Monday, July 21, 2008

The Unappreciated Primary

An effective nonpartisan must be an educator, of oneself first, and then of media, of the public, and, if elected, of one’s fellow legislators. The most important lesson that a nonpartisan must learn and internalize, and then teach to one’s supporters, and then the public at large, is the crucial importance of the party primary. Frank R. Kent, a veteran political reporter of The Baltimore Sun, a doyen of the profession, had this to say about party primaries in the primer that he wrote in 1923, The Great Game of Politics, which has gone through several re-printings:
To think that the general election is more important than the primary election, as most voters do, is to magnify the wrong side of the political picture. It ought to be reversed, and instead of, as now, many more voters voting in the general election than in the primaries, the public interest should be concentrated on the primaries first, and the general election second. As thing stand to-day, the popular tendency is to regard primaries as the particular concern of the politicians, and not of real interest to the average voter. The result is that often an absurdly small proportion of the qualified voters participate in the primaries.

There could not be a greater mistake. This lack of appreciation of what the primaries really mean, and the general neglect to participate in them, plays directly into the hands of the machine. It makes it ridiculously easy for the machine, through the precinct executives, to control the situation. It actually permits the machine to run the country.

Kent wrote at a time when paternalistic urban machines “ran” great cities, dominating their politics, and sometimes the politics of their state, as well. The day of these powerful machines, such as New York City’s Tammany Hall, that Lincoln Steffens pilloried in his muckraking classic The Shame of the Cities, is long over, but the major parties in cities, counties and states are still controlled by formal organizations which designate candidates, help finance them, and bring out the precinct workers who get out the vote. These party organizations are still headed by chairmen, who often have patronage in their gift, are often powerful, and without much of a stretch could be called “bosses.” So Kent’s wisdom and experience are still relevant.

From Kent’s perspective, the independent voter forfeits the chance to influence the choice of a party candidate in a primary, and is left with the candidate that the party leaders or party voters have chosen. Says Kent, “It ought to be clear that the man who votes in the general election and not in the primaries loses at least 50 per cent of the value and effectiveness of his vote as compared to the man who votes in both”. It would appear sensible, then, for an aspiring nonpartisan candidate, at the forefront of his message, to encourage independents to register in the party whose choice of candidate they’d most wish to influence, to become oxymoron nonpartisan Republicans or nonpartisan Democrats.

Kent’s point, so fundamental, has not registered with most voters in the more than eighty years since he first stated it, nor is it a political insight that party leaders are likely to draw to voters’ attention: the fewer primary voters not connected to the party apparatus, the better. But Kent’s point is so compelling that nonpartisans in and out of Congress should make it the first order of business to spread the word and keep drumming it into voter consciousness. Turning political independents into “party nonpartisans” could revolutionize American politics.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Political Prairie Fire

The technique of organizing support for nonpartisan candidates and running them in the primaries of major parties was the brainchild of a fascinating, troublesome character, Alfred C. Townley, whose formal education ended with high school, but whose fertile imagination and great ambition led him to failed plans for large-scale farming, to the Socialist Party as an organizer, and then, in 1915, to the formation and leadership of an extraordinary political movement, the Nonpartisan League (NPL) of North Dakota. The NPL had a brief period of remarkable success, widespread influence and national attention, but has largely been forgotten with time.

Robert P. Wilkins and Wynona Huchette Wilkins, in their bicentennial history of North Dakota say that “Townley owes his place in history to his appreciation that third parties have almost uniformly failed. His inspired idea was to operate within a established party, placing his nominees in its column on the ballot. This was possible in a state with a direct primary and without voter registration. Under that label, his candidate could carry the day in the November election.” This is precisely what the NPL did with remarkable success in 1916 and 1918 in North Dakota.

Townley’s well-organized NPL openly invaded the major party primaries, capturing houses of the legislature, the governorship, and many state offices in the general election. Having done so, they enacted into law their program, aimed at correcting abuses which the farmers, their principal constituents, believed they were suffering at the hands of the bankers, grain elevators, millers and railroads based in Minneapolis.

An important figure in the background, instrumental in organizing the victories, was William F. Lemke, a lawyer who had studied at the University of North Dakota, Georgetown and Yale, where he obtained his law degree. Lemke was elected attorney general of North Dakota in 1920.

In the election of 1916 the NPL won the governorship with Lynn Frazier, a sturdy, highly-respected farmer, a fellow undergraduate of Lemke’s at the University of North Dakota. They won control of the House of Representatives, as well. They failed to win control of the Senate because 24 of the 49 seats continued to be held by holdovers from the 1914 election. Of the 25 Senators elected in 1916, 14 of the Republicans and 4 of the Democrats were NPLers. In the 113 races for the House 72 of the 97 Republicans elected and 15 of the 16 Democrats elected were NPLers.

In 1918, NPL re-elected Governor Frazier and won control of both houses of the legislature. In the words of historian Larry Remele, NPL “obtained virtual hegemony in state government.” By the next year it had in place its program for a “New Day in North Dakota”: a state-owned bank to provide credit to farmers, state-owned mills and elevators, state-funded insurance for coops and farm buildings, and workmen’s compensation and a state-financed agency to aid construction of low-cost housing for urban workers.

In the Spring of 1917 the Congressman of the first North Dakota district, which included Grand Forks and Fargo, died, and the NPL decided to endorse for the office John M. Baer, a Democrat and cartoonist for the Nonpartisan Leader, NPL’s periodical. He won handily over the only other candidate who actively campaigned, an anti-NPL Republican. The NPL now had elected an office holder at the national level.

The star of the NPL, which shone so spectacularly in the 1916-1918 years, and which drew national attention and excitement, faded quickly under a combination of sad circumstances: incompetent management of state-owned agencies that it had created, a powerful counter-attack by the mainline organizations which focused on the socialist strain of some of its leaders, particularly Townley, and its radical program. NPL’s opposition to America’s involvement in the war in Europe became an easy target for its opponents. However, its influence lasted on into the New Deal era. Some of its leaders were elected to Congress: former Governor Lynn Frazier to the U.S. Senate in 1922 and former Attorney General William Lemke to the House of Representatives in 1932 as Republicans with NPL support. Their legislative triumph was the Frazier-Lemke Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act of 1935.

NPL gave rise to the Farmer-Labor Party of Wisconsin, and at times its influence spread to Minnesota and to a lesser degree to Montana, Idaho and Colorado, and even to western prairie provinces of Canada. It was, indeed, for a brief time, the Political Prairie Fire that gave the title to Robert L. Morlan’s pioneering history of the League.

Let it immediately be said that the NPL’s tactic of openly invading the primaries of the major parties is the only part of its modus operandi that A Modest Proposal is adopting: for actually, NPL was a nonpartisan party – an oxymoron – with a large dues-paying, card-carrying membership, paid organizers crisscrossing the countryside in Model Ts, signing up angry farmers; choosing its invasion candidates in open, unbossed conventions in which NPL leaders were ineligible for selection; and with a precise legislative program that it proposed to enact into law if and when it gained power. A Modest Proposal’s ambition is more modest: all it asks is that its invasion candidates be self-selected, independent in mind and spirit, and beholden to no one but themselves and their constituents; that their agenda be entirely their own, preferably including crucial issues that the majors have not faced up to, or have not done so seriously.