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Who Should Select Green Candidates?
by Don Fitz, Green Party of St. Louis/Gateway Green Alliance
Common sense tells us that a political party should be able to define itself by writing its program, advocating its principles and selecting its own candidates. But didn't we learn in high school civics classes that the Progressive movement of the late 19th century made political parties more democratic by forcing them to select candidates in primaries? If you think about it, both of these ideas cannot be right.
In most (or all) states, only new parties which establish themselves by petition are able to select their own candidates. Once a party receive "ballot status" (by winning a certain percentage of the vote), then it is forced to have an "open primary." In open primary states, anyone can declare her/himself as a candidate in that party's primary and any resident can vote in the primary.
A Green Party with a platform calling for organic agriculture could find itself with a Monsanto candidate extolling the virtues of genetic engineering.
Suppose a progressive party wins ballot status and decides not to field a candidate for a certain race. Too bad. Anyone can file for the position, and, after winning an uncontested primary, be available for press interviews as a candidate of that party.
A Green Party with a platform calling for organic agriculture could find itself with a Monsanto candidate extolling the virtues of genetic engineering. A genuine Green Party candidate could be outspent many times over by a corporate agent promising to bring dollars to the state via safe incinerators, responsible nuclear waste transportation and a reasonable level of clear cuts.
Is this a serious concern? Many corporations find the public relations of buying an Earth Day celebration to be worth the investment. They could easily see similar value in purchasing a Green Party nomination.
A Labor Party would not be immune if it won ballot status. A union bureaucrat could enter a Labor Party primary for the purpose of winning and then urging a vote for the Democrat in the general election.
People create political parties to formulate ideas on social questions, organize to win support for those ideas, and elect candidates who will put their programs into practice. Many US laws function to prohibit political parties from doing what they exist to do.
This disenfranchisement of political parties is not universal. Most countries allow parties to determine their politics and candidates. In the US, this was the case until the late 19th century.
...forcing primaries on corporate parties did not democratize them. It had the opposite effect of increasing the power of money...
At that time, Democratic and Republican Party bosses controlled state conventions and made sure that their own candidates were nominated. Progressives and Populists of that era proposed that a solution to top-down control would be forcing parties to select candidates in primary elections.
Unfortunately, Progressive success in changing American election laws became a classic example of a "solution" being worse than the original problem. Despite the propaganda that permeates history textbooks, forcing primaries on corporate parties did not democratize them. It had the opposite effect of increasing the power of money on elections. The "reform" meant that candidates had to raise massive amounts of money for both the primary and the general election. During the 1960s and 1970s, primaries became the principle method of selecting Presidential candidates, ensuring that only those who could amass tens of millions of dollars would have any chance of winning that office.
In hindsight, it's easy to see what the Progressives should have done. It would have been better to let the Democrats and Republicans stew in their own stench of power politics. Progressives and Populists should have concentrated their efforts on building and maintaining independent parties. It makes no difference if some parties are run by bosses who hand pick their cronies to receive nominations. The important goal is having democratic general elections where voters have a genuine choice.
The way to democratize general elections is to take money out of them. This means (a) limiting the amount of money candidates can spend (probably less than 1% of what is spent now in the US) and (b) requiring the press to donate space to genuine debates between all parties ("press" now includes TV and radio as well as newspapers).
Again, democratic elections would minimize the influence of money. Selection of candidates by primary does the exact opposite.
Primaries are most likely to be won by those who have traditional resources to power, which usually means rich white men.
The best way to select candidates is the same way as a party decides its platform: it has a convention of party members (or delegates who are selected at membership meetings). The convention is able to review the credentials of candidates and select those who have the best record of working for the party's goals.
A convention also ensures that the party has the right to select candidates according to other political goals. For example, a party might select a slate of state-wide candidates to reflect geographic balance. In the 2000 election, the Missouri Green Party nominated a slate of six state-wide candidates, 2 from St. Louis, 2 from Kansas City, 1 from Columbia, and 1 from Springfield. Even more important, Greens wanted the slate to reflect ethnic and gender diversity. The slate was chosen so that it included 2 blacks and 4 whites, 3 women and 3 men. Primaries eliminate the right of a party to do this.
It is no accident that Missouri parties forced to hold a primary nominated all white men, with the exception of some women for Secretary of State. Primaries are most likely to be won by those who have traditional resources to power, which usually means rich white men.
Consider the role of primaries in the following facts:1. American politicians squander far more money on elections than is done in any other country.
2. American voters are asked to go to the polls more frequently than in any other western country.
3. The US has a lower voter turnout than typical for other western countries.
American campaigns rarely present a range of political options. They usually degenerate into a cesspool of televised personality attacks. Wouldn't it be nice to totally remove personality from elections? It is actually possible to have meaningful elections by voting for political ideas rather than individual candidates. This would happen if legislatures were chosen by proportional representation (i.e., voters chose between lists of party nominees) and then the legislature selects the executive (as is common in parliamentary systems).
Wouldn't it be nice to totally remove personality from elections?
As Americans watched the soap opera in Florida, many advocated various changes in the political system. The most widely touted is replacing the electoral college with direct election, which would produce no significant change. Proposals for "instant runoff voting" and proportional representation, on the other hand, would be genuine improvements.
By far the most important electoral reform is to allow parties to function as parties by selecting their candidates in whatever way (primary, caucus or convention) they prefer. If Greens merely seek election in a corrupt system, they will end up as little different from Democrats and Republicans. The goal of participating in the electoral system should be to transform it and create the most empowering grassroots democracy we can.