The election's over; should political parties be over too? Is it time to junk the Ds and the Rs after politicians' names, and all the baggage that comes with them?
How meaningful and relevant are candidates' political parties anymore? When a New England Republican can be more progressive than a Texas Democrat, when millions regard themselves as independents and occupy the takeout-menu middle on political issues, why do we need to belong to parties? Why red, why blue, why even purple, when there's the big deluxe Crayola box to choose from?
Barack Obama is in the Democratic Party but in some ways seems not to be of it. He built his own political operation and fundraising mechanisms, and so -- unlike Bill Clinton, who constructed his political machine within the party framework -- owes less to the Democratic edifice than he does to the support of an even bigger tent full of Americans. The voters' $10 or $20 donations gave them a much greater stake in Obama's candidacy than that D after his name. They had actual skin in this game.
The same is true of John McCain, the self-styled maverick who would have done better, as he well knew, without that scarlet "R" on his chest.
If we are postmodern and post-racial, is it time to be post-party, with a new candidate-by-candidate, issue-by-issue model that doesn't reach across the aisle but gets rid of the aisle altogether?
The country could, as it often does, follow California. The reform governor, Hiram Johnson, was onto something in 1911 when he made all local offices nonpartisan and banned parties from endorsing in nonpartisan races. Both state parties were in the grip of the Southern Pacific Railroad -- "The Octopus" of the J. Frank Norris novel -- and Johnson's reforms gave voters ways around the party bosses, like the ballot initiative and nonpartisan local elections.
This puzzles newcomers and pundits who grew up with the great party patronage machines of cities in the East and the Midwest. That's not how we do things here. As the 2000 Democratic National Convention was ramping up in L.A., Gov. Gray Davis told my colleague, George Skelton, that Californians' attitude was ho-hum at best: " 'Go have your convention. We're going surfing.' "
"Republican" and "Democrat" are still weighty designations. State-level races aren't covered by Johnson's ban, and Sacramento politicians still live and die by those Rs and Ds. Even in local contests, voters realize that candidates probably have some party identity, but overall the party apparatus just isn't as powerful as it could be.
For example, California has repeatedly knocked down state party walls with open and crossover primary voting (until Republicans and Democrats have united to close them back up again). An open system was in effect for a time after World War II. In 1948, Republican congressional candidate Richard Nixon won the Democratic primary! A Democratic campaign flier described him as "a fearless champion of
Before wall-to-wall news and the Internet, political parties were information conduits to voters. Now every voter can find a candidate's website and discover where he or she stands on everything from credit swap defaults to hunting wolves from helicopters. Without Ds or Rs after their names, candidates would have to take a stand on every matter of substance, and without that easy party-affiliation shorthand, voters would have to do their homework.
California voters take to all this naturally. Nearly 20% register as "decline to state." And "Party of One," the title of Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub's book about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is about right. There are years of daylight between the governor and some California Republicans, not to mention national party mavens. Schwarzenegger, who endorsed McCain, was merely polite about Sarah Palin and didn't bother to show at the GOP's grim election-night party in Irvine.
A party-free system hews closer to what the founders desired; James Madison in particular was mistrustful of parties, which he called "factions," referring in the Federalist Papers to "the mischief of factions."
So how about this bumper sticker? "Free the Capitol Hill 535!" Like everything else about democracy, it'd be messy and imperfect -- but better than the alternative.