31 January 2012

If only dismantling the two-party system were THAT easy!

Bo Peabody is a venture capitalist and self-styled social-networking pioneer who blogs for the Huffington Post. He has decided that the two-party system is bad for the country. His research has shown him that Bipolarchy was not innately American -- though it failed to point out the existence of a kind of two-party system immediately following the Founding, since his summary of partisan history leaves out the Federalists. In any event, Peabody isn't the first to determine that Bipolarchy isn't doing the nation any favors. He reports that after the Civil War, "waged a war on the influence of the individual voter by instituting election processes and regulations -- the primary system, the winner-take-all philosophy of the Electoral College, and campaign finance regulation -- that build the power of the two-party system at the expense of the individual voter." Other factors like ballot-access rules could also be named, but the result is as Peabody describes: Bipolarchy has become a kind of monolith, a fetish or obstacle to progress, depending on one's perspective. Fortunately, Peabody has found a simple solution to the problem.

We need to re-shape the basic legislative environment to make all politicians more effective. A good start is dismantling the two-party system.
All it takes to accomplish this is one simple act that carries little risk and no expense: become an independent voter. Without the baggage of a party affiliation, you will be free to think independently. And without any members, the Democratic and Republican parties won't exist; and the two-party system will be dismantled. 

Peabody has the naive notion that "the power of the two major parties is derived from their memberships." From that observation follows the assumption that merely by changing their registrations to "independent," voters can bring down the Bipolarchy. Yet I found it curious that Peabody, while urging people to become "independent voters," never explicitly recommends voting for independent candidates. Perhaps he takes this idea for granted, but voting for someone other than a Democrat or Republican is by far the more effective subversion of Bipolarchy than merely changing one's registration. Without the commitment to vote for someone else, an "independent" merely reserves the right to choose between what the two major parties offer -- and the process by which the major parties submit their offerings will not change meaningfully simply because of a decline in major-party registration. Consider the situation now. Are the majority of Republican primary voters really happy with their choices this winter? Did they actually have any voice in the selection they've been given? Do Democrats have any say at all on President Obama's renomination? My point is that it's hard to prove that the major parties will have less power if fewer people register with them when those rank-and-file partisans exert no power within the parties now except as consumers selecting from a pre-arranged menu of candidates. The parties' present power depends not on how many people register with them, but on how many people vote for them, and people vote for them for reasons of brand-recognition and risk-aversion that won't necessarily be affected by changing habits of registration. Becoming a truly independent voter isn't as easy, regrettably, as Peabody thinks; otherwise we wouldn't have had a Bipolarchy for more than 150 years. Entrenched power creates an illusion of exclusive expertise. It requires effort to overcome the suspicion that independent candidates are incapable of governing simply because they don't belong to a governing party. It is assumed that the parties themselves, and alone, know how to govern the country -- it may even be assumed that a party on the Democrat/Republican model and scale is itself necessary to govern the country. Changing registration alone won't change those assumptions. Peabody notes that 30% of the electorate today isn't registered as Democrat or Republican, yet independent parties don't get 30% of the vote. Party membership on the rank-and-file level is overrated, at least by Peabody. It isn't the key to but the consequence of Bipolarchy. In any event, registration has never bound anyone to vote for one party or the other, or to voting at all. When voters develop the courage to entrust power to people without major-party credentials, registration statistics will change accordingly. That change will be the result of revolution, not the cause.

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