“Top Two” in California
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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
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:
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
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
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.
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
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