What we are witnessing is the beginning—the early movement—in the death of the two-party system as we know it. This is a revolt of the pragmatic center. And that is a good thing for the American people because those parties and the media that feed on them have indeed become a form of nomenklatura. They depend on each other. They are the mutual gate keepers of an old and sclerotic bureaucracy from which their jobs flow in a system of patronage as elaborate as the Czar’s. No wonder watching CNN tonight I felt as if I were watching a wake. They are threatened by what is going on—as they should be.
I don’t know that I believe that. Any good political scientist will tell you that we’re probably overdue for a realignment—but realignments rotate the societal cleavage lines, finding a new way to split the center; they generally don’t produce “the pragmatic center” versus “everyone else.”
Realignments are fundamentally about changes in the issues that separate voters between the parties. Now, maybe the “war/no-war” issue is a possible realignment pivot; I honestly don’t know. It certainly sees political figures of all stripes squabbling within their own parties more than usual. But that’s not anything to do with the “pragmatic center.”
Yet, arguably, the pragmatic center won in California. That was largely due to the ballot format, and in particular due to the fact that party activists were not the gatekeepers for candidates to receive a major-party label on the replacement ballot. Look at the figures: six of the top seven candidates in the replacement ballot had a party affiliation, and five of the seven were affiliated with a major party; the top five major party candidates received 94.3% of the vote, the Green party candidate received 2.8%, while the highest independent tally (0.6%) was for Huffington, who essentially ran as a Democrat. If primary voters, comprised mostly of Republican and Democratic activists, had been able to be gatekeepers for the ballot—as they are in virtually every other partisan election in the United States—chances are the “pragmatic center” option wouldn’t have even made it on the ballot, even though it’s fairly clear Schwarzenegger was the Pareto winner* of the election.
Unless the pragmatic center can break down these barriers to entry for their preferred candidates, or establish a viable third party label (something Schwarzenegger probably isn’t interested in heading, particularly after the Ventura debacle), chances are that the major parties—and particularly the party activists who control them—will continue to win almost all elections.
Pieter Dorsman of Peaktalk has some interesting thoughts on this topic as well, including a cautionary tale about single-party democracy in his adopted homeland. And, I particularly like Matthew’s reaction to something Michael J. Totten said:
This isn't really recall-related, but Michael Totten follows up on Simon's post with a "can't we all just be nonpartisan?" plea, and cites increasing complexity as a reason to move toward a more nuanced politics. That's fine for folks like Michael, but there's a downside to increased complexity—most consumers of political information have little time to think about complexity, and instead receive their information in little bite-sized pieces. It's this famine of depth which encourages hyperpartisanship, as gut reactions predominate over reason. If anything, the trend isn't toward the death of the two-party system as we know it, but toward the creation of an increasingly polarized and anti-intellectual pair of party masses, along with a highly informed politically moderate elite (i.e. folks like Michael and Roger), who occupy the position of “kingmaker” in future elections.
That sounds about—and, dare I say, scarily—right.
Meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds’ semi-blog at MSNBC thinks the recall is an effective way to upset special interest politics-as-usual; I think that, again, goes to the format of the ballot, which allowed a moderate figure to run with a party label without significant initial support from that party’s activists. The other major candidates, however, were in hock to established state interests: Bustamante with the Old Left and racial unity groups, McClintock with the Christian right, and Camejo and Huffington with the Sierra Clubbers. In any event, generally speaking I don’t have a problem with organized interests influencing politics, even if the playing field could be made more level. (And I’d slightly quibble with Mancur Olson’s interpretation of Japan’s interest group structure; by the accounts I’ve read, the post-war kieretsu were not too different from the business cross-holdings prior to the war. Olson’s probably correct when it comes to the bigger picture, however.)
* Basically, this means that Schwarzenegger was the candidate who would have been acceptable to the largest proportion of the electorate.