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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Why the Partisanship of Wichita's Mayoral Race is a Good Thing

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Four years ago, as Jeff Longwell ran against Sam Williams in the 2015 mayoral race, I mourned that the primary had been such a non-partisan affair. I definitely don't have any reason to feel that way this time around. The party differences between Mayor Longwell (who kicked off his campaign while surrounded by all sorts of Republican notables) and Brandon Whipple (who has served as a Democrat representing south Wichita in the Kansas House of Representatives since 2013) are pretty obvious, and seems likely to shape the race all the way up to election day. Which is, to my mind, a good thing.

Others disagree with me, obviously. For some, their disagreement is rooted in their nominal (though, as I argue below, rarely actual) opposition to political parties themselves, and their wish to have electoral contests completely untouched by such. For others, the problem was what they perceived as the partisan, "Topeka" style of the mayoral primary--in other words, their problem isn't with the parties themselves, but rather what they see (or think they see) parties in Kansas and the United States doing and saying. I think both of these perspectives are wrong, and that the partisan character of the mayoral race to come will benefit Wichita's political health. Let me see if I can explain why--though with my apologies for turning this into a discussion less about Wichita, and more about democratic elections in general.

To be clear, Longwell isn't running officially as a Republican, nor Whipple as a Democrat--their party affiliations will not appear on the ballot. Municipal elections in Kansas remain officially nonpartisan, as is the case in most cities across America, with a few notable exceptions (New York City, Indianapolis, Houston, Louisville, Philadelphia, and more). But the fact that they are known as a Republican and a Democrat, and are clearly intending to make use of Republican and Democratic networks to raise money, share their messages, and connect with voters, accomplishes the same thing. Which is the first and greatest advantages of being partisan: it enables voters make distinctions and connections in regards to electoral contests which are more informed, which in turn encourages the candidates themselves to share their electoral messages in more detail and more sharply. Simply put, candidates who run completely non-partisan campaigns for completely non-partisan elections tend to provide voters with less and less detailed information, because the incentive to drive home differences doesn't exist, whereas the incentive to offer moderate, centrist, technocratic bromides looms large. The result is an election like, well, the one we had four years ago--where two entirely competent white male business-friendly conservatives from the west-side of Wichita had to generate reasons for voters to choose between them, rather than building upon the actually existing range of opinions that exist across this city.

But wait, one might fairly interrupt--what's wrong with candidates who make use of "moderate, centrist, technocratic bromides," anyway? Doesn't that translate as "expertise"? And isn't expertise what we want when it comes to city government, not an agenda to push the city in one ideological direction or another? Don't lots of people see themselves as centrist, and in an era of intense national political polarization, surely many people see political moderation as something must to be desired, right? So why not hope for our city elections to operate along those lines?

There are least two reasons why I would issue a qualified--or even an emphatic--"no" in response to these challenges. Mostly, my reasons have to do with how we think about--or how I think we should think about--representative democracy.

First of all, the idea that there really is a large number of voters who genuinely find themselves somewhere between "conservatism" and "liberalism" as they have been constructed throughout modern American history, who honestly are independent and undecided between and therefore swing back and forth between the Republican and Democratic parties, and are equally dissatisfied with them both, is simply false. While it is true that Americans don't show nearly the trust in or support for political parties they once did, that doesn't stop them from consisting returning to demographically predictable voting patterns. Every honest student of politics must admit this--the data which shows that partisan polarization has grown even as more and more people eschew formal party allegiance is pretty obvious. And the small portion of the population who really do vote in ways that break from partisan patterns are rarely "moderate," in the sense of wishing to support solely whatever pragmatic, expert perspectives seem to work. Rather, the evidence is that they are mostly statistical creations, a fictional average capturing a mess of contradictory extremes.

All this means that most of the people who say they dislike partisanship are probably actually not complaining about the fact that there are parties where conservatives and liberals, or gun owners and gay-rights supporters, may find their interests most thoroughly reflected and thus choose to congregate around and support. Rather, they are probably actually complaining about, whether they realize it or not, is what they see as the effects of the patterns of partisanship in America today. I think that's a reasonable conclusion--because, of course, parties, for all their flaws, are collections free and concerned citizens, who form groups to raise money and promote that which they sincerely believe to be true. As frustrating as the process may often be, it's American pluralism at its most fundamental, and who can really be opposed to that?

Please note: that is not a defense of the specific parties we have. After more than 150 years of dominance, our reigning two parties--and under single-member, winner-take-all elections, there will always be two reigning parties; that's just logic--have promoted campaign finance, candidate selection, and ballot access rules which result in an often rigged electoral game. Both parties have gone through massive evolutions over the years, reforming their practices and changing directions--sometimes dramatically--as voters and donors have demanded it. But still, I don't deny they are, overall, creaky and often corruption-laden bodies which have happily embraced today's media-driven emphasis on negativity and the resulting contempt for compromise. It would be great to see a reset.

I think the last thing which could bring about such a reset, however, is that relatively tiny group of (nearly always relatively well-off) voters who find that their opinions put them on the fringes of their respective parties, thus leading them to think it best to separate themselves from the dirty business of influencing or building coalitions of voters entirely. I am personally doubtful that a slow-growth, mid-sized, regional city like Wichita has a readily available set of "conservative" or "liberal" (much less "libertarian" or "socialist") solutions which Longwell or Whipple could pick and choose between as they seek election. But, assuming one still believes power should only be wielded by those elected to wield it, what is the alternative? The long, perhaps noble, but usually victory-less history of folks like Greg Orman, someone who understands all the above very well, yet apparently continued to maintain until the end that a message of neutral expertise and practical deal-making would motivate voters outside of that whole tawdry, pluralistic process? The evidence, to be kind, suggests otherwise.

None of this touches on the actual political realities on the current race: namely, the fact that a lot of people who are inclined to vote against Longwell are worried that Whipple's membership in the Democratic party is a death knell for his candidacy. It's a fair concern. But the politics of partisanship, of liberal or conservative candidates dealing with conservative or liberal voters (which, incidentally, Whipple has written a whole dissertation on), is a different issue entirely from the democratic, pluralistic value of partisanship. That, I think, is pretty clear--which is why I expect that the debates which surround this mayoral race will be much more valuable to voters than what we saw last time around.

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