Open Primary is not a panacea for partisanship

Given the oft-bemoaned existence of partisanship in California politics, it is no surprise that imaginative remedies are frequently proposed. The standard anti-partisan argument goes that, because political parties are naturally polarized and ill-disposed to play well with each other, some sort of check must be placed on their fanatical opposition so as to permit the occasional bit of government action to pass muster. In California, this argument becomes especially popular in the case of taxation which, as any Californian knows, is barred from increasing in the absence of a 2/3 legislative majority, thanks to the influence of antitax legislation such as Proposition 13.  As a result, some supporters of “bipartisanship” appeal to the notion that more moderation in California politics would be a good thing so as to justify getting around fiscal restraints.

For people like this, a new report from the Los Angeles Times on the controversial “top-two primary” being floated on the November ballot may supply succor. The Times reports that, “paralytic party partisanship in Sacramento can’t be cured by an open primary system alone, but it could commence the treatment. That’s the conclusion one can glean from a report released Wednesday night by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.” At the same time, the Institute has noted that “An open primary doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to have a more moderate Legislature, but it’s more likely.

To those who seek greater legislative compromise, this news is no doubt welcome. However, its implications may, upon closer inspection, be very troubling. To be sure, the current climate of partisanship in California is toxic, and to be sure also, it has suffocated real change just as often as frivolity. But one must be aware of fine distinctions, and to take issue with the current balance of parties in California politics is hardly reason to reject the entire framework of partisanship. In fact, that framework arguably restrains political malpractice in a way which more cordial, “moderate” lawmaking would fail to do, in the sense that partisanship is often a roadblock to government overreach because of the tendency of minority parties to obstruct, no matter what the issue currently under consideration.

This, in turn, forces the majority party to consider whether it is worth staking its credibility on specific policy remedies, rather than throwing multiple legislative options against the wall and hoping they stick. Moreover, while the necessity for compromise on taxation is doubtlessly an obstacle to the consideration of certain fiscal options, it is arguably the case that those fiscal options are the most dangerous to California’s economy, especially in times of economic distress. Finally, the fact that so many legislators are complaining that tax-heavy options are off the table may say more about the unimaginative nature of the majority party than about the problem with parties in general.

But even if one concedes that partisanship is an evil, one has to ask if Proposition 14 is an appropriate remedy, and the answer to this, as this author has argued repeatedly, is still “no.” The Times explains: “Researcher McGhee examined top-two state primary systems in Washington and Louisiana. And he reviewed California’s brief experiment with another form of open primary — a ‘blanket ballot’ system — in the 1998 and 2000 elections.” There are a number of problems with this approach which should be noted. First, comparing California to Washington or Louisiana, both of which are more noticeably moderate electorally, is a subtle instance of apples-to-oranges reasoning. Moreover, given the rage over postpartisanship and “third way” politics which existed during the tail end of the Clinton Presidency, comparing the poisonously hostile environment of today to the elections of 1998/2000 is also dubiously accurate.

And even in the cases cited, the effect of a top-two primary was ultimately minimal. McGhee explains: “Moderates were more likely to be elected to the Assembly [and] voting in the Assembly was more bipartisan during those years…there was no comparable effect in the state Senate.” And as the Times notes elsewhere in its report, “In a heavily Democratic legislative district, it’s possible that the runoff could pit two Democrats against each other — one a liberal, the other more moderate. Ditto a district dominated by GOP voters — a conservative against a centrist. It’s not inconceivable that a Green Party candidate could wind up in a San Francisco runoff, or a Libertarian in an Orange County general election.”

Even if one presumes that these third party prospects could exist, and that they were elected, is it really a panacea for partisanship to substitute unrepentant ideologues such as are found in the Green Party/Libertarian Party for the sort of partisan attack dogs that exist in the major parties? Certainly, such an arrangement would be more interesting and more philosophically satisfying, but hardly less partisan. Thus, Proposition 14 finds itself in a tricky conundrum – it either supports the institutionalization of further partisanship through the legitimating of minor parties, or it simply permits further politics as usual to occur in an era when partisanship is the overstocked order of the day.