Sunday, December 30, 2007

Independent Voters Should Not Vote In Party Primaries -- New Hampshire Has It Wrong

Political parties are one of the building blocks of democracy. When they are created voluntarily they constitute an intermediary institution between, on the one hand, individual citizens and voluntary associations, and, on the other hand, the institutions of government, such as the legislature and the executive. A political party is an organization that brings together disparate groups and individuals in a coalition to contest elections and to govern. At its best, a political party serves in part as a way to hold government leaders accountable to the populace while at the same time serving as a vehicle by which those leaders gather together likeminded people to support their candidacy. As coalitions, the political agendas of political parties may vary considerably but, again at their best, the parties can be distinguished by their agendas and provide voters with reasonable, predictable choices at the ballot box.

Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with political parties in part reflecting their ambivalence about the world of politics itself. Rather than recognizing the essential roles played by political leaders and political parties, in building coalitions and consensus and governing in a peaceful manner, Americans have often seen political leaders as corrupt, flawed individuals in pursuit of their own self interests and Americans have therefore seen political parties as little more than appendages of these politicians.

But political parties play an important role, which takes me to the question of who should vote in a primary election for the nomination of a candidate to represent a certain political party in a general election. I believe that only those who have indicated an affiliation of some kind with that political party should vote in a primary to designate a candidate to run under the banner of that political party. Given the structure of our society and the historic role of political parties, that affiliation may be looser than membership. But the voter must show some linkage with that political party to vote in the primary. That is because the primary is a mini-democratic process by which that political party designates a candidate. Before the emergence of primary elections, party nominations were often decided in so-called smoke-filled rooms, where party bosses chose the candidates of their choice. Over time, this process has given way in most states to primary elections, intended to give party affiliates the opportunity to select their candidates. It makes no sense for individuals who are not affiliated with a political party and, indeed, may have nothing but disdain for that party and its programs and policies or at a minimum an unwillingness to affiliate with that party, to vote to select the party’s nominee for office. And yet, New Hampshire allows independent voters to vote in one or the other party primaries designed to select delegates to the national nominating conventions. This is foolish, illogical and unfair.

There was a time years ago when the Democratic Party primary in southern states, and in some urban centers, was the only real election for the office at stake. That is, the Democratic Party was so dominant in the deep South that whoever won the primary won the general election. Preventing certain groups, in particular African-Americans, from participating freely in those primaries essentially left them disenfranchised. As a result, laws were passed that opened primaries to prevent excluding individuals and groups on inappropriate grounds.

As well, historically in reaction to the very negative view of politics and politicians held by most Americans, in certain “progressive” states certain elective offices were and remain “non-partisan” so that while candidates may inform voters of their political party affiliations the elections are supposed to occur in a more neutered manner. I happen to think that if such an approach ever had some merit, perhaps to weaken the power of political bosses nominating candidates in smoke-filled rooms, it does not any longer.

Permitting independent voters who have no party affiliation to participate in a party primary of their own choosing is a far cry from fighting Jim Crow or Tammany Hall and the days of smoke-filled rooms. What it does is take the power to nominate a candidate of a political party for elective office out of the hands of those who identify and affiliate with that party and give it to others whose interests may be quite different. This practice should be changed.

Bill Kristol on the Times' Op Ed Page: Say It Isn't So!

Bill Kristol, co-editor of the Weekly Standard, has been named by The New York Times as a weekly op-ed columnist. The Times has apparently defended its appointment at least in part on the ground that it was giving a voice in its pages to "a serious, respected conservative intellectual."

I object! I certainly do not object to the Times opening its op-ed page to respected conservative intellectuals although I do question why it should select someone who already has enormous exposure in the mass media, both through his own Weekly Standard and as a Fox News contributor. I am a strong critic of all the mass media for their habit of looking to the well established commentators when they make a change rather than recruiting new voices that do not already have platforms elsewhere.

But my larger criticism is that I think Bill Kristol is a lightweight when it comes to serious conservative thought. No, I am not a subscriber to the Weekly Standard and I don't catch Kristol on Fox News very often. But I've heard enough of him over the years to reach my own conclusion that he is not a serious thinker (and certainly not to the extent his father was). He is bright, ambitious, outspoken and has had a successful career in politics and commenting about politics. If that is what The Times considers a serious, respected conservative intellectual, that's unfortunate.

It is fair to ask whether I think Thomas Friedman or Maureen Dowd are serious, respected intellectuals. I have difficulty describing either as an "intellectual" although Friedman has offered a fair number of good insights over his years of writing, combined with some simplistic thought and analysis. Dowd is certainly sharp tongued. But I still do not believe that Kristol has the intellectual firepower, as opposed to an ability to articulate a party line and market himself well, to be a weekly columnist in the Times. My view is in no way affected by his strong criticism of the Times in the past. That definitely would not disqualify him. It is the superficiality of his analyses, as I have heard them over the years, that does.

