27 February 2012

'Operation Hilarity' and state regulation of Bipolarchy

What's so funny about 'Operation Hilarity?' No doubt inspired by Rush Limbaugh's 2008 'Operation Chaos,' the Democratic deadender blog Daily Kos is urging Democrats in open-primary states to participate in their Republican primaries and vote for Rick Santorum so long as it prolongs the struggle for the GOP presidential nomination and drains resources from all the candidates. Democrats in Michigan are making similar plans on their own initiative, while others, with the same end in mind, plan to vote for Ron Paul instead. The tactic flies in the face of conventional Republican analysis of the motivation for cross-party primary voting. Many still blame Senator McCain's nomination four years ago on Democratic mischief in open-primary states, the presumption being that Democrats would naturally vote for the "weakest" Republican and thus chose McCain, perceived by the hard core as most "moderate." By that logic, Democrats this year should vote for Romney, already perceived by GOP extremists as the weakest and most moderate candidate. Instead, apparently, at least some will vote for Santorum, the candidate they, as liberals, might be presumed to fear the most. But many may push the Pennsylvanian not just to make life miserable for Romney but in the sincere hope that Santorum will get the nomination and guarantee President Obama's landslide re-election. While I doubt that Democratic intervention will actually prove decisive, my observation for today is that the law in many places gives the Republican party no protection from such sabotage, just as it didn't shield Democrats four years ago from the consequences of Operation Chaos. For entities that duopolize political power in this country, the two major parties suddenly seem helpless in this particular light. Why is this?

Each state in the union has the prerogative through its own election laws to decide whether political parties can hold open or closed primaries. State rather than federal jurisdiction over the selection of presidential candidates is based on the fact that primary voters don't choose candidates directly but appoint delegates to represent their states at national conventions. Closed primaries prevent opposite-party pranksters from simply showing up on primary day to make mischief, but what if they ride in on trojan horses, armed with legitimate party registration? Small-party primaries are often decided by major-party operatives getting people to register with the small party and voting for candidates deemed favorable to the major party for one reason or another. At this point the weakness of all parties vis-a-vis the government becomes most clear. When people register to vote, the government gives them the opportunity to register with a party. They aren't obliged to register with any party, but should they do so, the party is stuck with them. Parties have no power to establish or enforce qualifications for membership except where state governments allow them the power. Even then, it can be a cumbersome after-the-fact process like New York State's courtroom procedure for de-registering party members, which is used to prevent someone more often from running in a primary than from voting in it. This is how insurgencies and interest groups can "take over" a party, at least to the point of choosing its candidates. Eisenhower or Rockefeller Republicans could not tell newcomer Goldwater Republicans to take their movement elsewhere, nor could the Democratic establishment, such as it was in 1972, tell the McGovern Democrats to do likewise. For whatever reason, the government takes an interest in using the two major parties as channels for streams of voters, but has no apparent interest in the long-term ideological integrity of either party. But the government is, or has been invariably for the last 150 years, the instrument of one major party or the other. Is there any consciousness of purpose involved? People look back now to the Eisenhower administration, however inaccurately, as a golden age of Republican moderation -- at least once Joe McCarthy was cut down to size -- but did these same people give the rope to their metaphorical hangmen by condoning the infiltration of their party by Goldwater extremists? Or did someone calculate that Republican government would function largely the same regardless of the different rhetoric? The practical question is this: if the concept of Bipolarchy is meaningful, if political power is duopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, why don't they give their own leaders the power to purge their own ranks? It's not as if you have to be registered with a major party to vote for it in the general election, so what benefit do they derive from compelling themselves to welcome just anyone into their ranks in time for the primaries? If the consequence is ideological upheaval and inconsistency, and the consequence is tolerated, how important is ideology for the parties, or the government, in the long term? Is the upheaval, and the risk to any individual party leader, worth the channeling of voters into the parties through unconditional registration so long as that easy option keeps insurgent ideologues from seeking channels of their own? You have to assume that the parties benefit from the system, since they'd do away with it otherwise -- wouldn't they?

Maybe the registration-and-primary process is a fast-food model for government by parties. After all, by allowing insurgents to "take over" and impose a new ideological stamp, the major parties may simply be allowing customers to "Have It Your Way," so long as you have it with them. And isn't that more fun than making your own sandwich?...

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