Monday, July 23, 2018

Of Parties, Primaries, and (Gubernatorial) Endorsements

It's 15 days until the August 7 primaries here in the state of Kansas, and early voting begins today. I'm a vote on the day-of person myself (I just like the vibe of going into my designated polling place on election day), so I still have two weeks to change my mind about which Democratic candidates I'm going to support--but given all the thought I've already put into it, the odds of anything happening that could make me rethink things some more is unlikely. So, as a few people have asked me which Democratic candidate for governor I'm supporting, I'm giving a follow-up to my post from months ago here--but you're going have to wade through all my usual pedantic ruminations first. Sorry, that's just the way I blog. (Hint #1: just go to the fifth paragraph if you can't wait. And if you absolutely can't put off the announcement even that long, Hint #2: it's the one from Wichita who has graduated from high school.)

1) I know party primaries are a problem. Primaries emerged onto the scene of American politics more or less a century ago, in conjunction with a large number of other Progressive reforms on the local, state, and national level, with the aim of taking power away from party bosses and the plutocrats who supported their positions and giving it to party members instead. Today, though, thanks to changes in campaign finance laws, communication technologies, and the internal rules of parties themselves, primaries don't do a particularly good job at preventing those candidates with large pockets and/or the explicit support of other wealth donors from quickly dominating the nominating process. And along the way, primaries bring their own pathologies with them: low voter turn-out makes it ease for well-organized extremists to dominate the intra-party debate, and the competition between even narrowly divided candidates can create narratives and animosities that end up driving media dynamics and funding pitches for the remainder of the campaign. So, yeah, primaries often create more problems than they're worth.

2) That said, I have no confidence whatsoever that the participatory genie could ever be put back into the bottle. Even if it were legally, organizationally, and politically possible to get us back to state of affairs where either of our two mass political parties were able to effectively choose, groom, and present candidates to voters (and doing so would, in my judgment, at the very least require the Supreme Court to overturn multiple precedents laid down over the past 40 years), I am highly doubtful that voters of either party would accept such a state of affairs--I strongly suspect I wouldn't, and I say that as someone fully aware of all the above-mentioned problems. And moreover, it's not like resurrecting that level of party control would somehow prevent all the corruptions that primary elections were originally designed to combat from flooding back.

3) So is the problem political parties entirely? Possibly, but I know of no other mechanism whereby a mass liberal democracy can be operated so as to actually respect the freedom of citizens to organize themselves around and in support of distinct causes and candidates except through some kind of party structure. The people who wrote the Constitution didn't really give that possibility much thought, but within a few election cycles the democratic need for parties was blindingly obvious. General plebiscitarian contests simply won't do it, despite being pushed by vaguely (but rarely actually) populist dreamers for decades. This year we have Greg Orman running as an independent candidate for governor, and he's an impressive guy, with a smart grasp of both the fiscal and the electoral realities facing our state. I like Orman, and have a lot of respect for his Lt. Governor pick, John Doll. Ultimately, though, Orman's whole drive remains deeply self-referential, insisting that he represents nothing more or less than independent, practical, business-minded thinking, as opposed to any particular set of beliefs. And human beings, being the communal animals we are, generally both want and need to be part of set.

4) Why is the Democratic party my set? Well, it's not my only set, nor the one I'm most attached to, either politically or in terms of time or money. But yes, here in Kansas in 2018, in the long wake of Governor Brownback's still-mostly-unchallenged transformation of the state Republican party into a vehicle for economic individualism as a religious conviction, the state Democratic party, for all its flaws (and heaven knows it has plenty), is the only place that folks who are committed to promoting egalitarian economic policies and expanding civil rights have to organize themselves electorally, at least practically speaking. So while the idea of switching to the Republican party so as cast a vote for a responsible conservative as opposed to an actually dangerous one had some appeal for my wife and I, ultimately we decided to stick with this particular set to see what we could do to help their candidates across the finish line in November.

5) Which brings the rubber to the road: what mix of strategy, symbolism, and substance is leading me to endorse one candidate over another? Well, like every other voter in every other primary contest everywhere in the United States, I'm thinking about what ideas best represent my wishes, thinking about what different candidates reflect in terms of different factions within the party, and thinking about what are the relative odds for any candidate to win in the general election. For Democrats (and liberals, progressives, socialists, etc., whatever your preferred handle) in Kansas, given that we're significantly outnumbered, yet have a genuine window of opportunity in 2018 thanks to the Brownback stink, that last component--a kind of second- or third-level chess, trying to figure out who has the greatest likelihood of winning one contest while still keeping themselves in contention for the next--is even more important, even though it becomes more and more of a crapshoot the further you attempt to extend your analysis forward. In any case, here's why I've come down on Brewer's side.