Iowa's and New Hampshire's Unfortunate Influence

It appears from news stories that no more than about 125,000 Iowans will take part in caucuses on January 3, 2008, as part of the American presidential nomination process. Despite those small numbers in a state that is clearly not reflective of the diversity amongst the American electorate, most observers believe that the outcome will have a profound effect on the nominating process. Specifically, it is expected that at least a few candidates in each party will withdraw from the race after the vote. As well, the outcome will likely affect voter sentiment in New Hampshire, whose own primary comes within a week of the caucuses. The vote in New Hampshire, another very small state whose population hardly reflects the socio-economic, racial, and ethnic divisions among Americans, will also have a disproportionate impact on the presidential nominating process. While many other states have moved their primaries up on the calendar in order to have some impact on the nominating process, these changes do not seem to have significantly lessened the impact the Iowa caucuses are likely to have. I think that is quite unfortunate.

The reason I feel it is unfortunate that the votes in these two small, non-representative states have such a significant impact is precisely because that impact tends to rob many others of having their own significant impact. That concern is precisely what led other states to advance the dates of their primaries. By doing so, the electorates in those states will have a greater say in the outcome than before, particularly if the races remain competitive after New Hampshire, but still far smaller than the impact the small number of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will have.

I am not in favor of one national primary in each party as a way of eliminating the impact that the early voting (or caucusing) states now have. For one thing, I don't think national primaries would work effectively. For another, there is something to be said for candidates to have to contest primaries in various states at different times. The electorate gets to see how the candidates cope with the process, adjust to the outcomes, and weather the competition.

I think the answer to the problem, one that I don't think will take hold, is that individual voters and the mass media should pay less attention to the outcomes in these first two states and not let them take on a significance that they do not deserve. At the same time, candidates can, do, and should play a role in affecting the significance the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries have. To be sure, the views the candidates take toward the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries reflect their own strategies and calculations of their strength in those two states. The weaker their strength, the less attention they have paid to Iowa or New Hampshire, hoping that by not contesting them vigorously a loss there will not greatly diminish their standing. This year, Rudy Giuliani chose not to strongly contest Iowa or even New Hampshire, believing that he did not have the advantage in these states. But the more the general electorate, nudged by the mass media, gives significance to the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the greater the risk to Giuliani and other such candidates in writing off those states.

While I am not one to blame the media for the ills of the world, journalists and their organizations play a key role, particularly in this 24/7 cable news driven world, in giving great significance to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. Enormous resources have been devoted by the mass media to cover the events, admittedly not unusual in that they begin the electoral phase of the nominating process. But journalists, who have their own interests apart from providing the American electorate with information and insights, affect expectations, just as advertisers do with respect to their products. Journalists could attempt to put the voting in these two states in a broader perspective, in part by reminding us that candidates in the past who did not prevail there nonetheless won their parties' nominations. They could also underscore in their frequent editorial comments that voters should not necessarily turn away from candidates who do not triumph in these early voting states. But the journalists themselves will turn away from them, pepper them with questions not about their policies but about why they are still in the race! The outcome in the Democratic contests will garner incredible press, particularly if Obama edges out Clinton. Again, such coverage is fair game as Obama has emerged from obscurity to be a front-runner. But are the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire a sufficient basis to reach profound conclusions about the perspective of the American electorate?

Nonetheless, fat chance that Iowa and New Hampshire won't play pivotal roles this year.

Bhutto's Assassination and An Unstable World

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated this past week. Pakistan is in turmoil. Was her killing a surprise? Unfortunately not. Chaos and conflict are rife in that country, she herself took a bold and strong stand against the Islamists, and she made herself very accessible to an assassin by standing up in her protected vehicle, although even had she been inside it the suicide bomber might still have succeeded. It appears that an Islamic extremist carried out the attack but nothing is clear at this point other than it further destabilizes a country critical in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaida.

Having lived through the Cold War, I do not find a world in turmoil to be something new. But the rise of Muslim fanatics and an organization, Al Qaida, or organizations not directly tied to one or more particular nation states does appear to be something fairly new during this historical period. And at least some aspects of the fanaticism are not confined to the terrorists but appear to have a popular following amongst many of the people in various Muslim countries. Witness the hatred and hostility that was directed toward the British school teacher who bowed to the wishes of her class in Sudan to name a teddy bear after the Prophet. Some among the general populace wanted her killed. Fortunately the regime bowed to Western pressure and "world opinion" and released her. Then, too, it was not long ago when there were mass demonstrations in Muslim countries after Western newspapers ran cartoons that were seen by Muslims as ridiculing their religion. The extent of the reaction among Muslims, in terms of its intensity and demands for revenge, has been scary. It certainly suggests the deep hold that religion still has in the Muslim world, both as a religion and as a source of identification.

The continuing significance and power of Islam and the challenge posed to world and regional stability is also reflected in the emergence of Hamas in Palestine. After years of opposition to Israel's right to exist from a primarily secular Yasir Arafat and Fatah, there was hope that extremist sentiments were giving way to more pragmatic perspectives. But Hamas has emerged to capture public sentiment and to reassert an intense religious-based opposition to a Jewish state. The prospects of peace remain ever, if not forever, dim. Now it isn't clear to what extent Muslim fanaticism, in terms of a virulent anti-Western view of the world, is taking hold in Pakistan. There have always been such currents but most Western observers have felt, whether justified or not, that the predominant Pakistani mood was more moderate. We shall see.