ON POLITICAL PARTIES: WHY WE NEED CONVENTIONS

Introduction

Loudoun Insider of Too Conservative wrote a post, Conventions Suck, that I think deserves a rebuttal.  Since the comments section on Too Conservative went well off subject, I decided it best to respond here.

Mr. Insider argues that a primary election is preferable to a convention.  I disagree.  Mr. Insider chief complaint is conventions require too much effort; he prefers the ease of primaries.  He ignores the purpose served by conventions.  In fact I doubt Mr. Insider understands the purpose served by political parties. 

Mr. Insider sadly lacks a good civics education.  I suspect his parents, like most, entrusted his education too much to politicians.  To entrust the education of children to politicians is foolishness of the first class.  Hopefully, by participating in forums such as political blogs we all can begin to understand the magnitude of this problem and repair the damage.   To repair the damage, we must first review some fundamental ideas.  In this case, if we are going to understand why we need conventions, then we must first understand why we need political parties.  Then, perhaps, the role conventions play may become obvious.  Here is my contribution.

Constitutional Issues

Consider the First Amendment to the Constitution. 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (from here)

Note the portion I have highlighted in bold.  How does one peaceably assemble and petition the government?   How does this right have any real effect?  Is this right just about giving your congressman a petition?  I don’t think so.  I think this right ultimately is about a group of people getting together and running their own candidate for public office.  And that is what political parties do.  

Consider this definition.

A political party is a political organization that seeks to attain political power within a government, usually by participating in electoral campaigns. Parties often espouse a certain ideology and vision, but may also represent a coalition among disparate interests.   (from here)

Political parties are run by the People.  Because of the First Amendment, Congress does not even have the power to regulate such assemblies.   Can state governments regulate political parties?  Here, because the First Amendment only restricts Congress, the role of government become hazy.    What does the Constitution say?  Two amendments address the issue indirectly. 

The Ninth Amendment is not very specific.

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

However, Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment forces state governments to recognizes the rights of the People.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.  (from here)

Do state governments have the right to force political parties to run primaries?  Should state goverenments run political primaries?  What does the Virginia Constitution say?

Section 12. Freedom of speech and of the press; right peaceably to assemble, and to petition.

That the freedoms of speech and of the press are among the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained except by despotic governments; that any citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right; that the General Assembly shall not pass any law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, nor the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances.   (from Article 1, Bill of Rights, here)

So in Virginia, at least, the Fourteenth Amendment is not needed.  What we need to consider is whether or not primary elections interfere with the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances.

Historical Background

Why do we have primary elections?  Let consider a brief history.

The first direct primary was held in Crawford county, Pa., by the Democrats in 1842. The first state laws relating to primary elections were passed in California and New York in 1866, but until the end of the century, all primary laws passed by the states were either optional or covered only limited geographic areas. Late in the century two developments led to a mandatory statewide primary. The first was the introduction of the Australian, or secret, ballot, beginning in Massachusetts in 1888. The secret ballot meant that a voter could cast a really free, uninhibited vote in choosing party nominees. The second development was a wave of revulsion against the convention system under which—even when it was regulated by state law—political bosses and vested interests intent on personal gain used every unsavory tactic imaginable. Progressives considered the direct primary an immediate cure for these abuses. In an 1899 law, perfected in 1901, Minnesota instituted the first mandatory statewide primary system, placing the primary on the same plane as a general election and making it applicable throughout the state. By 1917 all but four states had some form of direct primary.  (from here)

Keep in mind that any political system is imperfect, and in spite of the the alleged abuses of conventions, state governments rapidly implemented a system of primary elections.  If the convention system was so corrupt, how come party bosses were unable to slow the transition to a primary election system?

Perhaps the degree of corruption was overstated, and perhaps incumbent politicians realized that primary elections would help to ensure their reelection.

From the perspective of an incumbent politician, political parties are a mixed blessing.  The political party’s label can be helpful.  It is, for example, much easier to win election as a Republican or a Democrat than as an independent.  However,  rank and file party members, particularly those willing to take the time and accept the cost and the difficulty required to attend a convention, have certain definite expectations.  Such people will quite willingly withhold their party’s nomination from an incumbent if they perceived that that incumbent has compromised their party’s cause. 

In this era, many Republicans and a few Democrats bear the label of their party in name only.  Perhaps that explains the push for open primaries.

Twenty states employ a version of the “open primary” system. Half of these require a public filing, or declaration, of party affiliation; the other half permit private declaration. Washington state went a step further with its unique “jungle” primary, in which the voter, regardless of party affiliation, could go back and forth between the major party columns to select one nominee for each office. In 2003, however, a U.S. federal court struck down the system as a violation of the rights of political parties to choose candidates for office. (from here)

Conclusion

The fact that primary elections, particularly open primaries, compromise the right of the people peaceably to assemble should be self-evident.  Everyone knows, for example, why Governor Jim Gilmore wanted a convention and why Congressmen Tom Davis wanted a primary election.  That being the case, one has to wonder why we allow the government to interfere with political parties.  My personal belief is that we are allowing ourselves to be fooled.  The fact primary elections do not include such obvious horrors as the “smoke-filled rooms” we associate with conventions does not mean that political bosses are not abusing the rights of the People. 

Just as there are problems when government regulates religious institutions, there are also problems when government regulates political parties.  The entire point of a political party is for people of like mind to select and run the candidate of THEIR choice.  Primary elections take the decision out of the hands of the assembled People.  Primary voters are not necessarily even interested in the same cause.  A primary election simply turns the general election into runoff between the two government sanctified major party candidates.

The issue of corrupt conventions that served to provided the impedus for the primary election system is in fact little more than a red herring.  If a political party cannot run the process it uses to select its candidate in a fair and open manner, it can be punished at the polls during the general election.

4 thoughts on “ON POLITICAL PARTIES: WHY WE NEED CONVENTIONS

  1. kgotthardt – Thank you for the compliment.

    I do not mean to suggest that everyone has an obligation to participate in a political party. As you point out, there is more than one way to accomplish our political objectives.

    We each in fact have an obligation to do what we believe is right. We also should use our talents in the way we believe is most effective. How political parties figure into what we do is something each of us must decide individually.

    Like

  2. This IS a great post….well researched and nicely stated!

    Love this: “To entrust the education of children to politicians is foolishness of the first class. ” LOL. Ain’t THAT the truth!

    I don’t dispute the rights for parties to exist, nor do I think they are ineffective (as they have proven). However, what about grassroots organizations and issue-based groups having the power to sway government and public opinion? There is something so attractive and meaningful about people united for a cause and not a party which can get cumbersome and trip over its own political feet.

    http://luxuriouschoices.blogspot.com/2008/06/why-i-dont-like-parties.html

    Like

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