Opinion | TD originals

California's Democratic Primary and the Sham of Elections

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., 84, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, speaks on Capitol Hill after the Orlando mass shooting in June 2016. (Alex Brandon / AP)

The recent California Democrats State Convention denied Sen. Dianne Feinstein an endorsement for a fifth full term, although the party machine and her bank account are still in her favor. There are signs of dissent and youthful unrest among Democrats, and not just in California, though anyone hoping to reform that party must first break the death grip of the old guard.

Reformers also will inherit clever partisan maneuvers that became quicksand and Machiavellian inspirations that became institutional iron traps. Here is a cautionary tale, as written in an ancient psalm: “They dig a pit and make it deep, and fall into the hole that they have made.”

Shortly before California’s Proposition 14 appeared on the ballot in June 2010, the topic of the top-two primary system came up at a dinner party where I was a guest.

An active member of the Democratic Party expressed enthusiasm for Proposition 14, saying it would make it tougher for third parties to “distract voters,” in her words.

“You are making an argument against democracy,” I said. The room’s microclimate got chilly, and we exchanged a few words of sharp disagreement.

As noted by David Dayen in The Intercept, “Winnowing the large fields in House races was a theme of the party convention, with its leaders openly stating a desire to thin the ranks. That’s because of the state’s top-two primary, where the leading two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party. It could set up situations in swing races with lots of Democrats running where they cancel each other out, leading to two Republicans competing in November.”

Regardless of party? Well, not quite. The top-two primary system was designed to favor the corporate duopoly. “Progressives” in the Democratic Party who favored Proposition 14 now have to live with the consequences. At least some of them thought they were playing 3-D chess against insurgent candidates and parties. Now, in at least some races, they may be reduced to inner-party ritual suicide while playing a partisan checkers game that seemed like a good idea to them in 2010.

If leading Democrats in California really want to make elections fair and democratic, they would endorse and campaign in earnest for instant-runoff voting, or ranked-choice voting. So why don’t they? Career politicians in the big corporate parties don’t really want the competition. They would prefer to continue framing opposition candidates and parties as “spoilers.” They prefer to pose as pragmatists and lament “wasted votes”—namely, the votes they can never gain by honest elections.

When such career politicians and their publicists also have the gall to give us advice on “swing states” and “strategic voting,” they deserve Bronx cheers. If something has to give, it is their corrupt “bipartisan” electoral system, and not our votes. We do not need civics lessons from politicians who claim every vote counts but lose their minds when our votes count against them.

Because they work in earnest to disenfranchise voters who oppose their public policies, they also teach the useful lesson that a social revolution may be necessary to gain a truly democratic republic.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have their two-party system, but we cannot have both. The actual party of peace, economic democracy and ecological sanity is still a work in progress, including many Green Party voters and supporters of democratic socialism.

The parties of corporate dictatorship will not reform themselves out of sheer goodwill. Only steady resistance will break their grip on power. Whether on election days or in the social movements that go over, under and around their corporate obstacle course, our voice and our message are growing clearer and stronger:

Not one cent for the parties of corporate dictatorship, not one vote for the parties of war and empire.

Scott Tucker
Scott Tucker is a writer and a democratic socialist. His book of essays, "The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy," was published by South End Press in 1997. He met Larry Gross in 1975, and they…
Scott Tucker

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