(Wait!, you're saying; there will be more on your ballot than just the Democratic primary for governor! True, but I'm not going to weigh in on the Laura Lombard-James Thompson race to be the Democratic candidate to run against Republican Ron Estes to be the congressional representative for Kansas's 4th district. I like and respect both of those candidates, do not see any major political differences between them, have known and supported one of them for a long time, and plan on continuing to do so. For better or worse, I don't see a need for a lot of thinking there.)

5a) First, I like all three of serious candidates (yes, I'm dismissing without comment both Jack Bergeson, the Wichita high school student, and Arden Andersen, the cool but slightly whakadoodle doctor from Olathe). Senator Laura Kelly is a smart, savvy, experienced poll, who almost certainly is the best positioned of these three--in terms of finances and in terms of party support--to run a traditional state-wide campaign for Governor. The criticisms which have been lobbed against her regarding a procedural vote of hers on the proposed expansion of Medicaid, or regarding connections between her campaign and interest groups opposed to expanding Medicaid, are, in my view, cheap and silly, reflecting no real knowledge of how legislation needs to be positioned for votes in the long term. And her Lt. Governor pick, the flat-out brilliant Lynn Rogers, is one of my favorite people in all of Kansas politics. I also like Joshua Svaty, in part because he and his Lt. Governor pick, Katrina Lewison, absolutely do represent something desperately needed in the state party: generational change. I like Svaty's practical yet unconventionally progressive opinions about the future of agriculture, and I like the fact that he was the only gubernatorial candidate sufficiently unconcerned about the "progressive" label as to make the time to get out to the Bernie Sanders rally here in Wichita. Most of all, as a religious believer with more than a couple conservative streaks in me, I like the fact that he hasn't tried to deny or repent of past votes he's taken but instead allows himself to argued about right in the middle of messy debates over abortion, faith, and much more.

5b) Still, for me, for now, it's former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, who is almost certainly the least well-funded and the least organized of the big three. Though my contacts with Carl have been minimal over the years, I've long admired him, and have supported him since he first declared his candidacy. Why, especially given that the political ends I value most--economic egalitarianism and democracy--he's quite possibly the least progressive of the three? It comes down to substance, symbolism, structure, and--yes--strategy.

5c) On the level of substance, Carl's stated goals as governor aren't significantly different from any of the other two. He will govern with Democratic party priorities in mind, and for all their limitations (and again, I can think of many!) those priorities--pushing Medicaid expansion, loosening the penalties on marijuana usage, reforming Kansas's criminal justice and child welfare services, and most importantly, working to overturn the legacy of Brownback's tax experiment--are ones I support. On the level of symbolism, it's obvious: there have only ever been two African-Americans elected governor anywhere in the U.S., and Kansas, so far as I have been able to discover, has never had an African-American serve in any statewide elected position. Carl almost never makes reference to racial symbolism in his campaign (though it comes out occasionally; in a recent debate, after another candidate talked about his grandfather's impressive political history, Carl started his reply with the quiet snark "of course, my grandfather wasn't able to hold political office..."), but obviously, to even be able to vote for a black candidate for governor is, to my mind, a huge step forward. On the level of structure, I plead my own personal affections and interest. While there is a lot of movement between the state and the national level in American politics, there isn't nearly enough movement between the local level and the state level--and in an era when the continued urban concentration of people are making the governance of cities more and more crucial to whatever the next steps in American democracy will be, bringing the sort of real, tactile knowledge which being a longtime city leader teaches into the realm of state governance is, I think, of major theoretical and even constitutional importance. (Besides, it's been a century since a committed Wichitan, someone from the Kansas's largest city, became governor; it's time for that to happen again.) And as for strategy? Frankly, Carl doesn't have the baggage that the other candidates have, which may mean he could hold together the state Democratic coalition better than the other candidates could. Am I certain of that? Not at all. Does Carl seem able to inspire new, progressive voters? The jury is out. Will racism doom his candidacy in the general election anyway? Quite possibly. All these, and others, are legitimate strategic concerns that Democrats have to ask themselves. But to my mind, above and beyond all the aforementioned rationales, in a year when Orman will be looking to poach Democratic voters, a thoughtful, mild-mannered, quiet candidate, one who doesn't offend any particular group of Democrats and thus could be acceptable to just about all of them, is nothing to sneeze at.

6) Let me make it clear; I will strongly support, both with time and money as well as my vote, whomever wins this primary (unless something truly nuts happens, and the high school student wins, and the Republicans choose a moderate like Jim Barnett as their candidate--then all bets are off). But primaries are what we have, and so primary calculations we must make. These are mine.

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