Occupy the Republican Party?

Conor Friedersdorf has a semi-smart idea for those who are disappointed by Barack Obama but would never consider voting for a party that elevates such candidates as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich into positions of prominence. His idea? “Occupy” the Republican Party. With nothing happening on the Democratic side and the chances that a rump challenger to Barack Obama would probably have little effect other than giving the Republicans a better chance in November, the next best thing to do would be to register as a Republican and vote — sincerely — for the candidate who has the best positions on those issues where one believes Obama falls short.

As I said, it’s a semi-smart idea. I’m strongly in favor of people getting involved in nomination politics, and for those who really favor Friedersdorf’s mix of issues — basically, honest libertarians — I think he makes a good case. If you’re equally dissatisfied with both parties, it makes lots of sense to pick the one closest to you or the one where you think you would have the most leverage and try to nudge it in your direction. Even if you suspect you’ll fail in the short run and wind up voting the other way in the general election. A vote for Gary Johnson in the primaries followed by a vote for Barack Obama next November may well maximize Friedersdorf’s voting-based influence, certainly compared to sitting out the primaries altogether. It’s almost certainly a better strategy than joining a third party.

On the other hand, I think Friedersdorf vastly overestimates the number of people with his issue profile. The bottom line is that most liberals and most Democrats are either basically happy or very happy with Barack Obama. Sure, they might disagree with him on civil liberties or Libya or banking policy or Afghanistan, but most Democrats agree with Obama on most issues, even while perhaps blaming him for not being tough enough with Republicans.

But the real story here is that Friedersdorf is making the mistake that Ezra Klein has been warning against a lot of late: he’s ignoring everything but the presidency. For many voters, a dull presidential primary season on the Democratic side is matched with important choices for other offices, everything from US Senate on down to state legislatures or even the occasional partisan local office. And after all, in most states, the odds are that the presidential contest will be over long before the show gets to town.

If you’re a Democrat generally happy with Obama’s policy preferences but upset about Afghanistan, in most cases the highest leverage thing you can do is to push your local congressional candidates on the issue, especially if there’s a contested primary, but in many cases even if there isn’t. Members really do listen to their constituents. But they’re far more likely to listen the most to those who are active participants in their own party.

And it’s not just positions on this issues. It’s also true that candidates are interested in party intensity on issues — look at Republicans and abortion, where at least last I checked there was a sizable segment of pro-choice GOP voters, but virtually all of the intensity is on the other side, and with it virtually all GOP politicians. Democratic politicians — including potential 2012 presidential candidates for that matter, but very much including House and Senate candidates — are right now choosing whether to emphasize climate change or the filibuster or jobs bills or taxes or the public option on abortion or civil liberties or Afghanistan or, well, whatever else is out there. And what they emphasize will be, more often than not, what they’ll try to do when they’re in office.

So again, the real advice that I’d give to people who want to affect policy is to get involved in their party. Don’t just be a voter; be a voter plus in some way, whether it’s with donations or volunteer time, whether it’s with a formal party organization or a campaign or a party-aligned interest group.

It’s tricky, because the US political system is at the same time impressively permeable (so that you can get involved and relatively quickly gain some influence) while, at the same time, the US is so unfathomably large that there’s of course no way for one person to be able to see that influence reflected in national policy-making. Still, it is possible to get a different person chosen to run for Congress in some cases, and it is possible to help push an existing Member to care more about some specific issue. And since individual Members of Congress (especially Senators, but even Members of the House) can really make a difference on ultimate policy, those sorts of choices really do matter.

So, yes, Occupy: Occupy the political parties. Occupy the campaigns of party politicians. Occupy organized groups aligned with the parties, or start your own. I would never tell people not to take the sorts of direct action that the Occupy people have been doing; that’s part of the system too. But if you’re looking for something else or something next, pushing a political party in your direct, one candidate at a time, is a high-leverage choice. Even if it’s not the President of the United States.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.