A Different Approach to Changing the Major Political Parties

I’m with Al Hunt: The Americans Elect third party plan is a quixotic way to make the two major political parties hew more closely to the sensible middle. More importantly, it’s completely unecessary.

Creating a national third party is a Brobdingnagian task. If one had the millions of motivated moderate voters and millions of dollars to make a run at forming a “middle of the road” party, there is a far more efficient strategy to pursue: Organize people to vote in the primaries of the major parties for whichever candidate is less extreme. If the primaries aren’t open, disaffected independents will have to hold their nose and enroll in whichever one they consider more crazy.

Not many people vote in primaries, and as the Tea Party activists have shown a small, organized group can use this fact to shift a party’s center of gravity. If Americans Elect used its resources and its subscriber base to create an Internet-based service (supported by a good research team) that sent out millions of “who is less extreme in your district” bulletins during primary season, it could have more impact more quickly than it ever will trying to create a national third party from scratch.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

27 thoughts on “A Different Approach to Changing the Major Political Parties”

  1. Not many people vote in primaries, and as the Tea Party activists have shown a small, organized group can use this fact to shift a party’s center of gravity.

    This gets it almost exactly right. What’s missing? The fact that it is the money channeled to Grover Norquist from billionaires that really funds the primaries Keith speaks of. The Tea Party is merely a necessary adjunct.

    Here is the deal: The left has no analog to Grover Norquist and his pledge. What’s needed is a muscular liberal with huge funding who demands a pledge from Dem Congress candidates to save Social Security and Medicare no matter what. Sign the pledge or get hit with a primary. My suggestion for this role is David Brock of Media Matters. Read his wikipedia entry. This guy grew up on the right. He understands passion. He gets the enemy. He can do the political street fight thing. If anybody can adopt the right’s techniques for the left’s benefit it’s Brock.

  2. “Organize people to vote in the primaries of the major parties for whichever candidate is less extreme.”

    Do tell, in 2011 what does it mean for a Democratic Party primary candidate to be “less extreme”?

  3. Third parties are ego trips for a few under the current set of electoral rules. The two party system represents three groups very unevenly, and at the cost of showing my bias, they are a corporate oligarchy that now funds both parties but lacks the votes on its own to win, a theocratic and largely nihilistic right wing running on anger and resentment, and those Americans who take our founding principles seriously. Because both parties are controlled by the same money interests, they offer little hope of anything better than choosing the least bad corporatist tool.

    If unions and others who care about American values would push for initiatives in states to allow majority election of candidates they would give third party candidates a chance to be real alternatives rather than ego trips for the occasional celebrity. That would give people a real choice. I’d contribute $500 to a decently drawn initiative to create majority vote elections.

    Until then we are stuck with perpetual disappointments and worse, like Obama.

  4. In many ways the new system in Calif looks a lot like your hoped-for mechanism: jungle primary, top two go on to the general. I’ll be very interested to see whether this has an effect on the extremism of those nominated. It seems like a system which would favor centrists.

  5. But the purpose isn’t to have an impact, beyond managing a bait and switch where a lot of energy gets generated for an alternative to the major parties, and then directed to the benefit of the Democrats at the last minute. Just another Democratic false flag operation, the latest of many.

  6. In the abstract I think Keith’s right that small organized groups can highjack our system. That is *one* of three big reasons for teaper influence within the gop right now. Name-calling by an informally anointed few can turn a primary against a moderate by turning out the crazies against sitting representatives, as Palin threatened just last week. And lots of money will go that way too through various channels.

    But teaper influence is so great now in very large part because they make up the difference between republicans carrying the House or failing; they’re something like 35 or 40 of the 238 or so gop seats. If they were 35 or 40 of 270 gop seats Boehner could be safely ignore them and we’d be seeing a vastly different situation tactically. They have the same tactical importance that “blue dogs” had for Pelosi. (She handled them better, plus they weren’t as toxic as the teaper crowd.)

    Media is the third big reason for teaper influence. They got inordinate amounts of air time and ink and by virtue of that became a “huge influential national movement” without significant numbers; how many times has that dork child-support deadbeat from Illinois not been featured in the past two weeks? I’ve given up trying to decide whether it’s venality, stupidity, failure to understand how they’re being used, orders from corporate overlords, or something else that drives the media to do this. It’s just a fact of modern media that gop operatives understand in their bones and democrats don’t seem to have a clue about. (Maybe it’s because so many republicans have come out of PR backgrounds? Or have been contestants on national TV shows? Whatever.)

    What Keith urges is an attractive guerrilla-style action with a whiff of Lee Atwaterism, but unfortunately I think it’s quixotic and hard to put into practice. We have a weird mix of caucus selection (some influential states), closed primaries, and open primaries. Caucuses and closed primaries work against exactly the kind of people who’d be interested in this because they have to register under a party, and you really don’t want to do that if you’re disgusted with where we are. I’ve wrestled with this myself.

