A Progressive Era Legacy We Could Do Without

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Francis S. Barry is the author of The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship (Rutgers University Press, 2009).

The historic election of 2008, and the spectacular collapse of the financial industry that preceded it, has brought talk of a new Progressive era, with reformers taking on moneyed interests and re-energizing our democracy.  There is a certain romanticism to this idea, because the Reformer – as much an American archetype as the Self-Made Man and the Frontiersman – holds a revered place in our politics.  With slingshot in hand and God on his side, the Reformer has always led lonely crusades to restore virtue to government.  But this heroic ideal is rooted in myth, not history.  Before we embark on a new age of reform, we would do well to take a closer look at reformers’ record – and begin addressing the unintended consequences of Progressive era election laws.

The movement for political reform has undergone various transformations over the past two centuries, but the lowest common denominator for those who identify themselves as reformers has remained constant: an almost messianic faith in the power of election laws to purify politics and change government for the better.  Beginning in the 1840s, and continuing through the remainder of the 19th century, many elite reformers tried to regain their ruling class status by crusading against the suffrage rights of immigrants, the propertyless, and the illiterate.  The party bosses beat them.  In the Progressive era, reformers hoped to propel independent candidates – society's “best men” – into office.  And so they passed election regulations to end the party machines’ monopoly on nominations, just as they passed economic regulations to end corporations’ monopolies on commodities.  They beat John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil but not Charles F. Murphy’s Tammany Hall.  Party machines like Tammany actually grew in strength during the Progressive era.  It was not until mid-century, when a revolution in mass media began turning campaigns into candidate-centered affairs, that machines began fading away.

The chronic failure of reformers to achieve their goals remains their defining characteristic, even today.  It is most noticeable in their efforts to reduce the flow of money into politics.  Restrictions on contributions to candidates and parties have given birth to 527 committees that exist in the shadows of the law – and to a never-ending quest for campaign cash.  To reduce these fundraising pressures, and to reduce incumbent re-election rates that often exceed 95 percent, reformers have championed public financing of campaigns.  But in New York City, which has a public financing system that is often hailed as a national model, general elections remain no more competitive than they were decades ago – and far less competitive than they were before reformers began passing election regulations at the dawn of the Progressive era.

The main cause of New York’s uncompetitive elections is, ironically, continued adherence to a Progressive era law: the closed party primary.  Throughout the 19th century, cities such as New York experienced ultra-competitive general elections, with various party factions competing at the polls.  But once government began to regulate the ballot, which ended the more free market tradition of distributing tickets, these factions effectively lost their ability to contest elections, and they faded away.  And in cities with one dominant party, it effectively spelled the end of competitive elections.

Today, the four cities with the nation’s lowest levels of competition in local races – New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC – all share two traits: they have one dominant party (Democrat), and they hold closed party primaries.  As a result, with the exception of mayoral campaigns, winning the Democratic nomination is tantamount to winning election.  And that produces intensely undemocratic consequences.

For instance, independents – the fastest growing bloc of voters, and the very group that the old progressives wanted to empower – are effectively disenfranchised in these cities.  When they arrive at the polls for the general election, the winners have already been selected.  Our founding fathers, no fans of political parties, would have been aghast at this development.  And they would have been no less disturbed at the notion of a candidate winning 20 percent of the vote in a party primary and then facing no competition in the actual election.  So much for majority rule. 

One way to fix this problem would be to adopt a different Progressive era reform: nonpartisan elections.  Under this election structure, all candidates are thrown into the same pot, with the top two – regardless of party – advancing to a runoff.  In 1909, Boston and Berkeley, California became the first large cities to adopt nonpartisan elections, and by 1929, a majority of all American cities with populations greater than 30,000 were conducting them.  Today, more than 80 percent of all American cities hold nonpartisan elections.

While it is perhaps not surprising that party organizations in cities with closed party primaries would reject nonpartisan elections, many reformers now join them.  In 2003, when the question of whether to adopt nonpartisan elections was put to New York City voters, nearly every reform group lined up against it.  Why?

The trouble is that today’s reformers have turned their back on the one idea the old reformers got right: nonpartisanship.  Whereas Progressive era groups sought balance between Democrats and Republicans, which required putting aside ideological goals in favor of nonpartisan pragmatism, today nonpartisanship has been reduced to a legal definition written by the Internal Revenue Service.  Many groups that now claim the mantle of reform – such as Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups – are nonpartisan in the same way that the People for American Way is nonpartisan. 

Today’s ideological reformers recognize that party primaries force Democratic candidates to tack left, just as they want.  And because primaries force Republicans to tack right, it makes them – at least in many eastern cities – that much easier to beat.  All’s well that ends well.

Old reformers sought power for their class; today's reformers seek power for their ideology.  In the largest eastern cities, they have achieved that power – and they are not letting go, democracy be damned.  A new Progressive era that does not include a re-examination of the original is destined to add yet more failure to the reform tradition.  And only by reclaiming the lost culture of nonpartisanship can the promise of reform – of a more robust, more participatory, and more inclusive democracy – be finally redeemed.

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/27/2009

Each candidate gets the same amount of money and access to media so the only factors involved are the candidates and their merits. That would be Progressive in my eyes.