April 25, 2005

Bring Back the Machines?

Ezra's post on third parties brings to mind, tangentially, a topic I've wanted to discuss for awhile but never got around to: namely, the pros and cons of having a "party-based" system of politics versus a "candidate-based" one. Here in the United States, of course, we tend to elect candidates rather than parties, as opposed to many proportional representation systems where you basically vote for a party, which in turn chooses the candidates. Obviously there's some overlap, but the basic distinction holds.

Now one of the interesting things about the candidate-system is that "emotional" or "values-based" issues acquire, I think, more saliency during elections. I've discussed this before in the course of wondering why Europe and Canada don't have the death penalty, despite overwhelming support for the measure among their populations. A rough explanation goes like this: Here in the U.S., a candidate running for higher office can use support or opposition to issues like the death penalty to say something about him or herself as a candidate. It's something of a personal statement, as both Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton more or less proved. In Europe, the death penalty is merely one of any number of issues to consider when voting, so if party elites want to put it aside, they won't necessarily suffer at the polls—in the way that an American politician might by looking "weak on crime," or personally soft, or any of those other intangible character traits that can sink a candidacy.

Now I'd love to see us move to a system of proportional representation here in the United States, or at least a partial one. But that won't happen anytime soon. An alternative, then, would be to strengthen the two political parties here, either by rejiggering campaign finance (i.e. decreasing the limit you can give to individual candidates and raising the amount on you can give parties) or some other method. Give parties free airtime to allocate as they choose, perhaps. We can discuss that later. But the advantages of party-based politics are well worth considering.

For starters, political parties are in theory less susceptible to the demands of special interest money. If candidates receive most of their funding from on high, in the form of, say, some Democratic or Republican election committee money, then they're obviously less likely to seek out local sources of funding that could carry certain strings attached. Funneling money through the party somewhat shields candidates from any undue influence—basically, it's much harder for a large party, raking in money from all sorts of sources, to be corrupted than it is for any one individual candidate.

Second, I think a stronger party-oriented system would allow the two parties to pick and choose the best candidates for office, rather than those who can raise the most money on their own. Whenever we talk about "money in politics," campaign contributions matter to some extent, but I think even more pernicious is the fact that most political candidates need to be, ex ante, very wealthy people. Quite naturally, that leads to legislation—like the bankruptcy bill or estate tax repeal—that's biased towards the wealthy. Many members of Congress no doubt genuinely think the estate tax is horrible because they all have wealthy friends who complain about how horrible it is. Again, if individual candidates were limited as to how much money they could raise, but parties weren't, then this effect would be somewhat reduced.

Third, and this one's the most important, a party-based mode of politics would be more likely to increase voter turn-out, I think. Theoretically, this makes sense. If elections were about voting "Republican" or "Democrat," voters need less information on which to base their choice, and it's easier to decide. You don't have to think, "Well, I like Nancy Pelosi, but I'm not sure what Barbara Boxer stands for, and oh, crumbs, now I also have to have an opinion on the president. What's he all about?" No, instead voting is like picking teams, and party loyalty would rise. Obviously some people will continue to vote split-tickets or independently, and that's fine, but for the bulk of undecideds or non-voters, it becomes easier. You know what the parties stand for and you have a strong reason to go vote.

Seems silly? Well, I have in mind something like the lay of the land back in the 19th century, when powerful party machines would work to organize voters, get people to the polls, employ thousands of election-day workers, and turn-out was far, far higher (among those eligible male voters) than it is today. There were downsides to the machine system, sure, but I think those kinks can be worked out.

Again, I'm not sure exactly how you'd bring back those party machines—this is just sort of a rough sketch—but a whole bunch of other advantages fall from it. I'd rather that elections were about organization rather than marketing. The demise of the new breed of political consultants whose sole aim is to "sell" their candidate is surely something to be welcomed. Read this American Prospect article: "In a 1989 survey, 44 percent of political consultants interviewed re ported that their candidates were uninvolved in setting the issue priorities in their own campaigns, and 66 percent reported candidates to be uninvolved in determining the tactics." Yes, I'd rather have candidates set their priorities based on dictates from on high than on the demands of a glossy personal advertising campaign set by Joe Consultant.

So that's a rough outline of what I'd like to see. The downsides should also be noted. Strong party loyalties could well increase partisanship. Maybe. Also, we'd be less likely to see "maverick" Senators and Congresspersons, since parties would have a greater ability to punish rogue elements by denying re-election funds. Then again, it might force parties to become more pragmatic, embracing their roles as large coalitions of diverse elements—especially since each party would be responsible for its own political image, and would need to win in different regions of the country. So, for instance, in Rhode Island Lincoln Chaffee would need to answer for the Republican Party as a whole, he couldn't just say, "Well, yes, they're a bit crazy, but me, I'm Lincoln Chaffee, I'm personally a moderate." That constraint could end up moderating both parties. I don't know, I'm still trying to work this out, but that's the basic idea.
-- Brad Plumer 2:38 PM || ||