has this to say about it:

"This is the typical heavy-handed behavior of the Alabama Democratic Party for the last 30 years," Darby said. "They're censoring me for having the wrong views."
Are they "censoring" him? That question gets to the core of what political parties are — and aren't — and what they should be.

No one is stopping Mr Darby from airing his political or social views. If he wants to "[deny] that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust during World War II" or "[call] for martial law and the posting of troops on interstates entering Alabama to check for illegal immigrants," he is welcome to do so. He can run for public office on those platforms, and none but the voters will stop him (and we can only hope that the voters do). But he has no right to expect a group whose platform disagrees fundamentally with his to embrace him. Their refusal to do so is in no way censorship.

And that's the purpose of the party: to provide a basic set of political views with which politicians (and voters) may align themselves. For the politicians, there's a mutuality requirement: the politician must accept the party's platform and associate herself with the party; the party must accept the politician and acknowledge her association. When it works that way, there's a meaning to it, and voters can use those associations to help them make their decisions.

And that's all the parties should be today.

But it's gone terribly wrong, giving the two major parties far too much control over the election process. Let's consider the field of candidates in the 2000 presidential election. On the Republican side, we had George Bush, Elizabeth Dole, and John McCain. For the Democrats, there were Al Gore and Bill Bradley. And various folks were running as independents, including Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Three of those — Ms Dole, Mr McCain, and Mr Bradley, worthy and able candidates all — were eliminated by their parties, because each party presents one candidate to the voters. Why?

We should have had an election in November 2000 that included all of those candidates, and the hundred-million-ish voters who came out for the general election should have had the choice. Instead, a few primary elections in some non-representative states thin the herd (that along with various financial issues, but that's for another essay) and give the voters a sparser selection.

Apart from that, there's essentially no chance for an independent candidate to win in these major elections. Ralph Nader was able to affect the election results, but could not be the winner. Even Ross Perot, an unusually successful independent candidate in 1992, got less than 20% of the popular vote and won no states' electoral votes (hm, also a topic for another essay). The two major parties are just too strong.

What's wrong with having two too-strong parties?

  • It gives the voters less choice. Primary elections generally have a terribly poor voter turnout, so even at the state level it amounts a very few voters making choices for the many. And, as I said above, in the presidential election they result in candidates dropping out before your state even gets to try. Also, many who would run for office choose not to, because they can't negotiate the party power structure, and they know they'll just waste money, brains, and time,[1] and lose as independents.
  • It prompts voters to vote for the party, rather than for individuals and what they stand for, promise, and do.
  • It gets us focused too much on single issues. There are lots of issues out there, and, as we often see in the primary election races, when there's a rich field of candidates — and especially when several of them agree on most things but differ on a few — those issues come out, are discussed, and feed the voters' decisions. By eliminating too many candidates, we eliminate discussion of many important issues in favour of one or two that the parties pick as their stakes in the ground. When George Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo as governor of New York, the main issue was the reinstatement of the death penalty. Governor Pataki did many other things, including making tax changes, and such, and I heard a news item in which his supporters complained, "I didn't vote for that!" Yes, they did; it's not about just one issue.
  • It encourages voter stupidity. If you don't have to think about the issues or the candidates, and you can just "vote Democrat" or "vote Republican", then you can be uninformed. During the Clinton/Dole election in 1996, I heard NPR ask someone why she supported Senator Dole. "I like what he stands for," she replied. So they asked her to name a few things he stands for that she likes. She paused and hemmed for a moment, and then said, "He stands for a lot of good things." That's not an informed voter. That's not a smart voter.
  • It locks up the legislature. Anything controversial that comes up winds up being a dogmatic fight along party lines, rather than reasoned discussion among a legislature of individuals with individual views. Just look at what's gone on in congress for the last ten years and you'll see what I mean here.

But, one might argue, many people don't have the time (or interest, or intelligence, or whatever) to become informed, so the parties give them a way to do it by proxy. Personally, I would rather that the uninformed not vote. If you can't or won't be aware enough to make a proper choice, why should you have a say?

One might also argue that if all nine Democratic candidates who were in the Iowa caucus in 2004 had stayed in the race until November, King George would have won the election by a much larger margin than the tooth-skin that he got. The parties keep things from getting too fragmented, and actually work to reduce the advantage of the incumbent. This one has some validity, and I don't have a good answer for it. I think it's somewhat meliorated by the possibility that if Bush had not had the Republican nomination automatically, others might have run with "Republican" alignment, and that would have changed things too. But I really am not sure what to do about this point.

I do know that we need some major reform in our two-party system.

[1] From my favourite acronym, WOMBAT: Waste Of Money, Brains, And Time.

1 comment:

Jim Fenton said...

Sounds like they're censuring Mr. Darby, not censoring him.

The n-candidate issue, which is some of what the 2-party system addresses, is a really interesting game theory problem. Unfortunately, the alternative solutions one might think of (run-off elections, preference voting, etc.) all have some bad characteristics. The question is whether those problems are worse, or not as bad, as those we already have.

It's probably just an academic exercise, however; the party system is a well-established, self-defending organism which will not go away any time soon.