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


  1. says

    My proposal isn’t that time consuming not that much of a contribution by either candidates or labor. Candidates spend millions to get the cherished Democratic Party endorsement, surely giving five percent of that sum toward grassroots work isn’t too much of a tax on the party leaders whose opponents dub them the “tax and spend,(of taxpayer money) ,party.”
    As far as labor goes they aren’t a charity, they are in fact the “organized wing” of the Democratic Party and might be much better off if a modest twenty percent of their political resources went to precinct organizing.
    Third in terms of time and sanity , isn’t it much more interesting to see campaigns waged around issue instead of election campaign pledges.I don’t begrudge candidates or elected officials but see how a small percent of resources could help win reforms instead of the sweat but empty poetry of campaign promises.
    Other than that I agree with you on principle.

  2. says

    This article has the merit of recognizing that for progressives and other would-be reformers the key issues are not the specific grand topics of public decisions – momentous as they can be (peace, economy, environment, …). Rather, key to everything is how public decisions get made.

    Yes, the proper focus of behavior would be directly on the issues. Or, second-best (sometimes a poor second-best) at least on allegedly issue-focused political parties. Yes, it’s too bad that behavior to influence public decisions is instead focused on individual candidates and money for them.

    But the trend toward this actual behavior was and is not accidental. The behavior was and is enabled and favored by the USA political systems’ established constitutional and legal rules. Not only the USA rules which favor individual office-holders, each in their satrapies, versus political parties. But more fundamentally the world-wide conventional rules whereby all public decisions get made by a relative few long-term expensively-elected or appointed officeholders, and the ordinary citizen’s role is reduced to that of an occasional mass-voter cipher.

    A sustainable improvement can be expected only after change of these system rules, so that the forces and currents which arise from the rules will favor good rather than bad behavior.

    Unfortunately, the article’s well-intentioned proposed solutions overlook this. They amount to relying on voluntary charity (in this case from organized labor) to solve a systemic problem rather than directly attacking the ongoing source of the problem. (It’s as if we were told to rely on voluntary charity to feed the destitute, without recourse to systematic economic stimulus and public welfare.)

    Rather than asking for voluntary action to swim upstream against the currents and forces that are generated by the system rules, what is needed is to change the rules, so as to alter the course of the ensuing natural currents and forces, so that good behavior equates just to swimming downstream.

    As the article suggests, all might be a lot better if only we the citizens were always ‘organized’. However, in truth most of us do not have the combination of time and inclination to be forever ‘organized’ on all our favorite issues. Nor – given a reasonable system of public decision-making – would we need to be.

    We would do better, with far less prolonged pain, to focus on organizing once to do but one thing: once and for all to change the decision-making system. Today’s handing over of decision-making to the same few, for long periods and over many issues, is a recipe for over-concentration and abuse of power and thus also (per Lord Acton’s famed warning) for corruption. It’s a recipe for alienating and wasting the knowledge, zeal and contributions of all the non-elite citizenry. Rather, we need a system where public-decision-making power is decentralized to the great mass of citizens – which in our day is reasonably well educated and qualified to help make close-to-home (and yet other) decisions. Well-deliberated decisions could be made by each of many short-term randomly constituted citizens’ decision juries.

    Rather than having to agonize day-in day-out how to influence and in many cases super-perk and corrupt the oligarchic poohbahs that make all the big and little public decisions, we ordinary citizens would need but to take our turns in manageable short-term jury stints.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *