California - and perhaps the nation's - fastest growing political party got a nice present last week: A proposal to open primary elections to folks who check "none of the above" when asked which side of the political spectrum they favor.
It's not an truly "open" offer. Nothing crafted by the California General Assembly which is becoming famous for its inability to do anything - even things it wants to do - ever is all that open-handed. The open primary needs to be approved by voters in June of 2010. That's the same time when Californians will be picking its gubenatorial candidates for the fall general election. And measure to let independent voters participate in primaries have, historically, failed.
That's not a huge surprise. The state's parties - and the folks who run them - like centralized control of things and they turn out the votes to defeat measure that will clip their wings. Open primaries - particularly the kind envisioned in this latest round of reform take away the mystical power of a party's base and reduces the influence of those who run elections with Clinton- and Rove-style addition. In other words, it moderates because an open primary brings in centrist voters.
For some years, "decline to state" as it's more politely known, has racked up the voter registrations. It's gone from 9 percent of registered California voters in the late 1980s to almost 20 percent today. And it's growing - all by itself. There's no independent party out there recruiting members - not with any starting success, anyway. Voters are just choosing not affiliating with either party and the increase seems to be holding across the country (although really accurate data is hard to come by since states have different rules).
But this probably isn't a nascent political platform or formal organization. It's more of a political movement, a corallary to the "creative class" idea put forward by consultant Richard Florida. "None of the above" has been flavoring California politics for some time, particularly in the business-focused parts of the state like Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. This movement - I call these folks Progressive Libertarians - explains why the state went solidly for Barack Obama but also managed to elect - and re-elect - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just as an example: Google CEO Eric Schmidt - photographed plenty of times over the past few years with Democrats Al Gore and Barack Obama - once told me he was a Libertarian. And Clinton backer John Doerr was a registered Republican while he was supporting the former president's re-election.
Progressive Libertarians aren't so much tied to a political party - although they trend Democratic at the national level - but have an interest in keeping their options open. They are fluent, familiar and comfortable with the language and metrics of business which is why they like smaller government. And they are offended by the politics of the left and the right. That translates to a deep dislike of unions, based mostly on the belief - correct or not - that the teachers' union has "ruined" the school system, among other things. But Progressive Libertarians also support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights. It's mix-and-match politics: one from column A, two from column B and we're done. Most recently, life-long Republican Tim Draper supported Obama.
Progressive Libertarians do not want to be pigeonholed. They want to be practical when it comes to government and leadership. This desire to pick political affiliation and association to match the times, the job or the future problems is something many politicians are just starting to grapple with. And if this sounds a bit like a Barack Obama campaign strategy memo, you're catching on. It was. Combine that with his campaign's determination to build not just their own voter databases but their own fundraising apparatus - both traditional jobs for the party, not the candidate - and you can get a glimpse of where we're headed.
That flexibility is one reason why, if established parties play their cards right, they may actually prosper. But it's going to be a tough call. It may be necessary to give up immediate control and power to form flexible, almost constantly changing coalitions - parties that don't hew to a line in the sand but form consensus and cohesion based on the problems and solutions they have on-hand and their popularity with voters.
Today, that's none of the above. With an open primary system it may well be, a little this and a lotta that.
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