Bypassing the Parties

Off and on all day, I’ve been mulling over Ezra Klein’s column suggesting that the independent ballot lines being secured by the American Elect group could, regardless of whatever horror they might produce in the 2012 presidential election, eventually become an avenue for candidates (particularly incumbents) to bypass party primaries and reduce the disciplinary power of liberal and conservative “bases.”

Though his language is carefully neutral, there’s zero doubt Ezra understands this is mainly, at the moment at least, a problem for Republicans. There are plenty of moderate Democrats in Congress, while it’s a vanishing breed in the GOP. For that matter, by any measurement, the Democratic “base” is significantly more diverse ideologically (and in every other way) than its GOP counterpart. All the examples of potentially liberated moderates Ezra cites are Republicans. So it’s reasonable to ask: are Republican moderates more successful in places where the disciplinary power of primaries is weaker?

Not so you’d notice. Open primaries, where independents (or in states with no party registration, anyone) can participate, are most prevalent in the South. It goes without saying that southern Republicans are not noted for their openness to moderation and bipartisanship. Louisiana has abolished party primaries altogether. Are its Republicans paragons of non-ideological sensibility? I don’t think so.

But maybe that’s just one of those “southern things.” California recently abolished party primaries by ballot initiative. We don’t have any record yet of how that will affect elections, but you probably know bipartisanship hasn’t exactly broken out in the Golden State as of this writing.

After years of thinking and writing on the subject of polarization, I’ve personally grown skeptical about simple structural explanations or solutions for the problem (with the possible exception of radical campaign finace reform, which is structural, but not exactly simple). The most obvious solution, and one that does not involve empowering shadowy “independent” groups like Americans Elect or weakening the parties, is simply to let general elections do their own magic. Parties that consistently fail to offer general electorates palatable choices will eventually lose. If Republicans keep nominating people like Christine O’Donnell for high office, they’ll keep losing Senate seats, and at some point, even ideological zealots will get tired of losing. Conversely, giving Mike Castle a free pass to the general election will eliminate the incentive of Republicans who either don’t like Christine O’Donnell or don’t like to lose to hang in there and fight for control of their party. At some point, giving up on party primaries runs the risk of giving up on the parties as vehicles for political expression and governance, and it’s not clear the country is, or should be, ready for that.

But it’s still worth discussing, particularly if Ezra Klein, who will continue to make valuable contributions to the chattering classes long after I’m packed off to the nursing home, says so.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.