Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Meanwhile, in the big sky state

I meant to write about this when I saw it a few days ago. My parents, all of their siblings, one of my sisters, and most of my cousins were all born in Montana and I spent a great deal of my childhood visiting relatives or camping there. I think of it as one of my home states and occasionally check out the local news and politics there. Naturally, I got quite a kick out of this:
Meet Bob Kelleher, the Republican nominee against Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) this year.

He is an 85-year-old attorney with some downright unconventional views. He believes the American system of representative government should be replaced by a parliamentary system. He calls for socialized medicine, advocates nationalizing the country’s oil and gas industries and believes taxes should be raised significantly to eradicate poverty.

It’s not the standard GOP platform, but nevertheless Kelleher defeated four other candidates in the primary to claim the Republican nomination.

Running to the left of the Democrats, it's an interesting strategy and not one that would have occurred to me, but, since Montana was home to some of the prairie populists and to some of the New Deal progressives, I wouldn't entirely rule it out as a sign of things to come. After all, the endless culture war and anti-environmentalism that the Republicans have offered western states hasn't exactly brought us jobs, respect, and prosperity.

This might be confusing to some people outside the United States. Over at WikiTalk, Davepl, a Canadian, asked:
I'm not up to speed on US politics, but isn't there any kind of requirement that a party candidate adhere somewhat to the party platform?

I'm also confused how he can be the Republican nominee if the party "wants nothing to do with him". Would you not have to be a -member- of the party, and why would they be obligated to take him?

The short answer to both questions is "no." Though every state is different, the generic version looks something like this. To run for office, all that is required is that the prospective candidate pay a filing fee and submit a petition signed by valid voters. Federal law requires the fee to be low so that our democracy be open to everyone. The petition requirements vary widely, in some states it can be a considerable barrier, for example, requiring the prospective candidate to match a number equal to ten percent of the votes cast for that office in the last election and do it in every county. In other states, its a nominal requirement, 100 voters from anywhere in the state.

The federal Constitution makes no allowance for parties and was written as if every person running for office was an independent white, male landowner. Amendments allowing the landless, nonwhites, and women into politics continued the fiction of partiless politics. The law is different that the Constitution. Our laws were written by politicians from the two major parties and have institutionalized a considerable advantage for those parties. When a prospective candidate applies to run, most states require the candidate to check a box associating his or herself with a party. While the laws are good at keeping independents and new parties off the ballot, they do not allow the parties to control who uses their name. The parties generally have no control over who signs up as a candidate under their label. I'm not sure what the historical development behind that loophole is.

The result is that any idiot can run under any party. While novelty candidates are usually outspent by the parties' preferred standard bearers and filtered out in the primaries, occasionally the party fails to recruit a strong candidate and the novelty candidate goes on to represent the part in November. The most famous case in recent years of a Party fighting to disassociate itself from its standard bearer happened in 1991 when David Duke, a neo-Nazi and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, became the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana.

Ironically, the one method by which the parties can exercise a degree of control is through the party caucus system, and that is under fire this year as too "elitist."

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