There are things we talk about, but rarely think about in politics. We argue about which political party is more correct or more corrupt, which is better financed, and which has the better “ground game”. Most importantly, which one will win. But once we graduate from college how rare is it we take a step back and actually think about “what is a political party” and “why do we have or need them?”
This weekend the Alaska Democratic Party (ADP) met and passed a measure that begs us to reflect on those questions once again.
At their meeting in Juneau the good folks who make up the ADP’s central committee, that’s code for board of directors, enacted a motion to allow non-Democrats to run in their party primaries without changing their party affiliation. That means someone could be a non-partisan or registered independent, but run in the Democratic Party primary and appear on the Democrats line on the general election ballot.
In explaining the move Democratic Party Chairwoman Casey Steinau said:
“We are at an unprecedented time in Alaska’s history and must put an end to politics as usual by continuing to welcome independent thinkers,” said Steinau. “Alaskans want to debate ideas, not political labels.”
“We want to reach out to and include the majority of Alaskans not affiliated with a political party,” said Steinau, “and this is one way to do that.”
Before the measure was even passed the Alaska Republican Party (ARP) posted a statement on their website attacking the move:
“Democrats have struggled to maintain relevance in Alaska because of their inability to recruit candidates who can win legislative races, but national Democrat operatives have targeted the 49th state in the party’s 50-state strategy, and saw success when they defeated their own Democratic voters in 2014 and endorsed a Republican who switched to Independent immediately after the primary.”
ARP Vice-Chairman Frank McQueary added:
“If they are willing to continually build Trojan horses in campaigns, then they should disband the party and take down the banner. They shouldn’t try to trick voters and steal their votes,”
“At this point, why even bother having a primary? It’s going to be chaos from now on with the Democrats, with the party bosses determining the outcomes, regardless of voter intent. The Democratic Central Committee will be all-powerful and Democratic voters will have no say, because if they can’t earn your vote, party bosses will just steal it.”
Setting aside the shrill vitriol that has come to define ARP communications in the last year, the ARP does have a point.
The whole exercise in building political parties is to gather people around a set of values and martial those folks to elect candidates who govern based on those values. If candidates are going to be allowed to access party resources, including ballot access, while maintaining their ideological distance from the party’s values, then doesn’t the concept of political party become meaningless?
The theoretical reason government allows party based primaries is they serve the public function of aggregating candidates according to the two most dominant sets of principles among the electorate. The ADP rule change means that is no longer the case. Their candidates may, out of convenience, simply be renting the party’s government restricted ballot access. At that point there would seem to be no public good served by partisan primaries and no intellectually defensible reason the state should pay for them.
Why not go to open primaries and let voters select from an open field of candidates? Political parties could still endorse and financially support candidates, but the citizens, without partisan institutional interference would get to select the final two candidates for the general election from a list of all registered candidates. That might be one candidate from each of the two major parties, or it could be two Republicans, two Democrats, or maybe even two completely unaffiliated non-partisans.
Surely the Alaska Republican Party with its platform firmly rooted in individualism and staunch opposition to government regulation of free peoples and free ideas would support such a move rather than defend their own institutional power, right? Well, probably not, but they should.
So why did the ADP make this change?
The Democratic party brand in Alaska is weighed down by a national party platform, President, and slate of presidential candidates widely perceived by Alaskans as anti-resource development and anti-gun. There is little the ADP can do to combat that as long as they maintain the words “Democratic Party” in their name.
Alaska Democrats have however, handed Republicans a string of stinging defeats around the state in the last year, but that silver lining is wrapped around a dark reality for the Dems. Those victories came in local mayoral races in Anchorage, Mat-Su, Kenai, Fairbanks, and Juneau where partisan affiliation is almost never listed on the ballot and in the statewide gubernatorial race where the candidate they backed was a Republican turned independent who never affiliated as a Democrat.
The ADP has clearly taken a lesson from this winning streak-Our values win, our brand doesn’t.
It is tempting to say voters are smarter than that, they’ll see through such a transparent and cynical strategy. The title “Gov. Bill Walker” would suggest it works just fine and likely will again.
You can’t blame The ADP for making this move. Strategically it is the smart thing for them to do. It provides the best chance for them to get people as like minded as possible elected. At the end of the day that is their job.
As citizens, we’d be stupid to go along with it. It mocks voters, undermines our electoral system, and insults the philosophical underpinnings of our democracy.