Monday, April 18, 2016

POLITICAL FOOT SOLDIERS

My Dad was a precinct delegate. He came to that august epitome of political power in the same way that most folks do. It was part of his job.

All of my Dad’s family were Democrats. It was de rigueur for folks of Irish extraction to be Democrats back in the day. Especially in big cities.

Still, there are exceptions. When the Depression hit in the early 1930’s Dad lost his job at Studebaker. Fortunately, my Mother’s uncle, Milt Carmichael, was a man of some consequence in the Republican Party, and Dad was employed as a clerk in the Secretary of State’s office.

I remember my Mother’s recollection of those years. As she told it, every year Dad supervised more employees and made less money. The job involved much more than selling license plates. Dad was expected to support his boss, the Secretary of State; to contribute to his election campaign; to campaign actively; to become a precinct delegate and to participate in the county convention.

She remembered attending fund raising events that imposed severe burdens on their family budget. But it was a job. And Dad worked all through the Depression.

Whether it was force of habit, or whether he ultimately became a true believer in the Republican Party, I shall never know. But I do know that he was a loyal Republican and that his loyalty trickled down to his children.

My first political fight was a seven year old wrestling match on our front lawn in which I defended Alf Landon and Frank Knox against Franklin Roosevelt and John Nance Garner in the Presidential election of 1936.

Nominating a candidate for President in the days before Presidential Primaries was pretty much the same in most states. In Michigan, there were county and Congressional District conventions attended by precinct delegates like my Dad. These local conventions chose delegates to the State Convention, which in turn selected the States’ delegates to the National nominating convention.

That process emphasized what I have often called “the aristocracy of the interested.” The fact is that there are probably no more than two or three percent of the people of each state who are actively involved in partisan  politics. They are elected officials at the state, county and municipal level and the members of their staffs, they are the lobbyists who represent associations of businesses, professions and activist organizations, they are the folks who write big checks to support the Parties and their candidates, and they are the folks who attend rallies, distribute literature, make phone calls, stuff envelopes and man campaign headquarters.

The Founders of our nation were leery of what they called “the spirit of partisanship.” They knew that partisanship is a natural human inclination, but they recognized the dangers associated with partisan politics.

What is so often called our “two party system” is not a system at all. The Republican and Democratic parties are not created or authorized by our constitution. They are private organizations voluntarily engaged in political activity. Nevertheless, the two major political parties have so completely dominated our state and national governments that the process of Party nomination has come to be regarded as an ‘official’ component or phase of the election of the President of the United States.

All across our land citizens have come to assume that they have a role to play in the nomination of Presidential candidates. While it is still true that the political parties are private organizations, state laws providing for public primary elections for the candidates of parties they define as ‘major’ parties have blurred the distinction between primary and general elections.

The bottom line is that many, many Americans think that they have a ‘right’ to participate in the nomination of Presidential candidates.  The 24/7 broadcast of Presidential debates, campaign rallies, news analysis and commentary only confirms that impression.

So when Donald Trump says that convention delegates from Colorado or Wyoming are chosen by the party establishment to the exclusion of the voters, he echoes a complaint that many disenchanted citizens share.

Now the Donald predicts that the Party leaders will have a rumpus on their hands in Cleveland. Certainly Trump delegates will be dominant on the convention floor. There may also be a lot of them on the street and in the parking lot. It should be quite a show.  

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