Californians experimented with the “Jungle” or “Top Two” primary earlier this month. This primary system amounts to a rigging of our election, given that it was constructed by political ‘reformers’ in order to yield pre-determined outcomes which, we’re told by the Good and the Great of our political world, are good for us whether we happen to think so or not. It is aimed at extirpating the influences of ideological parties from our politics (a curious goal to begin with, particularly at a time when more people than ever before in our country are mobilised along ideological lines and motivated by ideological beliefs) by throwing primary candidates from all parties into a single primary and then only allowing two of them through to the general election.
The “Top Two” primary system has been defended on any number of grounds: some argue that anything is better than the current system (a claim which ignores not only the fact that things can always get worse in a system like California’s, but also the fact that California’s dysfunctionality doesn’t have anything to do with having an overly-representative spectrum of political opinion on the November ballot); others say that the ‘moderation for its own sake’ that the system promised to create is just what California needs (I’d wish those moderates good luck hammering out an economic program along a-philosophical lines, but it turns out that “Top Two” doesn’t even have the benefit of achieving its stated goals in the course of trashing democratic principles); and for some, all reform is good reform, constant motion being more desirable than considered contemplation, and obsessive reorganisation being infinitely preferable to rational reform.
But there is something else, rather disturbing, creeping out from amidst the excuses. One of my worries is that using “Top Two” to rig the election (Seriously, why just two parties in the general election? Why not three? Or four?) will lead to even greater disenchantment with our political system on the part of Californians. Turnout is already abysmally low in the state, and it is particularly bad in the summer elections which comprise the primaries. This means that during the elections when most people are voting, they will have even fewer choices. If one of the reasons why few people are voting in California’s elections, particularly those which focus on statewide officials and measures, is that they feel that their viewpoints are not represented or their concerns not addressed, narrowing the field in November is only likely to exacerbate this dangerous and disconcerting sense of detachment.
Now in answer to this, proponents of “Top Two” say “too bad”. It is, they point out, people’s own fault if they’re not paying attention during the primary, and if you don’t vote, then you don’t have any right to complain. They say we shouldn’t worry about low turnout...it just means that those of us who are engaged have more influence.
Strictly speaking, they’re right. It’s true, of course, that elections are still legally legitimate irrespective of the number of people who participate in them. But the attitude that the widespread alienation of so many citizens from the political process and political discourse is the fault of those citizens is a terrible one, and one which we embrace at our ultimate peril. Rather than dismiss it as a manifestation of apathy, we should try to understand and counter political alienation. Because alienation from the mainstream practise and discourse of politics is never really the end of the story. That alienation—born in this case, I suspect, out of unconscionable economic inequality, enormous social and regional chasms, and the accumulation of real political power amongst the spectacularly wealthy—will resurface, and if history is any guide it will resurface in ways which are unpleasant, divisive, and quite possibly violent. In most societies, citizenship and membership are defined by access to opportunities, institutions, and a general sense of well-being and contentedness. Massive public disinvestment—whether it is embraced fulsomely on the right, or taken up reluctantly in the Democratic Party—is pushing more and more people to the margins of what qualifies as membership.
People on those margins will increasingly find it difficult to gain access to a quality education—whether at the K-12 or college/university level. As a result, they will be less and less likely to find the kind of work which provides security in terms of health and well-being both now and in old age. The assault on organised labour—which is almost entirely concerned with an ideological objection to the premise of unionisation as opposed to any actual abuses of labour rights—will undercut the well-being of the work force at large. In economic down-turns, brought about to the minds of most people, by the irresponsible machinations of the financial world, those on the margins will be most vulnerable, and will find increasingly less security in our increasingly shredded safety net.
In other words, the ties that bind us, the collective responsibility that we’ve historically felt that we owed one another, and the opportunities and institutions—access to which has defined the borders of our society—which empower members of that society, will all be weakened.
At a moment when our society is under such strain, we should be doing everything we can to widen the spectrum of beliefs represented, to make it easier for people to participate meaningfully irrespective of their outlook, and to open up our politics (for instance, a proportional representation system might actually yield more political parties, both breaking the dominance of Democrats and Republicans and forcing our representatives to negotiate more thoughtfully). Yes, people should participate more, and should work to educate themselves about the political stakes in elections, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that non-participation can be a powerful political statement of its own, and one which might forecast things to come.
“Top Two”, and similar reform measures which seek to water down our politics, and to narrow the opportunities for full participation, do precisely the opposite of what we should be doing, which is to try to re-engage people. And we should re-engage people by recognising that in the long run our democratic deficit is a more serious threat than our financial one, and that we need to adapt our political structure to a population which is becoming more ideological rather than less, more diverse rather than more homogenous, and multidimensional as opposed to binary.
We stifle political discourse in the name of ‘moderation’ at our peril.