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“Top Two” in California PDF Print Email
By Bob Bauer   
February 23, 2009
This article was posted at Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

Now a single legislator, key to the California budget deal, has moved California closer to a decision to hold a nonpartisan “top two” blanket primary.  All candidates would compete in the primary and all voters would choose among them:  the top two vote getters, regardless of party (or no party) affiliation, would compete in the general election.  The California governor and his legislative ally believe that this will give the California more nonpartisan and therefore “centrist” or “moderate” choices conducive to better government.

Not everyone is so sure (see here and here), and California political observers caution that only time and experience will tell.  But wherever else disagreement is found, one conclusion seems fair:  there is more unknown here than admitted, and good reason to carefully scrutinize the assumptions behind support for this type of electoral arrangement.

One belief popular with supporters of this type of structural change is that a change in elections will produce a change in arguably problematic politics.  Change the rules of the game and the scores will change with them:  a whole new breed of champion will have been engineered, called the “moderate”, nonpartisan politician.

It is strange indeed that this proposal is seriously put forward when experience should inspire doubt that it will all work out as advertised.  Louisiana has sported this system, and the results, when measured against the projected benefits, have not been encouraging.

Quite apart from any conclusions drawn from actual experience, there are also problems with the goals set for this reform—problems with its foundational theory.  Proponents of nonpartisan “moderation” argue that politicians with weak ties to parties will establish greater independence, more civil political dialogue, a more reliable instinct for compromise.  One could just as easily argue that candidates of the self-proclaimed “moderate” stripe, priding themselves on their indistinct political preferences and variable partisan allegiance, are often marketing a style in place of a politics. 

At worst, such candidates are selling a divorce from full accountability for their actions.  Part of their appeal, after all, is that it is harder to predict what these candidates will do, which is also to say that it is harder to hold them responsible for the actions (or votes) they eventually settle on.  They are able to sidestep or mitigate accountability by expecting credit for their independence:  their manner of making decisions has more weight in the evaluation than the content or consistency of their choices.

The applause given “moderation” in this sense is for avoiding “extremes” associated with partisanship and acting with high-minded independence.  Praise is heaped on the self-styled moderates’ personaes since their programmatic luggage is light—too much of a program would be dangerous, indicative of inflexibility.  Instead, their offer is often of a hodge-podge of presumptively good intentions and split decisions on difficult issues, some of which might have been better resolved by hard choices.  To admirers of the professional moderate, a strong, consistent point of view is wrongly put in the same category with “extremism” or “partisanship, when, in many cases, it is just as fairly considered a manifestation of principle and commitment. 

Of course, it all depends, really:  on the situation, the issue, the choices, and a range of other considerations.  If moderation means openness to feasible compromise, or an aversion to the more unbending versions of political dogma, few would question its virtues.  But the “top two” advocates elevate moderation to a gaudy political brand and would bend the rules to have it dominate the political marketplace.

It is always fashionable to detest the parties and partisanship:  and in this day and age, when parties struggle to maintain a hold on long-term voter loyalties, anti-party animus is a vestige of an ancient blood feud, carried on long after parties have lost much of their capacity to defend themselves.  Parties, being visible and the lens through which much of politics is interpreted, are conveniently scape-goated for failures far more complex in origin.  They are blamed for “partisanship” when that term connotes ideological rigidity and dysfunction.  But theorists like Nancy Rosenblum cut through this fog with reminders such as these:

Partisanship needs a moment of appreciation. We recognize “partisan” as invective; the barb comes out of improbable mouths, a virtual reflex. While party activists battle one another each claiming they are on side of the angels, critics demonize them all and praise independents as their undisputed moral superiors. Distaste is palpable and widespread….

Creating lines of division is the achievement of partisanship, the heart of introducing “power into the political world.” Politically salient positions are unlikely to be cast as Mill’s “serious conflict of opposing reasons” unless partisans do the work of articulating lines of division and advocating on the side of the angels. Great or small, parties are not simply reflections of cleavages “there” in society any more than they adopt fully developed conceptions of justice that exist antecedent to political activity.

And Rosenblum sees partisanship as a source of creativity in politics, uniquely concentrated on fashioning clashing values and beliefs into forms “amenable to democratic debate and decision.”  She writes: “Partisanship is the ordinary not (ordinarily) extraordinary locus of political creativity.  Among the political identities that democracy generates, only partisanship has this potential. “

Of course partisanship can come in higher and lower forms, practiced with more or less skill; it can be fail the test of creativity; and Rosenblum concedes that it has not acquitted itself uniformly well in recent years, with the result that it has inflamed anti-party sentiments and invigorated the anti-party program.  But any indictment of poor partisan practice cannot support the deeper theoretical claim that its adversaries typically make.  It falls to capable political leaders to realize in the partisan program its constructive potential, well described by Rosenblum.

To ask for this skilled leadership—and to decry its absence—is certainly reasonable.  Partisanship and parties’ despisers go farther, insisting that the partisanships flaws lie deep with its very make-up.  And yet, as Rosenblum states the point, the alternative—“nonpartisanship” —is “not a synonym for independent thought: it is navigating without political orientation or organization”.  It is by no means a superior political principle to be encoded into reforms like the “top two” primary that Abel Maldonado has wrung out of the state budget crisis.

Another notable problem with the “top two” is the constriction of choice in a general election.  Multi-candidate fields are notoriously unstable:  they can yield outcomes that it would be hard to attribute to “voter preference”.  To have such primaries potentially yield two candidates of the same party for the general election competition is hard to defend.  This weekend, on the election law listserv, advocates for the interests of minor parties also saw little future for them in this reform.  How is this a step forward in the democratization of California (or any state’s) politics?

It is impossible to evaluate this proposal apart from the context in which it has now been given new life.  Somehow an electorate is asked to believe that by an adjustment in the competitive rules of the game, a larger number of the right candidates—nonpartisan, public interest-seeking moderates—will be elected to office and lubricate the lumbering, halting, periodically malfunctioning machinery of their state government. 

Surely there are more sophisticated—some painfully disheartening—reasons to be given for government break down or poor policy.  But the simpler reasons, playing on the popular anti-party theme and translated into a simple solutions, might sell well.  So one legislator, his vote needed, could begin to make this sale, leveraging the one vote on an emergency budget measure to move a dubious political agenda.  This is no less an agenda—its purposes no less political and not a whit less dubious—because the sponsor is a “moderate”.
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