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Last week the U.S. Department of Justice gave thumbs up to the state for its change away from a closed primary system, where candidates vie for a party nomination that parties can limit only to those registered under their labels, for federal congressional elections, returning to the blanket primary system, where all candidates regardless of label run together, employed for state and local contests. Too bad the state gets thumbs down for reverting back in the first place as it perpetuates ills of Louisiana government and the politics it exports to Washington.
For decades, even centuries, complaints have arisen about Louisiana politicians as less accountable than they should be. Particularly, the populist heritage of the state creates, and in turn is created by, a system of personalistic politics where electoral merit get judged not by how well government pursues policies that benefit the state as a whole or in apportioning rewards and costs to citizens on an anonymous, generic basis, but instead on how well a politician divides spoils from taxpayers and in performing service to allied supplicants. Thus, the populist persuasion, rather than emphasizing minimal government involvement to allow maximal non-interference in individuals’ lives, conceives of government built around key individuals who become mini-despots in their abilities to bestow and withhold favored treatment.
In recent decades, the blanket primary system has contributed to this system’s extension. Party politics can inhibit this tendency by creating organizations built around not politicians but ideas that condition the behavior of politicians claiming the party’s label. Perhaps the prime instrument to ensure that broad ideas rather than personalities define political discourse and actions is to have the label convey some kind of electoral advantage because of a meaning which will resonate among voters. And the best way to preserve the ability of parties to provide that is to make them – defined as they are by the policy desires of their supporters at the ballot box – able to control who may given the opportunity to use the label in a general election against all other party nominees and those choosing not to run under a label.
The closed primary, because it allows parties to control use of their labels by subjecting candidates to a contest to win its use at the ballot box by allowing only those who profess some kind of allegiance to a party, does the best job in preserving the integrity of the label. By contrast, the blanket primary essentially makes labels meaningless as parties cannot control who gets to utilize its label in a general election. As such, it shifts focus away from policy-based politics to personality-based politics, reducing accountability on the basis of issue preferences. Instead, the devalued label becomes just a tool by which to present an image to voters, as opposed to broadcasting any real information about the issue preferences of voters.
That’s why, when a label becomes popular such as the Republican of late in Louisiana, you see switching to it occur, because it means little in policy terms, but much in symbolic terms. Therefore, a system that infuses so little substantive meaning into the label cheapens political discourse and makes labels more likely used as distractions to obscure the issue preferences of a politician, as they suffer no real costs to change. Under a closed primary system, they would have to face voters at the next election under their new label, who then could judge whether the issue preferences and past actions of that politician comport with their preferences. Under the blanket primary system, it takes on the aspects of a trick such as Rep. Rodney Alexander’s eleventh hour feint in 2004.
At a more instrumental level, some call the blanket primary “fairer” because it allows anyone to vote for any candidate for an office in a general election, and that the state doesn’t have to foot the bill for what becomes an internal party decision that can be exclusionary. But this view ignores the fact that any voter can participate in any party primary no matter how restricted simply by registering to vote with that party which is done extraordinarily easily and is of practically no cost to someone who feels strongly enough about a certain candidate. Further, as judged in Smith v. Allwright, parties are agents of the state performing a service in vetting candidates for office, as well as are heavily regulated by the state in potentially numerous aspects of their governance, so it is only is appropriate that if the state forces them to be quasi-public agencies that the state assist them with resources in performing this and other tasks. Further, an election calendar can be created that has just as few elections under a closed primary system as there are under a blanket primary system, saving resources.
Louisiana’s political culture retains an inordinate degree of immaturity, where who you know and their ability to bring home the bacon makes take a back seat a more holistic view of the purpose of government, one that concentrates on issues and ideology. Supporting the blanket primary system and opposing the closed primary retards evolution away from this environment.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 07:15