Representation, more or less?
I recently learned of a new third-party initiative, called GOOOH (pronounced "go"), for Get Out Of Our House, focussing on the U.S. House of Representatives. GOOOH describes itself as more of a system for selecting candidates than an ideologically-bound party; as such, it strives to be more representative of the individuals in a given district. You can find them at goooh.com. Achieving greater representation is always a laudable goal in government, so initially I was drawn to the idea. Further reading of their site, however, has led me to discover some problems in their approach. Quotes under each heading are taken from the GOOOH website.
1. An ideologically split party is bound to fall apart in Congress.
"GOOOH does not define (or have) a platform. It allows elected candidates to represent their district's interests unencumbered by partisan politics. Candidates will define their own platform by filling out the Candidate Questionnaire."
Every district will select a GOOOH candidate through the GOOOH process; as their website says, this is likely to produce a leftist candidate in a left-leaning district and a rightist candidate in a right-leaning district. Let's assume that GOOOH manages to get a large number, maybe dozens, maybe even hundreds, of candidates elected to the House in 2010. What will those newly-elected representatives do then? They will seek out other representatives who share similar opinions on important issues. They will form blocs who tend to vote together on most issues, who work together to draft legislation, to convince others to join them, and to block legislation advanced by other blocs. Over time, they will need to raise money for their particular issues, or simply for reelection, to supplement the money they receive from GOOOH. These voting blocs will then work together to raise money, holding town hall meetings and fundraisers.
These blocs are already looking like political parties, but there's more. There is no difference between a bloc losing with 10% of the seats in the House and a bloc losing with 49% of the seats. The various voting blocs will make compromises, and will tend towards equilibria in which they stand a good chance to achieve at least 50%+1 of the seats. Eventually, smaller blocs will merge into larger blocs and there will be two remaining, each of which fluctuates between obtaining about 40-60% of the seats. At this point, we will be back where we started, with two entrenched parties, except that they all would run under the GOOOH party label, and true party affiliation would be clouded by the GOOOH process. More likely, GOOOH would elect only a handful of new representatives, and these representatives would be readily accepted into the already-existing Democratic/Republican party structures.
Studying their Candidate Selection Process further reveals that this problem is likely to come up long before any GOOOH members get to Congress. Candidates are selected through a series of ten-person rounds, each of which advances two members to the next round. The final ten members select a single candidate from among themselves. It's easy to see a 5-5 split derailing the process at this point. It's even easier to see a ten-way split derailing the process at any point. But even assuming they achieve a majority vote for one candidate in the end, that vote is very likely to be along ideological lines, at which point GOOOH encounters the same problem any other third party encounters. GOOOH members who disagree with the victor ideologically would be likely to vote for the major party to whom they are closest instead of the GOOOH candidate. At the same time, those who agree ideologically with the GOOOH candidate are split between GOOOH and the major party closest to their views. The opposing ideology could win a plurality of the votes simply because GOOOH acts as a spoiler. However, because GOOOH itself is independent of ideology, it could theoretically act as a spoiler in a great many districts, throwing conservative districts to liberals and liberal districts to conservatives, disrupting true representation even while trying to establish it.
2. GOOOH would actually remove the most fundamental measure guaranteeing Representative accountability.
"GOOOH candidates are required to sign a legal contract agreeing to run for no more than two, 2-year terms. When elected, they will therefore spend their time representing their district and developing legislation; not fund-raising (or pandering) for the next election."
What GOOOH calls pandering, I call being representative. Why do we think that our elected Representatives represent us at all to being with? Because at the end of their term, they have to answer to us if they want to keep their jobs. If they do things we don't like, we vote them out of office. If they do a good job of representing us, we keep them in office. Limiting an official to two 2-year terms gives them free reign to do whatever they want in their second term. They lose accountability. This is why every President announces an enormous number of executive orders and Presidential pardons in their last months, weeks and even hours in office (Bill Clinton was said to have stayed up the entire night before his last day in office signing pardons). It's because they don't have to answer for it, ever.
On the other hand, I highly doubt a legal contract of this sort would be enforceable. As Americans, we all possess basic civil rights, such as the right to vote and the right to run for office. GOOOH candidates could no more sign away their right to run for reelection than they could sign away their right to vote in future elections. These rights are Constitutionally guaranteed, and cannot be superseded by an external contract.
3. GOOOH would take steps that are dangerously undemocratic.
"GOOOH representatives will keep their promises because they will have signed a legal contract promising to resign from office if they vote against one of their Questionnaire responses."
The obvious question here is, who decides that a specific vote is against one of their Questionnaire responses? House votes very rarely cover a single clear issue. In voting for or against any specific bill, they may be addressing a dozen or more responses on GOOOH's Candidate Questionnaire. Who decides which responses are more important? We see this every election cycle. Challengers run commercials claiming the incumbents voted no on X issue or yes on Y issue however many times. Tax increases are a common target; commercials say the incumbent voted to raise taxes 57 times, but it turns out most of those votes were mere procedural votes, or were votes to raise a tax to pay for a program that their constituents really do support.
Furthermore, the process of politics is the process of compromise. I may slightly disagree with your issue, but I'll agree to vote for it if you agree to vote for my issue. That's not a bad thing, that's just the process of democracy at work. Holding representatives to such an inflexible standard as GOOOH proposes will only lead to every single candidate being forced to resign from office every few months. (Although some would say that's not a bad thing.)
Of course, again, I highly doubt this contract would be any more enforcebable than the previous one. The right of an elected official to independently carry out the duties of their office (including Congressional votes) without being legally bound to a party structure is one of the most sacred rights in our political system. A party that has the power to remove a representative based solely on how they vote sounds more like how they do things in Iran than how we do things in America.
4. GOOOH would reduce primary elections to pay-to-play politics.
"GOOOH candidates are selected by their peers, in each district, based on the merits of their platform (their Questionnaire responses) and whatever other traits the members of each Selection Pool deem important. You become one of the selectors by participating in the Candidate Selection Sessions."
"There are six things you must do if you wish to participate in a GOOOH Candidate Selection Session... 5. Donate at least $100 to the GOOOH campaign fund."
I realize that raising financial capital is probably the biggest problem that third parties face in getting started, but this is the wrong way to go about it. If I want to vote in a Democratic or Republican primary election, I don't have to pay a thing. This is pay-to-play politics in its most basic form. Furthermore, since a GOOOH member is required to pay $100 in order to vote in GOOOH's equivalent of a primary election, not only does this smack of the poll taxes levied in the Jim Crow South, but it is very likely illegal.
One more point: I would love to see a truly viable third party arise in the United States. I was desperate for a decent third-party candidate to vote for in 2008. But for most third parties, there are very good reasons why they are not viable. Those reasons have nothing to do with Republican and Democrat conspiracies or first-past-the-post elections. They have everything to do with the dangerously radical proposals at the cornerstone of most third parties' platforms. We may criticize Obama as a socialist, but the Socialist Party platform makes the Democrats look like Libertarians. Meanwhile, right-leaning third parties seem preoccupied with isolationism, not realizing that isolation would lead to economic and cultural stagnation, never mind destroying our influence for good in the world. Ultimately, GOOOH is little different, painting a dangerous proposal as representative and democratic. The difference is that even under ideal assumptions, GOOOH seems unlikely to succeed in the face of Constitutionally-protected rights, not to mention human nature, which is why political parties formed in the first place.