Jan 3, 2004 10:14 am


It's happened again. A House Democrat, though not a particularly mainstream one, changed his party affiliation. This time it's in Texas. Sure it happens the other way sometimes, but it's so rare it's like one of those"exception that confirms the rule" cliches. Even Jim Jeffords only went halfway when he went independent. And why is it always the Democrats who lose in these transactions? (and it is a transaction: the Texan in question freely admitted that the pork was better on the other side of the aisle. I think we're supposed to credit him with devotion to his district and constituents.) There's an old blues spiritual that goes something like"them that hops from church to church, you know their conversions don't amount to much" but usually the hoppers are so" conservative" that they vote with Republicans already. Maybe this"big tent party" stuff is overrated: I'd like to believe that party affiliations are something more than organizational and financial issues. Frankly, I'd like to see the parties close ranks a little bit, start kicking out people who don't have a strong core of ideas in common with the party platforms. That would speed the creation of meaningful third parties... so they probably won't do it.

To his credit, I suppose, this time the guy switched parties in advance of the election. The most egregious one I can remember was Ben Nighthorse Cambpell, from Colorado, who switched party affiliations immediately after the election. If I were in a district where that happened, I'd be very, very unhappy. That's the most brazen form of fraud possible: getting elected to public office under false pretenses. It renews my belief that there needs to be some kind of anti-fraud protection for the public, some mechanism that would allow the voters to remove an elected official who campaigns one way and then acts another. OK, in California there's the recall, but most of us don't have access to that kind of recourse. So what can we do when someone gets elected as a moderate but makes no compromises or concessions to anyone but his hard-core supporters? What can we do when someone campaigns as an independent thinker then votes the party line 98% of the time? I know there's another election coming along, but the point is that the election that should have produced one result instead produced another, and that's just not fair to those of us who are credulous enough to read the papers, think things through and vote.

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/5/2004

Like it says, that should be plurality, not majority, for first election. That's the lowest possible threshhold for election.

The weird thing about this is that the opposition gets a greater and greater chance to be elected, but multiple opponents would make the plurality standard more meaningful.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/5/2004

Good point. I've generally considered term limits to be a lazy way out, but the incumbent advantage is so absurdly overwhelming that some kind of correction is necessary. I think I proposed a sliding scale once: majority for first election; absolute majority (50%+) for second election; super-majority (increasing by 5% per cycle) for subsequent elections.....

Josh Greenland - 1/5/2004

"I'm amazed that the Republican party hasn't split already, between the libertarian and religous wings."

I've read that the two most consistently Republican blocs of voters are people making over $200,000/yr and the religious right. (This was a few years ago and I don't know if it was for California or the USA but I'm sure it's basically true for the whole country.) There aren't enough people making over $200k/yr to win elections so the religious right vote is needed by the more rapacious uppermiddle class and rich people that the Republican party truly represents. This I think is why the religious right is allowed into the party and is even allowed by the wealthy to dominate it, because the RR faction can deliver so many voters.

I know what you're saying about RR versus libertarian. We certainly see libertarian Republicanism here in California with all of our gay Republicans and especially our large number of affluent, pro-abortion choice women. There was a mini-fuss here in California a few years ago when a high-level Republican complained at a well-reported statement that the state Republican party was controlled by RR types. This official then shut up very quickly and there were soothing noises from other Republican operatives telling Californians that this wasn't true, to relax, go back to sleep and forget that anyone ever said anything to the contrary. Coalitions do have their value in war, diplomacy and politics.

Josh Greenland - 1/5/2004

"I think that your argument that Republicans ought to do some house-cleaning on their left and Democrats ought to do it on their right is exactly wrong. It acquieses in the polarization of American political parties which has led to them becoming vehicles for our culture wars and the demeaning public discourse with which we are plagued."

A part of me craves the ideological clarity that Jonathan wants in our two main parties (and I'd love to see that result in vibrant 3rd and 4th parties) but California may be the state with the most polarized political discourse and party politics among ideological lines, and I think those in many ways have not been good things. Every camp is angry and reactive against camps it sees as ideologically opposing, and we don't have nearly enough dialogue across ideological, urban/rural or culture war lines. I think America's modern "angry conservative" template comes disproportionately from California. That Rush Limbaugh and Ronald Reagan got their political starts here is no coincidence. I grant that the hostile polarization may be caused by local factors and that two-party ideological clarification may not cause a California-style political culture in other states.

Josh Greenland - 1/5/2004

In addition to recall, California has had term limits for maybe the last decade. Whatever you think of them, they don't let most politicians skate to the end of their natural lifespans on incumbent advantage.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/4/2004

I don't really dispute your last sentence. But shouldn't you be cheering the move of the congressman from Texas from the Democratic to the Republican parties, if a more highly ideological party system is what you want?

Jonathan Dresner - 1/4/2004

I agree that our political system doesn't seem likely to handle multi-party democracy well. But don't blame it on the Constitutionm, which wasn't designed to handle parties at all: the party system and campaign finance, and the Congressional customs about power-sharing, etc., are all later additions. I don't see why there can't be new customs, new systems which enhance the relatively spare structure of the Constitution. What really bothers me, perhaps more than anything else, is that we seem to be at a point where almost nobody can see alternatives to the present system as viable, and the present system clearly isn't viable for much longer. That, to me, spells decay.

Clearly we are not going to agree on the value of non-ideological parties: I think they're worthless, empty of value and meaning, personality politics with an overlay of dignified corruption.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/4/2004

I don't think you mean that the Democratic Party is literally splitting nor do I, at least, anticipate that the Republican Party will. I suspect that you may have a more positive view of multi-party systems. A multi-party seems unlikely to function effectively in a nation so vast and a constitutional system such as ours. Non-ideological parties would mean that shifts in power are shifts in personnel rather than fundamental policy. That, it seems to me, is a healthy thing.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/3/2004


I'm amazed that the Republican party hasn't split already, between the libertarian and religous wings. Perhaps if it did slough off those extremists, the moderates could reform a more coherent and reasonable party that would draw in some of the centrist democrats as well. The Democratic party is splitting into Old and New factions, as well (not a simple left-right split, but close to it).

And I don't understand the rationale behind including in a party two people who agree on nothing: what meaningfully holds them together? Do they really talk to each other in a big tent party or is it just another venue to compete for resources?

I think the political discourse would be strengthened, not cheapened, if the political parties represented coherent visions. I don't think that precludes diversity of constituency or opinion. Actually, I think it would enhance it.

The politics (and rhetoric) of compromise would also be enhanced if the parties were not large enough to play "winner take all."

Ralph E. Luker - 1/3/2004

I think that your argument that Republicans ought to do some house-cleaning on their left and Democrats ought to do it on their right is exactly wrong. It acquieses in the polarization of American political parties which has led to them becoming vehicles for our culture wars and the demeaning public discourse with which we are plagued. I prefer political parties in which there are large ideological overlaps and mixed constituencies. Jim Jeffords, Lincoln Chaffee, and I were Republicans before these g** d*** newcomers discovered its glories. Take them back!

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