Our nation’s first president really disliked political parties.
He wasn’t alone. Most of the Founding Fathers, their experiences based upon the bloody English Civil War a century earlier, viewed political parties and factionalism more generally with suspicion. Common wisdom at the time suggested that once people became more loyal to their causes than their nations — parliamentarianism versus absolute monarchy in the case of the English Civil War, or Protestantism versus Catholicism through large portions of preceding European history — disunion and bloodshed inevitably resulted.
That’s why both the Articles of the Confederation and its considerably more popular sequel, the Constitution, categorically fail to mention political parties at all. It’s why George Washington warned “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally” in his Farewell Address, and why he further warned that:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Too bad he was wrong.
Okay, I admit, he wasn’t wrong about the destructiveness of political factionalism — anybody who says otherwise after Jan. 6 shouldn’t be taken seriously. Where he and the rest of the Founding Fathers erred was in the idea that we, as a nation that elects its political leadership, could somehow rise above political factionalism and discard it entirely. Even among the considerably more materially and culturally homogenous white male property-owning voters of the early United States, it was entirely natural for like-minded voters to voluntarily associate and organize according to their common interests with the twin goals of both advancing their interests and subverting competing interests. Those associations and organizations ultimately led to our nation’s first political parties.
Since those early days, regulating the activities of such organizations has been a recurring challenge for every halfway functional
democracy republic electoralist government (I really wish our nation’s two largest political parties had different names so we could talk about our system of government without implicitly supporting one party over the other) on the planet, including our 50 state governments. Nevada, for example, has an entire chapter of statutes largely dedicated to regulating political parties and their role in our state’s election process — NRS 293, which regulates both “minor” political parties, such as the Libertarian and Independent American parties, and “major” political parties, including the Republican and Democratic parties.
The regulations our state applies against political parties reflect the traditional ambivalence Americans have always had against them. Though “minor” political parties — those selected by fewer than 10 percent of voters on their registration forms — are viewed as mostly harmless and governed with a light touch, while the operations of “major” parties in Nevada are heavily micromanaged. The number of delegates from voting precincts in county conventions is defined by statute (NRS 293.133), as are the number of members in each county’s central committee (at least one per precinct, per NRS 293.143) and the number of members in each “major” party’s state committee (at least one per county, per NRS 293.153).
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, like George Washington and approximately 23 percent of Nevada’s registered voters, is at least notionally skeptical of political parties. Not skeptical enough to declare himself a nonpartisan like his former colleague Patricia Farley did in 2017, mind you, but skeptical enough to file an initiative petition in 2020 (which I opposed) and also to introduce SB121. Either measure, if passed, would implement a “blanket primary,” allowing nonpartisan voters to vote for partisan candidates in primary elections, followed by a top-two general election. Former Washingtonians and Californians would find the resulting system very familiar as it’s virtually identical to the systems used there.
The logic behind this measure, as former Assemblyman Pat Hickey pointed out on Twitter, is that political parties are private organizations. So why should disenfranchised taxpayers pay for publicly funded primary elections to pick candidates selected by private organizations?
This would be a good point if SB121 abolished the requirement for “major” parties to participate in taxpayer-funded primary elections and instead permitted them to select candidates the way “minor” parties do — at organization-funded elections preceding the candidate filing deadline on the second Friday in March preceding election years. It does not.
It would also be a good enough point if SB121 abolished all political affiliations from all taxpayer-funded ballots in Nevada and treated every race as a non-partisan race. Why, after all, should disenfranchised taxpayers pay for the ink used to announce which candidates are selected by private organizations? But SB121 does not do this, either.
Instead, what the bill proposes is to allow non-presidential candidates to announce their “preferred” party identification (a dodge around California Democratic Party v. Secretary of State of California, which ruled political parties, like all organizations, enjoy freedom of association and cannot be forced to associate with candidates selected outside of their organizations). All registered voters, regardless of partisan political affiliation, would get to choose their favorite candidate in the primary. The two candidates with the highest vote totals would proceed to the general election.
In the past, this sort of measure has historically been pitched as a method of producing more reliably moderate candidates. Hypothetically speaking, candidates beholden to all voters in a primary would be more inclined to moderate their message than one who only needs to excite the party faithful. This, if you’re a moderate like Sen. Kieckhefer, sounds like a useful feature.
In practice, “blanket primaries” and top-two elections did nothing to keep Rep. Matt Shea from serving in the Washington legislature for over a decade while he simultaneously engaged in domestic terrorism. They also did nothing to moderate California’s most recent gubernatorial race, which finished with a Sanders-supporting Democrat defeating a proudly Trump-endorsed Republican.
Trouble is, as one of my favorite bumper stickers explains, policy outcomes don’t care about your intentions, even if you’re Sen. Kieckhefer.
In the real world, where political parties and partisan voters already exist, top-two elections with “blanket primaries” and listed party preferences are ridiculously easy to game, in no small part because Democrats seldom vote for Republicans, Republicans seldom vote for Democrats, and nonpartisan voters are rarely “nonpartisan” enough to be a coin flip away from voting either way. Consequently, it’s very easy for political parties to engage in “vote-splitting.”
Take, for example, an otherwise safe Democratic district which reliably produces a 60-40 split each general election. If several Democrats run for office in that district, two Republicans could also file and split their smaller 40 percent share evenly (20 percent each). If a single Democrat in that district isn’t able to receive 20 percent from all voters, the general election for that safe Democratic district would be between two Republicans. Thus, an otherwise “safe” Democratic district would be represented by a Republican, at least until the Democratic Party could twist enough arms and pull enough strings to keep only two Democratic candidates in the next primary.
This is why political parties are paradoxically more important in California and Washington than they are under Nevada’s current electoral process. To prevent vote-splitting, each major political party spends a considerable amount of time and effort convincing candidates to avoid running for office in districts they deem “safe” while simultaneously encouraging just the right number of candidates to run in the “safe” districts of the opposing party. This increased importance, meanwhile, fuels additional partisan activity as fundraisers and volunteers in each party fight to demonstrate the worthiness of their preferred candidates long before the “blanket primary” even begins.
There’s a reason California isn’t known for its “moderate” politics, especially over the past decade. The infamous “Flight 93 election” essay wasn’t written for a Texan think tank by a vacationing senator in Cancún, after all — it was written for the Claremont Institute in sunny Southern California.
Sen. Kieckhefer, like George Washington, isn’t entirely wrong. Incentives matter, and the incentives of our existing electoral system (at least nationally) frequently produce factionalism and insufferable partisan posturing. The only way around that is by changing the system that produces those incentives in the first place.
However, if you’re going to propose systemic changes, it’s important to observe the results of those changes when they’ve been implemented elsewhere. California’s and Washington’s politics are certainly no less partisan than Nevada’s. Perhaps that’s why, other than Sen. Kieckhefer and a few of his friends, neither voters, donors, nor legislators in Nevada are working overtime to replicate their failed system in the Silver State.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].