I got an unusual number of "I tend to agree with you but not this time" comments on my post about proposals to rearrange the schedule of Democratic primaries, an issue in the contest for DNC chairman. To reiterate my point, I was skeptical that moving more red states or close states higher in the schedule would necessarily produce a nominee more appealing in those states, since the actual Democratic primary voters in those states are unlikely to be representative of the viewpoints of the other voters -- independents and winnable Republicans -- who will decide the state in the fall. I concluded by arguing that only open primaries, in which voters can vote in the primary of any party regardless of their registration, would have even the slightest chance of boosting a candidate with an appeal beyond his or her party's base. In fact, I would argue for the elimination of party registration entirely.
I dumped all this too casually at the end, so I should say more about it. Let's leave aside the possibility of radical strategic voting, such as Republicans supporting Dean in the Wisconsin open primary strictly because they believe he's the weakest Democrat for the general election. The real objection is that people who haven't identified as "Democrats" shouldn't be allowed to decide who the Democrats' nominee is. And for that reason alone, it's unlikely that any of the candidates for DNC chair who is not suicidal will want to admit to a room full of deeply identified Democrats that the solution to our party's misfortunes might lie in letting people who aren't as loyal have a voice in our selection.
Underlying my proposal is an idea that I wrote about a long time ago in some overlong and technically recondite comments on politics and technology: that the nature of "membership" has changed and political mobilization has to change with it. In that post, I used the example of an encounter I witnessed between the former president of a huge membership organization (the name of which I did not disclose, for no apparent reason: it was the American Civil Liberties Union) and a current leader of a newer online advocacy organization similar to but not moveon.org. The former president demanded to know how many dues-paying, long-term ("card-carrying") members the newer organization had; the newer organization responded with statistics about transactions -- so many million e-mails to Congress, etc. -- which were clearly non-responsive.
But at that moment I realized that was the point. It's been decades since a major mass-membership organization was formed and many of those that survive from the glory days in the 1970s -- with the notable exception of the ACLU -- have memberships with an average age well past retirement. Political activity for people under 60 now is more transactional. People don't join moveon.org, in the classic sense of sending $40 annual dues, so much as they participate in various activities. As long as the transactions work for them, they remain and their engagement deepens, but if the actions seem to be ineffective or participants disagree with their viewpoint or the issues aren't engaging, they're gone. The barriers to get out are as low as the barriers to get in. In the same way, I've been a loyal "member" of the world of Google users for probably six years, but it's purely transactional. I didn't pay anything or sign anything to get in, and I won't hesitate to get out if something better comes along.
Other political organizers are coming to understand the changing, looser nature of membership. I remember a top strategist at an environmental group proposing in late 2003 that rather than just go after voters who had gone so far as to join the Sierra Club or Audubon Society, they would look for voters who "look like environmentalists" on various demographic measures. Likewise, unions this year for the first time went after "union-like" households, since the barriers to actual union enrollment are so high that union membership hardly reflects the reality of working-class voters. This idea has also informed the "Open-Source Union" strategy proposed by Joel Rogers and adopted in some ways by the Service Employees' Union.
All these attempts to broaden the base to which these organizations speak reflect an understanding of the changing nature of membership and relationship between people and institutions. Political parties should recognize that as well. I don't advocate an open primary because I want strongly identified Republicans to choose the Democratic nominee. Rather, I want it to be possible for someone who has not strongly identified as a Democrat to decide at the last minute that one of the Democrats is appealing to her. In addition to possibly helping find a nominee more likely to appeal to those loosely-affiliated voters, the act of voting in a Democratic primary might be one of those "transactions" that deepens the individuals interest in the party. More generally, I would advocate making the barriers to participation in voting -- whether in a primary or a general election -- as low as they are in most of the other realms of modern life.
It would be great to see a candidate for DNC chair who was willing to think beyond the party's base in this way, but it's unlikely, not because some of the candidates aren't imaginative enough, but for institutional reasons. But the lessons that drive moveon.org, the SEIU, environmental groups, and software companies should not be lost on the political parties.