Our Candidate-Centered System Needs to Go

Politics_1There are many reasons why we have a bloated military budget, the world’s biggest carbon footprint and prison system, and bogus healthcare. One reason that is rarely discussed is the candidate-centered political system. Under our system, as you have probably noticed, almost all political resources go to candidates and their advertising campaigns. Granted, a lot of money is required to run for office but a more sound approach would involve party building especially on a local level; party building not so much for elections but for issue campaigns.

Under a candidate system, almost nothing is spent on communicating with party members or mobilizing them around important issues. Thomas Ferguson, in Golden Rule, argues that U.S.political parties organize money not people.
It doesn’t have to be that way and if it wasn’t we would be much better off.

Three potential ways to modify the system would be the following:

  • If a modest five percent of what statewide candidates and senate and assembly candidates spent in primaries went to party building, local party organizations would flourish. Phil Angelides and Steve Westley, for example, spent over $75 million beating each other up in the last primary for governor of California; assembly and state senate primaries can easily cost $500,000 to a million. The Democratic Party bylaws don’t allow members to make proposals or decisions involving serious money, so a change in the bylaws would need to come first.
  • A second alternative would be to have legislative staff members go out into the community and organize people like community organizers. Assembly and state senate staffs are fairly large and one person per staff could go a long way in building networks to mobilizing people around the issues candidate usually campaign on. They are restricted from working on an elected officials re-election effort but should, in fact, be spending time strengthening the voice of their districts voters. That’s what a legislative aid is in fact.
  • Another way to go would be to convince labor not to put all their eggs in the candidate-centered basket so to speak and use say twenty percent of their political resources to develop legislative precinct networks making issue campaigns as visible and as important as elections. Of all the progressive groups, labor has the most resources and could probably do the best job organizing people. Over the years, I have spoken to countless Democrats door to door who were not union members but wish they were. Without a union, their second wish would be to have a good legislative precinct network in their area, in their corner.

Our current system is a conservative approach toward the political process. Labor could do much better dividing their significant contributions between candidates and legislative precinct networks. In the long run, it will even reinforce the grassroots efforts for electoral work. Also it should be noted that according to extensive research by Gerber and Greene at Yale, mailers and other consultant-preferred campaign methods are almost as bad as dumping hard-earned rank and file contributions into the ocean.

CraigProgressives need to talk about and give a serious look at options to the regressive candidate-centered system. In Martin Wattenberg’s The Rise of Candidate-Centered Politics, he quotes David Broader of the Washington Post who writes, ‘Washington is run by 536 individual political entrepreneurs–each of them scrambling to stay in office no matter what.(Each saying) “I want mine.”‘ Surely we as progressives can demand a better system.

Craig Williams
Community activist and organizer

To learn more about election reform legislation go to OpenCongress.org H.R. 1826

Published by the LA Progressive on November 4, 2009
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