The Amazing, Enduring, Stubborn Strength of California Political Parties

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Talk about missing the story.

The Secretary of State’s new numbers on voter registration, in advance of the June first-round elections, produced headlines and news stories that missed the point of the figures. The stories portrayed the numbers as evidence of the weakness of California political parties, and emphasized another small drop in Republican voters and an uptick in independent voters like yours truly.

But the weakness of our political parties isn’t news – it’s a century-old story. The news in the figures is that party membership, at least via voter registration, haven’t moved much at all. Indeed, California voters proved once again that they like parties – 80 percent are members of them – even though there is absolutely no advantage to being a member.

In fact, the enduring, almost stubborn strength of the parties is huge news – particularly in light of all the forces arrayed against them in California. Most of the new media and other state worthies have celebrated and encouraged a move away from political parties. (Partisanship is considered a sin far worse than adultery these days). And the big, well-funded, most-touted political reform of the past five years – the top two – eliminated party primaries and thus removed the last practical incentive to register as a member of a political party. This state reform builds on a local California election system that is entirely non-partisan.

And the parties themselves aren’t that attractive. The Democratic Party is basically clothing for unions and other interests to wear when it suits them. And California Republicans behave like a nasty drunk in a bar. New rules and court decisions have diminished the already meager electoral efforts of the Greens and other small parties.

Yet, in spite of all these efforts to kill parties and partisanship, voters keep registering with the parties. And most Californians who register as independents are actually partisans in disguise, reliable votes for one party or the other.

This resilience of parties and party affiliation here is an amazing story, but no one seems to be telling it. That’s because media ethics and ideals favor non-partisanship and because too much political money and too many careers are invested in the idea of the rich outsider, not the political party, as the best force for change in our state.

If we understood what the registration figures really meant, we would change course – and stop trying to fight parties and partisanship. Instead, we should try to harness partisanship in the service of greater engagement and better governance reform. Unfortunately, our elites seem determined to fight a battle against parties and partisan affiliation that they are unlikely to win. And even if they could win, why would we want them to?

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