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I can fairly be accused of being a partisan, not only in the sense of favoring one party over another, but also of preferring the two party system over third or myriad more parties. To that list should perhaps be added parties over no parties. Who, who has thought about it, could be for abolishing parties?
This arises in the context of Nancy Hanks' observation that momentum is gathering to enact an open primary in California. Why would anyone support moving to an open primary? Leaving an existing open primary system in place makes a little sense—sleeping dogs and so on—but actively working to implement a bad system? Its only utility is to produce a kind of ersatz runoff election, at considerable cost to the positive functions that parties provide. (If runoff is what's desired, one wonders, as often seems to be the cases with soi-disant advocates of open primaries, why not press for a real runoff instead of a substitute?)
Of course, saying that begs the question: not everyone agrees that parties are a net positive. Why they are, and why open primaries are bad, are my subjects today.
The great value of the two party system, a matter considered in my post linked in ¶1, is its tendency to anchor government in the mainstream. The need for parties to appeal across the aisle in order to win has tended to exclude the extremes from power. Thus, to give only two examples, in 2004 the Democrats mercifully declined to nominate Howard Dean, and in 2008 the Republicans no less mercifully declined to nominate Tom Tancredo. The left may believe Bush was an extremist, and some on the right may accuse Obama of being one, too, but the truth is that neither are on the fringe of their respective parties, let alone of the population as a whole. In Europe, by contrast, whose legislatures often have myriad parties and thus coalition governments, an extremist party whose views command the support of the barest fraction of the population may nevertheless obtain significant leverage by virtue of holding hostage a vote essential to the coalition's grip on power. See, e.g., Sondra & Stephen Koff, Italy: from the First to the Second Republic 14 (2000); Trond Gilberg, Coalition Strategies of Marxist Parties 45-46 (1989); David Bell, French Politics Today 58-59, 76 (2002). The combination of a westminster or quasi-westminster system with a mutiplicity of parties is truly poisonous.
The great value of parties (as I noted here) is to allow more-or-less ideologically cohesive groups of citizens to work together, aggregating and coordinating the use of time, money, and other resources in service of a mutually-agreed political agenda. This is a good in itself, but it also has a positive externality, viz. the democracy-enhancing function that people are more likely to be politically engaged if they feel that they can make a difference. Parties provide realistic vehicles for the pursuit of their aspirations, thus the sense that those aspirations are realizable, and thus the sense that they can make a difference.
Can these functions be performed by necessarily ad hoc campaigns associated with independents? Yes. But only to an extent, and not so efficiently. And not for the sustained periods required to implement a long-term agenda, either. If we really think it through, we will realize that "[r]epresentative democracy in any populous unit of governance is unimaginable without the ability of citizens to band together in promoting among the electorate candidates who espouse their political views." California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567, 574 (2000)
The problem with open primaries is their effect on these functions. Consider what Justice Scalia said in Washington State Grange v. Washington GOP et al:
A political party’s expressive mission is not simply, or even primarily, to persuade voters of the party’s views. Parties seek principally to promote the election of candidates who will implement those views. That is achieved in large part by marking candidates with the party’s seal of approval. Parties devote substantial resources to making their names trusted symbols of certain approaches to governance. They then encourage voters to cast their votes for the candidates that carry the party name. Parties’ efforts to support candidates by marking them with the party trademark, so to speak, have been successful enough to make the party name … the most important resource that the party possesses. And all evidence suggests party labels are indeed a central consideration for most voters.
552 U.S. at __ (slip op. at 3) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted.) This function of parties expands the ability of rationally ignorant voters to participate in government, and so it, too, is democracy-enhancing. (N.b., rationally ignorant voters. We would all be better off if voters who are simply ignorant declined to be voters at all.) And it is undermined by open primaries.
In this matter, we deal with almost the inverse of Washington State Grange. In that case, the court considered the effect on parties if the state facilitated the ability of individuals to associate themselves with a party on the ballot. In the case of the open primary, the concerns raised by Justice Scalia in the passage just quoted are implicated also, just in a different way: the concern is that if people who are not members of the party can participate in the selection process, the party's imprimatur is compromised. And "[t]he moment of choosing the party’s nominee … is the crucial juncture at which the appeal to common principles may be translated into concerted action, and hence to political power in the community." Jones, supra, at 575 (quoting Tashjian v. Connecticut GOP, 479 U.S. 208, 216 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)).
With a closed primary, the Democrat who knows in great detail her views on issues and policy, but who is not so familiar with the down-ballot candidates (i.e. she is rationally ignorant but not at all ignorant), can participate meaningfully in the election and vote for the Democratic candidates, knowing that those candidates have survived a screening process provided by other like-minded Democrats. (Hence, if the reader will recall the various resource aggregation functions provided by parties that I mentioned above, this one falls under the head of time aggregation, in a manner similar to labor specialization.) But while we might observe that an open primary merely compromises rather than destroys outright this valuable function, the qualification should not obscure the observation's central concession: the open primary does compromise or undermine this valuable function.
To be clear, I have nothing against independents running as exceptions to a broader two-party framework. But society can tolerate (indeed, benefit from) many things that exist as aberrations that would be thoroughly poisonous and unassimilable as normal activities. That the rule has (or will bear, or even will be strengthened by) the making of exceptions does not mean that those exceptions should become the accepted norm. Logrolling, for instance, may grease the skids of a particularly thorny legislative challenge, and have societal utility (a fortiori when done sub rosa) but it would be troubling if accepted as a norm. The filibuster may be another, if weaker, example. Likewise, to deem as a boon the ability of candidates to run as exceptions the two party system is not to say that the normal situation is valueless.
Lastly, while it does not follow that taxpayer funding provides taxpayer right of access—see how far that argument gets you in accessing at the nearest restricted-access but taxpayer-funded military base!—it is reasonable to say that if primaries are to be closed affairs, why should the state pay for them at all? It would not be obliged to do so, to be sure. But it can, see Jones, at 572, and in my own view, it should. While the benefits to society of a stable two-party system are positive externalities rather than the direct intent of the party in selecting its nominee, they are still very public goods that far outweigh the trivial cost of running an election.