03 June 2010

Bipolarchy and Plutocracy: Are these our only choices?

Michael Bloomberg should be no one's ideal of an independent politician. The mayor of New York is independent because he can afford to be, having ditched his original and arguably superficial Republican party affiliation some time ago. It's easy for plutocrats like Bloomberg to do without the fundraising machines the major political parties provide. But it doesn't follow that only the super-wealthy can wage political campaigns outside the two-party system. That, however, is exactly what some Democrats in New York City would have people believe. They oppose Bloomberg's proposal to institute "nonpartisan elections" in the city in place of party primaries, and gave their reasons yesterday.

The case against nonpartisan elections appears to be twofold. First, as Bill de Blasio, a Public Advocate, puts it, "It is an open invitation to the wealthy to dominate the electoral process and to be the people elected in many cases." This is the argumentum ad bloomberg, and it depends on a hidden premise. To accept it, you have to believe that the wealthy don't already dominate the electoral process. Democrats in New York city claim that the two-party system, or at least their party, is a vehicle for ordinary citizens to rise to political power. What makes this possible? The Democratic explanation incorporates the second argument against nonpartisan elections. The Democratic brand name is available to whoever can win a primary and confers a kind of legitimacy on the ordinary citizen that he cannot hope to earn on his own merits. As a former comptroller and mayoral candidate, Bill Thompson, explains, "When you hear the word Democrat or Republican it conjures up certain thoughts. To the people of New York it means something special. It means core values and principles are communicated in the party you are in."

These Democrats see elections as something equivalent to an advertising war waged between McDonalds and Burger King. That implicit analogy explains their anxiety about plutocracy. Stripped of the brand name they see as their main asset, they would assume themselves hopelessly handicapped in a public-relations competition with businessmen ready to spend without limit to turn any campaign into a contest of personalities. This anxiety seems somewhat misplaced, since the parties themselves would not be disbanded in Bloomberg's plan, and would retain all their fundraising power. Does anyone doubt that a Democrat can match a plutocrat ad for ad in a major campaign? Ads aren't the concern of the moment, however; ballots are. Partisans have always wanted it as easy as possible for people to vote a "straight ticket," ideally with as little thought beforehand as possible. Their ideal, in many cases, is to have a voter flip all the switches in one row or column without a first thought of whom he's actually choosing.

Intriguingly, at least one academic researcher agrees with the Democratic premise that nonpartisan elections lead to uninformed voting. The Wall Street Journal, no friend of Democrats, summarizes some of David Schleicher's findings, along with his presumption that party labels convey meaningful information about individual candidates. Schleicher is less worried about plutocracy than an increase in ethnoculturally-determined voting, as people try to guess from someone's name whether the candidate is "one of us" or not.

Another academic, MIT professor J. Phillip Thompson, argues that nonpartisan elections may in fact make local officials more accessible if not more accountable to constituents, since parties would have to "do more outreach to the public before selecting candidates" in order to familiarize voters with people who won't be able to exploit party brands. He participated in last night's Charter Revision Commission meeting, which is reported on in detail here. Another participant warned that any benefit from nonpartisan elections would depend on stricter limits on campaign spending, which Bloomberg would be unlikely to support.

The solution seems simple. The Founders meant us to vote for individuals, not parties, but they did not anticipate great disparities of wealth among contestants in elections, or that the ability to afford advertising would determine which were the viable candidates. We'll get closer to the kind of elections they wanted, while keeping our democratic improvements, by eliminating partisanship from the ballot as much as possible and eliminating expensive advertising as much as possible, even if these goals require amending the Constitution to restore the electoral process to the best of the Founders' ideal.

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