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Partisan Politics Needed in New County Government

THE King County Council is about to recommend to the voters that they merge the county government with Metro and make the expanded government “nonpartisan.” Bowing to nonpartisan municipal officials, an apparent council majority thinks that ending the role of parties in the county will improve the political process.
They’re wrong. The merger with Metro may be a good idea, but that cause would be undercut by eliminating partisan nomination and organization of county government.

Nonpartisan politics makes sense in a small constituency where the voters may be able to keep track of a few candidates, or in narrow-purpose entities such as the port. Even the City of Seattle, at about 500,000 population and growing very slowly, is still more or less comprehensible for voters and elected officials alike.

But King County has 1.5 million residents and is growing fast. Without parties to nurture candidacies, harmonize platforms, maintain countywide organizations, and help raise funds, power will devolve further to special interests, single-issue groups, and the personal organizations of officeholders.

Parties may have liabilities, but they do operate openly and under public laws. They tend to have a general interest in politics and thereby help offset the single-issue groups. In any event, it is laughable to try to make them sound menacing.

In King County we are so far from a party-machine system that our two dedicated, but avocational, party chairs have to plead with folks to become precinct committeepeople. They have few inducements to offer in a system with almost no patronage and little recognition. Now the parties stand to lose even their present role in recruiting and sponsoring regional candidates.

“Reform” can go too far. Each previous act to weaken the parties seemed warranted at the time, but the cumulative effect, if continued, will be to reform the parties out of existence.

In Washington we have no party registration. We can vote in either party’s primary, even skipping back and forth between party primaries. And soon we are to have a presidential primary, a reform that I promoted as secretary of state, but that does diminish the authority of the parties.

Congress is yielding to reform groups that have become institutionalized special interests themselves and are preparing legislation to reduce still more the parties’ role in funding their own candidates. The selfish interest of Congress members in this mischief is to make their incumbency even more secure, since the change will hamper parties in recruiting and financing challengers.

Writing from a demoralized Germany after World War I, the sociologist Max Weber noted the evils of political parties in America, but also noted that party bosses at least had an incentive to bring forward strong candidates.

In Germany, by contrast, the professional bureaucracy was given powers that in the United States went to politicians, thereby making the “nonpolitical” career much more attractive than elective political life. As a consequence, the electorate had no control over the decision-makers.

This was a condition, incidentally, that lasted into the Weimar Republic and helped weaken the political realm against the siege of the Nazis.

Power will be exercised by somebody, Weber was saying. If you do not want to be governed by elective politicians operating through parties, you will be governed by unelected elites who ignore the parties and, enjoying power without accountability to the voters, tend to become arrogant.

Americans love to look down on their politicians, but they know they have reason to fear powerful nonpoliticians. As some American workers put it to Weber when he visited this country, “We prefer having people in office whom we can spit upon, rather than a caste of officials that spit upon us, as is the case with you.”

But we now have a caste of unelected political powers in our own country, and if they don’t spit on the citizens, they also don’t mind throwing their weight around.

Not only is the bureaucracy much bigger and more pervasive than in Weber’s time, so too are the tribes of lobbyists and such newcomers as political-action committees, professional campaign consultants, media commentators and investigators, pollsters, self-appointed “ethicists,” think-tank analysts (and writers such as myself), and sundry organized interests and pressure groups. Almost all are “nonpartisan.”

Whereas the party leader and the avocational politician live “for” politics, the new elites – the middlemen of public life – live “off” politics. They often are fine people who serve useful functions. But they are not accountable to the voters.

Responding to the influence of these middlemen (and women), moreover, is a new type of professional politician appearing among elected officialdom. As Alan Ehrenhalt writes in a new book, “The United States of Ambition,” some of this breed are in partisan offices, some in nonpartisan ones. All tend to be loners who organize a kind of personal machine and place themselves in nomination.

They have no particular philosophy or program, are swayed easily by polls, and – lacking party support or avoiding it – spend their most creative energies in a kind of perpetual campaign.

Unable to imagine life out of office, and lacking a party to fall back upon in hard times, they tend to be averse to risk. There are many elected officials who do not fit this description, but if you wonder why leadership in the higher levels of government is becoming rarer, this may be part of the explanation.

How odd a “reform” it will be, therefore, if the county decides to encourage such trends in the name of saving the people from some of their last broadly accessible institutions, the political parties.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.