It's time to move beyond party labels

November 11, 2008|By Patt Morrison

The election's over; should political parties be over too? Is it time to junk the D's and the R's after politicians' names, and all the baggage that comes with them?

How meaningful and relevant are candidates' political parties anymore? When a New England Republican can be more progressive than a Texas Democrat, when millions regard themselves as independents and occupy the takeout-menu middle on political issues, why do we need to belong to parties?

Barack Obama is in the Democratic Party but in some ways seems not to be of it. He built his own political operation and fundraising mechanisms, and so - unlike Bill Clinton, who constructed his political machine within the party framework - owes less to the Democratic edifice than he does to the support of an even bigger tent full of Americans. The voters' $10 or $20 donations gave them a much greater stake in Mr. Obama's candidacy than that D after his name.

The same is true of John McCain, the self-styled maverick who would have done better, as he well knew, without that scarlet R on his chest.

If we are postmodern and post-racial, is it time to be post-party, with a new candidate-by-candidate, issue-by-issue model that doesn't reach across the aisle but gets rid of the aisle altogether?

The country could, as it often does, follow California. The reform governor, Hiram Johnson, was onto something in 1911 when he made all local offices nonpartisan and banned parties from endorsing in nonpartisan races. Both state parties were in the grip of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Johnson's reforms gave voters ways around the party bosses, such as the ballot initiative and nonpartisan local elections.

"Republican" and "Democrat" are still weighty designations, even in California. State-level races aren't covered by Johnson's ban, and Sacramento politicians still live and die by those R's and D's. Even in local contests, voters realize that candidates probably have some party identity, but overall, the party apparatus just isn't as powerful as it could be.

Before wall-to-wall news and the Internet, political parties were information conduits to voters. Now every voter can find a candidate's Web site and discover where he or she stands on everything from credit swap defaults to hunting wolves from helicopters. Without party affiliation, candidates would have to take a stand on every matter of substance, and without that easy shorthand, voters would have to do their homework.

A party-free system hews closer to what the Founders desired; James Madison in particular was mistrustful of parties, which he called "factions," referring in the Federalist Papers to "the mischief of factions."

So how about this bumper sticker: "Free the Capitol Hill 535!" Like everything else about democracy, it'd be messy and imperfect - but better than the alternative.

Patt Morrison is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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