Is the Political Party Over|
Open primaries and non-partisan races may bring an end to political parties
Fouad Ajami, professor at The Johns Hopkins
School of Advanced International Studies, wrote last month on the op-ed
page of The Wall Street Journal about
civilization sage and Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis. According
to Ajami and others, Lewis is best known as the scholar who, before 9/11,
predicted the rise of Islamic Fascism in his work, “What Went Wrong?
Ajami writes of Lewis’ work:
In the American academy, he may be swimming against
the currents of postmodernism and postcolonial history…but countless
Arab and Iranian and Turkish readers recognize their tormented civilization
in what he has written. They know that he has not come to the material
of their history driven by bad faith, or by a desire for dominion. They
take him at his word, a man of the Anglo-Saxon world, convinced that the
ways of the West today carry with them the hopes of other civilizations.
In one of his many splendid books, “Cultures in Conflict: Christians,
Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery,” he gave voice to both
his fears and to his faith. “It may be that Western culture will
indeed go: The lack of conviction of many of those who should be its defenders
and passionate intensity of its accusers may well join to complete its
destruction. But if it does go, the men and women of all the continents
will thereby be impoverished and endangered.”
In the battle to save our civilization, University of Oregon President
Dave Frohnmayer has emerged as a combatant. In a speech last month, Frohnmayer
was clear about what he believes to be the negative drift of our culture.
“If you leave with only one memory today, one sense of being filled
by anything I say, it is this—that bitter partisanship, which is
the political equivalent of road rage, threatens to leave us, a state
and a people, a tangled wreck on the side of Oregon’s road toward
progress…with every attack ad, with every ratings-driven no-holds-barred
talk show program, with every ballot measure that divides, we grow sicker,
more wrecked and more insane.”
Frohnmayer admonished the audience to “count to ten” before
engaging in this destructive dialogue.
Days later, ironically, Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly would
forget to count to ten when he ended his “O’Reilly Factor”
broadcast shouting, “Dave Frohnmayer is a coward who needs to be
The controversy that caught O’Reilly’s attention was the
publication of a university-supported anarchist student newspaper, The
Insurgent, which depicted Jesus in blasphemous sexual positions—“The
Da Vinci” code on steroids. To Frohnmayer’s credit he withstood
two days of O’Reilly’s national television campaign for his
resignation and didn’t bite. Frohnmayer counted to ten, and refused
to participate in what he called “a ratings-driven publicity attempt.”
Well, okay, he didn’t have to defend the students’ right to
publish obscene material on national TV, but he might have explained his
defense of the publication to taxpayers and parents. Instead there was
no discourse, civil or otherwise.
Those are the choices? Ratings-driven entertainment or silence? This
was no lesson in civil discourse, but rather a lesson in conflict avoidance.
Frohnmayer’s speech went on to advocate for and against certain
measures aimed at the Oregon ballot this fall. He asked his audience to
vote against a state spending limit, calling it “a cynical trick
that would destroy an already emaciated state infrastructure.” He
also advocated against a new term limits initiative. But mostly he used
the speech to advocate for an open primary and for making at least one
chamber of the state legislature non-partisan.
Some leaders would have us believe that partisanship has caused our sometimes
ugly public discourse and shortened attention span. The solution: Get
rid of political parties—they are the scoundrels. Is Frohnmayer
right? Do political parties play a corrosive role in the condition of
Blaming partisanship for Oregon’s problems seems shortsighted.
Ironically, from the time of Dave Frohnmayer’s defeat in the Oregon
gubernatorial election of 1990 to Ron Saxton’s victory last month
in the Oregon GOP primary, a span of roughly 16 years, only one political
party in Oregon was capable of winning statewide elections. Thankfully,
that era may be ending. Rather than blame Oregon’s political parties
for our problems, the blame seems better fitted to the state’s 20-year
After all, if roughly half of Oregonians have not been represented in
statewide office for 20 years, it’s not surprising that the voices
we do hear bear a hint of bitterness or anger. It doesn’t make it
right, but the lack of access to political representation explains a lot.
Meanwhile, the elite in their positions of power advocate further softening
and quieting the debate and wonder why anyone would argue. But it’s
a lot easier to speak softly from well-positioned pedestals to captive
Frohnmayer blames political partisanship for angry emails, heated talk
radio and the heavy use of ballot measures. We think Oregon’s sometimes
monotonous, hardened public dialogue was caused by uncompetitive political
situations—a confluence of ’90s Left Coast liberalism, high-tech
success and Clinton popularity.
Analyze the problem the way Frohnmayer and Phil Keisling have, and the
answer is ridding the state of political parties. Analyze the problem
the way we have—that the state has been uncompetitive but is no
longer—and the solution looks different: Engage, loudly if you must,
quietly if you prefer, in what promises to be a very competitive governor’s
race between Democrat incumbent Ted Kulongoski, Republican challenger
Ron Saxton and Independent Ben Westlund.
Democracy is hard business, and though George Washington may not have
liked them, political parties have proven essential to our nation’s
230-year experiment. Other democracies have also found political parties
essential. Recently, Germany entered into its second grand coalition of
the postwar era—the two major parties deciding to temporarily share
power due to a hung election. They did, however, decide not to rid themselves
of party labels.
Proponents of an open primary will argue that they are not ending political
parties; they’re creating a system where moderate voices will rise
to the general election ballot. Frohnmayer describes the benefits of the
open primary this way, “Allow the disaffected independents to have
a voice in the primary elections and mute the intransigence of ideological
zealots at the same time. Recapture the center, from which both progress
and stability usually flow.”
We argue the center has been recaptured. After all, Kulongoski, Saxton
and Westlund are no one’s idea of ideological zealots.
Starting with vote-by-mail, Oregon’s leaders have tried to prop
up our shrinking democracy by softening and making it easy for citizens,
and, most importantly, by making it convenient. Whatever you do, they
worry, don’t ask more of the electorate.
Oregon soldiers, right now, are fighting and dying in the Middle East—but
only a third of our citizens care to vote, let alone put up a lawn sign,
canvass a neighborhood, or, God forbid, run for office themselves. Citizens
want democracy lite, and thus far we have obliged ourselves by cheapening
The fault isn’t in our political parties; it is in us, our culture.
And so far, political parties have done a pretty good job of helping protect
us from ourselves. Each time we dismantle a component that makes democracy
cumbersome, we also dismantle a component that makes democracy work, and
we move a step closer to tyranny.
A former member of the Blair cabinet, David Blunkett, told the Financial
Times in May that what the left fails to understand is that every
time the public gets scared they move right, not left. Contrary to Frohnmayer’s
opinion, political parties in the long run are a force against reactionary
politics, not a force for them.
So before we dismantle, let’s do what Frohnmayer suggests: Count
to ten … and then vote No on the open primary.