    What progressives and centrists– the vast majority, if polls are to be believed– really need is a way to counter the influence of media and money. That’s hard, and it’ll take a lot of thought and organization. I’m skeptical that Twitter or the net will provide the magic. OTOH, districts that aren’t tailored to be safe could reward some slight shift to the center. But if we look at the Senate, money limits how centrist anyone can really be.

    BTW, open primaries don’t always move things toward the center. What can often happen is that small factions decide on one candidate and carry that core vote, while a lot of reasonable people run in the middle and split the sensible vote into very small chunks. And some of the centrists are footpads promoted by the nut jobs specifically to dilute centrist votes. The runoff will then be between two extremists. This is what happens in Louisiana.

  7. Isn’t Americans Elect just a vehicle to avoid campaign finance laws (its organized as a 501(c)(4) non-profit), while serving as the precursor to an election campaign for Bloomberg?

  8. A middle-of-the-road party? Is it really possible, in America, to move things that far to the left?

  9. Russell Carter and Mrs. Tilton have got this right, but just to elaborate a bit: The kind of centrism Keith Humphreys proposes here incentivizes extremism. As long as we define the center in terms of the extremes, then the best move for political actors is to become more, not less, extreme so that “centrist” policy moves with them. This reform would just institutionalize the problem we’ve already got.

  10. It would be unethical to join a rival political party under false pretenses to vote in their primary. It would be undemocratic if these fake party members were actually able to change the nomination, or the nominating process. Republican Party candidates should be nominated by Republicans. Any other process violates their right to freedom of association.

    I happen to think that the major parties don’t stand for anything, and that they can hardly be less principled with an open (to vandalism) primary process, but that doesn’t justify the tactic.

  11. Don: They wouldn’t be joining under false pretenses, they would be openly be joining to change the party, which is as American as apple pie and their right as citizens of this country.

  12. Fair enough, if they’re doing it openly, then it’s not done under false pretenses. I think, though, if they have to “hold their nose” to join, something is badly amiss.

    Part of the freedom to associate, surely, is the freedom to NOT associate: to declare that we are forming a group and some people are not members of it, because they don’t agree with the mission of the group. Not that either major party will do it, but I think it would be perfectly fair for a political party to defend itself by requiring new members to sign a statement agreeing to some set of basic principles, and to hold closed primaries, or nominate by convention.

  13. Americans Elect

    I have seen several comments, that aren’t sourced, that say that the “Americans Elect” is another astroturf organization designed to split the Democrats.

  14. Has anyone ever seen proof that “independents” are actually moderate, as opposed to just being ignorant and too out of touch to pick a side? I think it’s hype. I mean, of course anyone with a brain will have a lot of complaints about their own party, but this idea that you can be an intelligent, newspaper-reading adult and not understand the differences between the two parties is laughable. These are just people who don’t pay attention to what’s going on outside.

  15. I think there is one additional reasons we need a viable third party, although Americans Elect will definitely not be it no matter what happens. We are caught in a roughly three way split politically with a two party system. There are right wing loons, there are corporatists, and there are old line Democratic liberals. There are other groups as well – the are genuine conservatives, the even more rare real libertarian, egalitarians, people inspired by the 60s, environmentalists . But they are marginal. (I’m in one of these so I’m not special pleading) – but those three are the centers of gravity. The corporatists are key funders of both parties – they win regardless, as Bush and Obama have demonstrated. They represent slightly different mixes of corporatists, but corporatists nonetheless. And the corporatists benefit in the short run by keeping issues focused on cultural issues while most have demonstrated no ability to think in long run terms. Meanwhile the middle class shrinks.

    I think that just picking the least extreme candidate as Keith Humphreys suggests will give us better corporate managerial types – like Obama – over the loons and less competent ones like Bush, but that’s all it will do. That’s why I think we need to change the electoral rules – and people are so disillusioned I think it is more possible now than ever before.

  16. Keith, a clever idea, but it seems to me it solves the wrong problem. Extremism isn’t symmetric. Bernie Sanders is as far from the current center of political gravity as Michelle Bachmann, but with one important difference: he’s a sane, thoughtful progressive and she’s a raving fruitcake. A weasel-for-the-plutocracy like Susan Collins would count as “more moderate” than Sanders; that doesn’t mean that she’d deserve anyone’s vote in a race against him.

  17. Useless, Americans Elect was founded, and is run by, a billionare who happens to be a reliable supporter of the Democratic party. With his support it’s not dependent on donations. The founder can be presumed, by his past political actions, to be a loyal Democrat. That it’s just another false flag operation, like several of the “Tea parties” that set out to split the conservative vote in 2010, or such operations as “Americans for Gun Safety”, is a reasonable deduction from the facts.

  18. Brett, would you support less restrictive election laws to make it easier for liberals to leave the Democratic Party and form a third party?

  19. ALL of these suggestions seem to miss the main point — America is an astonishingly, dangerously, anachronistically conservative country.
    The rest of the world sees constant political change. Britain, for example, is no tiny country, and has a long tradition of how it does things, but it has been willing, in the last twenty years, to consider substantial amounts of political change, including, eg, substantial changes to how voting is performed. If the US were to change how voting were done to one of the alternative schemes that allow one, as it were, to vote against candidates rather than for them, this would be a substantial help in toning down the level of extremism.

