Sunday, May 11, 2008

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

If Hillary Clinton does not drop out of the nomination race before June 7, Puerto Ricans could actually hold more sway in this year’s democratic nomination contest than voters in either Michigan or Florida, at least until the DNC’s credentials committee gets its act together. That is to say, by rule-making and enforcing fiat, the Democratic Party decided that voters in Puerto Rico will have a voice in the party’s nomination process; but as for voters and Michigan and Florida, not really.

Now, to be fair, voters in the two states are being punished because their state legislatures decided to move up their primary dates this year. (Why Iowa and New Hampshire should retain their first-in-the-nation status is something we have barely begin to question. Indeed, the DNC, in sanctioning Florida and Michigan have signaled that reform otherwise is out of the question.) But it is at the very least bizarre that the perpetrators of the "crime," the state legislators, are being punished indirectly, via their constituents.

Thus, citizens of the commonwealth who are not allowed to vote in US presidential contests will, on June 7, wield the awesome agenda-framing power of influencing which democratic contender goes up against John McCain. If there is not much that differentiates the power to choose between Obama and Clinton and the power to choose between Obama and McCain (other than the semantic difference that the former is a nomination contest and the latter is a formal election), then we have a very odd system indeed.

I wonder why we don’t challenge the rules and the rule-making authority of the two major parties. We somehow assume that electoral logic itself would be sufficient to regulate the parties. In our two-party system, we assume the Elephant will take on the Donkey when it neighs astray, and the Donkey will chastise the Elephant when it trumpets too loudly. This is a panglossian assumption (as Lou Dobbs, Jesse Ventura, and a growing number of Independents contend) and one that has not been argued for. There has not been enough theorizing about the precise constitutional status of political parties: whether they are public entities or private institutions entitled to make and enforce their private rules as they deem fit. Consider, for example, if the Democratic party had decided, as a matter of a new rule, that racial minorities would not be allowed to participate in primaries. The main reason why we dismiss this possibility is that the Democrats would simply be shooting themselves in the foot. But when was voluntary self-preservation a sufficient basis on which to regulate private institutions?

The curious thing is the two major parties have gotten away with being the most powerful private institutions in America, and yet they are also deeply entangled and embedded in our civic institutions and public sphere. We should start thinking about whether they should get away with as much as they do.

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