Jim Therrien: Political parties are essentially saying, 'Please, hijack my party!'


PITTSFIELD >> If the major political parties would like to retain some semblance of relevance, they might consider reforming their dysfunctional primary "systems" before the next election cycle is upon us.

Of course, it's too late to do anything about 2016. Both Democrats and Republicans will have to live with the fallout from a presidential nominating process that now seems firmly in the grip of non-party advocates on both the left and the right.

Put aside for a moment who you think is "right" or "wrong" on the issues; consider what we're seeing, and have seen for more than a decade. This is a primary format that actively encourages, even rewards extreme views to the detriment of moderate candidates — and one that ultimately radicalizes debate across the country.

Slanted social media

This time bomb has been building over several election cycles. It has escalated along with nonstop social media campaigns that slam opponents hour by hour, with endless slimy blips, taken out of context and outrageously slanted, but repeated over and over.

And the radicalization of American political life in general had already received a massive shove with the disgraceful Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, which opened the floodgates to unchecked campaign spending by the superwealthy and huge corporations.

Meanwhile, the "establishment" candidates, which mostly means moderates who have worked within one of the parties to get something done in their states and nationally, have found themselves under attack from the latest raging viral pols.

We should face the fact that past primary reforms designed to widen and ease voter participation today provide loopholes for non-party voters to influence nominations in an outsized way. And uncompromising advocates on both ends of the political spectrum have come to fully understand this.

It's too easy, for instance, to flood the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary with independents who've never done a thing for either party — and likely never will in the future unless it suits them. To me, this is the equivalent of both Republicans and Democrats grinning stupidly by some roadside and holding signs saying, "Please sir, hijack my party!"

This year the hijackers-in-chief are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — one a billionaire businessman who has generally mouthed support for Democrats in the past, the other an independent U.S. senator who only joined the Democratic Party to campaign for their nomination.

I think Americans tend to forget that the two parties are organizations set up to push the platform or agenda its members are generally agreed upon. A certain amount of party-crashing is acceptable, but a nomination process should not resemble a long-running segment of "American Idol," with the phone banks wide open to anyone who calls in.

Independents should certainly have the chance to run for president, but the current imbalance serves to radicalize debate during presidential years, and it produces more partisan candidates for all offices — and candidates who rarely if ever want to work with the "other side."

The fierce attacks on moderate party candidates now common in primaries have helped create a polarized Congress and similar nasty splits in many statehouses.

Notice that the nomination process starts in Iowa, where people can walk into a caucus, register to vote on the spot, then participate. Then the races move on to the small state of New Hampshire, where undeclared voters can cast ballots in either party's primary.

And then comes the Nevada caucus for the Democrats — with same day registration and a very low percentage of voters participating — and the South Carolina primary for Republicans. And that doesn't happen before nearly two weeks have passed since the New Hampshire primary.

This is a snail's pace schedule that greatly benefits the outsider who is building momentum, however ephemeral, in smaller states where motivated advocates can dominate without proving they have any solid national appeal.

The major parties certainly should allow independents to vote in their primaries and caucuses, but why not make them register sometime prior to Election Day? That isn't too much to ask. Make them somehow show that minimal commitment before they have a say on who the party nominates.

Another effective reform would be to schedule a mini-Super Tuesday around the time of the Nevada and Carolina voting — something to make all candidates demonstrate a wider appeal and their support among the party regulars.

I'd recommend four or five medium-size states — states like Georgia, Tennessee, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Oregon or Arizona, along with South Carolina and Nevada mixed in during the same time frame. That would provide some much needed balance to the current schedule.

Both parties are split

As it stands today, even if both Sanders and Trump are ultimately defeated for the party nomination, that won't happen quickly or without rancor, because they have momentum. And there will be an ever-widening split that weakens the parties the deeper into the primary season they go.

Whether they are "right" or "wrong" on the issues, the fact they may have damaged the party going into November is what concerns the party membership, and with good reason. Along with the fact that neither has much of a record of supporting the party they now want to lead.

Ideally, if I had my choice, there would be four strong political parties in the United States — conservative, Republican, Democratic and progressive. That way almost everyone would be able to vote for "a candidate we can believe in," not for the "lesser of two evils" candidate, as now seems the case most years for many voters. But I'm not counting on that formation emerging anytime soon.

For now, tamping down the more ardent fringe elements on both sides makes sense nationally and in every state capital. Getting rid of Citizens United and reforming the nominating process could go a long way toward doing that.

Jim Therrien covers city government for The Eagle.


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