    But we have a problem. The West, unlike every other society on earth (think Japan, think China) has not had to confront difference and really think hard about its ways of doing things for what, 250 years now. And the US is top of the heap in the West, that country that, more so than any other, is sure in its bones that it knows the one right way for itself (and for planet Earth). We see this US xenophobia (the French, of course, but also “30% of our taxes spent on foreign aid”), in the refusal to accept metric, in the absolute unwillingness to consider any changes to the political system — and, of course, most obviously, in absolute convictions about the economic system in spite of all evidence to the contrary, whether it’s Lafferism, the effects of taxes on growth, the effects of trade unions, Keynsianism, or, most recently, the great bust of 2007 which has been followed by business as usual. We see it in the unwillingness to accept any unpleasant facts, whether overpopulation, peak oil, or global climate change. America will not change until catastrophe is not simply clear, but until after it has already happened. (And even then, the population of nutcases is large enough that “stab in the back” theories will probably predominate, and the direction of change will be rather more Third Reich than Third Republic.)

    It’s clear to everyone (except, of course, Americans) that they (in spite of what Churchill may have said — that was then and this is now) will not come to terms with their national decline by thoughtfully weighing options and plotting a new course. Rather, they will be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming every step of the way. Will civilization as currently constituted survive this temper tantrum, or will we have a new dark ages ahead of us? Personally my bet is on the new dark ages — and I claim that any optimist who says otherwise is apparently ignorant of everything that has happened since 2000, from Bush’s invasion of Iraq to Obama’s decision to play for team plutocrat.

  20. “If there are rich moderates, they’re hiding extremely well.”

    Soros, for example, is one. I don’t know what his reasons are for spending his money elsewhere than in the US, but I suspect that he fears the US is a lost cause and he can get substantially better value (more “democracy and decency per dollar”) elsewhere.

    I’d be curious what people like Gates or Buffet think. I suspect they and fellow techno-billionaires likewise have concluded that US politics is a cess-pool of idiocy that they don’t want to get near, that they’ll do their part to try to deal with problems that actually can be solved (malaria, HIV) but that the stupid will always be with us, so worrying about them is as pointless as arguing with your dog.

    This is, perhaps, the larger problem. To engage in the sorts of wild generalizations that will make Brett most happy:
    progressive and centrist types tend to be smarter than conservative types; part of being smart is some knowledge of the history of the world in both the 20th century and earlier; and the most rational response, in looking at that history, is to give up in despair. It was perhaps reasonable for Rousseau to assume people would behave in a certain way; perhaps even reasonable for Lenin or Mao to assume that, after they got the ugly part out the way they could create a better society. But it seems to me unreasonable now, in 2011, with all we know, to have much hope at all.

  21. Really? There are historical examples of people who succeeded in changing things for the better by giving up in despair?

  22. Don, indeed I would. I don’t expect the major parties to make any such changes to the law, but I’d support them.

  23. I think Mark understates the issue. The are essentially no extremists on the left in the currently-existing political structure. No one calling for nationalization of the oil industry, full government operation of the health-care system, a 75% marginal rate on incomes above $10 million, or any of the other things that might operationally be as far from the center as the incoherent corporatist-theocracy ravings of the far right currently holding leadership positions in legislatures around the country.

  24. Maynard makes a good point. I am reminded of two quotes by men not normally associated together: Lord Acton and Friedrich Nietzsche.

    Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”

    Nietzsche: “Power makes stupid.”

    As by far the strongest power on earth many Americans have been corrupted and made willfully stupid, and while I include the ruling oligarchic elite, a great many voters are included. That said, i still think if there is a chance to pull out of what appears to me to be national suicide, majority elections are our best chance. The two party system is destroying us under contemporary conditions.

  25. However late in the thread, I’ll post a few points though no one is likely to read them.

    First, Maynard’s rant is extremely revealing concerning the progressive mindset and confirms the almost daily criticisms by the WSJ Editorial Board about the Left, namely that it is doggedly pessimistic (Mark too),rejects American exceptionalism, ignores American’s history of generosity and sacrifice, etc. No wonder the country’s mainstream largely rejects the Progressive mantra.

    Secondly, Maynard’s perception that America is indeed a conservative country (I would say center right – all a matter of perspective) is conpletely accurate, so for his own peace of mind, I recommend that he accept his fate of usually being in opposition, or else change residence to one of the countries he admires.

    Third, the inability of the Congressional parties to compromise is the direct result of changes to the system cheered by progressives. The dominant role of primaries in selecting party candidates instead of party officials choosing candidates (on the basis of their appeal to the GENERAL electorate), the reservation of certain CD’s for minority group majority status by the Supreme Court, and the gerrymandering springing from that, all of these changes have led to non-competitive districts where the real election is the primary and the appeal is to the hard core bases of the parties.

    Fourth, none of the suggestions here would change things. However, one idea that might have an impact (not that I favor it) would be the adoption of the preferential ballot, which would give moderate independent candidates a much better shot in a general election.

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