Sheehan Seeks a More Principled Politics

In California, where Cindy Sheehan proposes to mount an independent anti-war challenge to cautious House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the political structures used to err on the side of candidates who opted for principles over partisanship. Once in the not so distant past, a Cindy Sheehan or anyone else frustrated by the failure of a Pelosi to work effectively to end the war in Iraq and to hold those responsible for it to account, would have found it much easier to take on so powerful a figure.

In the progressive era in California, contenders for Congress were allowed to run in the primary of any party they chose. In fact, they could run in the primary of every party at the same time. If the candidate won more than one nomination, he or she could then "fuse" their votes from various ballot lines into a whole in the November contest - allowing populist contenders to mount universal appeals and allowing voters to respond to them as they saw fit.

This "cross-filing" option - under which candidates petitioned their way onto the ballots of multiple parties -- was established early in the 20th century as a means to break the grip of party bosses and the corporate special-interest groups with which they were aligned. It was one of many progressive reforms - open primaries, direct election of senators, initiatives and referendums and the lifting of restrictions on third parties -- adopted at the time with the purpose of freeing up political processes that had been rendered moribund by insider control and anti-democratic structures.

The reforms were enacted with the encouragement of a broad national movement led by Wisconsin Governor and then Senator Robert M. La Follette. Like the best of the progressives, La Follette saw political parties as vehicles for advancing ideas and expanding representation of the people, not as ends in themselves.

That's a point that Sheehan understands better than most of today's prominent political figures, and it is a part of what makes her decision to campaign as an non-partisan independent activist such an invigorating prospect.

Like the progressives of old, and like anyone who tries to push the boundaries not merely of electioneering but of our imaginations, Sheehan is taking her hits for daring to make this run. But even those people of good will who choose not to support Sheehan - either because they honestly prefer Pelosi or because they think that it is more important to fight the political battles of 2008 elsewhere - should recognize that the principled determination of the nation's best-known anti-war activist to seek a more meaningful politics is worthy of respect. And for many reasonable and politically pragmatic Americans, whose disenchantment with today's politics has only been heightened by the sorry spectacle of a Democratic Congress struggling to get its footing in a wrestling match with a Republican president whose clumsiness should have made it an easy fight, that respect will translate to support.

In an important sense, Sheehan mounts her campaign the not in the contemporary California tradition of Pelosi - a transplanted Marylander from an old Democratic machine family in Baltimore - but in the deeper tradition of a remarkable native Californian who rejected the bonds of partisanship in favor of a genuinely representative and often radical politics.

California's progressive reforms of the last century swept into the state's governorship La Follette's comrade and later ally in the great struggles against war, empire and imperialism, Hiram Johnson. Johnson was the ultimate principle-over-party man. Two years after his election to the governorship in 1910 as a titular Republican, he left the party to join Teddy Roosevelt on the 1912 Progressive "Bull Moose" presidential ticket. Twenty years later, as a Republican senator, Johnson abandoned his party to campaign for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in realigning election of 1932. And serving in the Senate from 1917 to 1945, he crossed the aisle to work - in that dramatically more diverse and representative time -- with Democrats, Progressives, Farmer-Laborites and Independents who chose to challenge economic and foreign-policy elites.

Johnson enjoyed the freedom to support the best candidates, and to champion peace, equality and economic democracy, because he regularly entered and won primaries on multiple party lines - securing reelection in several years as the candidate of the Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties. He was bossed by his ideals and by his constituents, not party leaders and campaign donors.

Unfortunately, after Johnson's death, California politicians associated with Richard Nixon undid progressive political policies and structures in order to restore the influence of party and money. By the late 1950s, they had succeeded in eliminating the "cross-filing" rule, and in so doing they broke not just with progressivism but with the core principles of the American experiment that La Follette and Johnson sought to renew. No less a founding figure than James Madison warned that political partisanship focused on the mere securing of power rather than the advocating of bold ideals was a "dangerous vice" that led to the "instability, injustice, and confusion (that) have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished..."

Cindy Sheehan, who will be honored Saturday in Baraboo, Wisconsin, at Fighting Bob Fest's annual celebration of La Follette's legacy of anti-war and anti-corporate activism, mounts her 2008 challenge to Pelosi as an independent progressive. Were she running in 1918 or 1948, she could have taken advantage of California's then more open politics to run as a Democrat, Republican, Green and Libertarian, which would have suited her politically adventurous spirit. But the "cross-filing" option is closed to her. In a narrower political sphere, defined by party and interest rather than ideals and patriotism, her choices and those of the voters are constrained in a manner designed to favor party elites and their even more elite allies.

Cindy Sheehan may not turn out to be a perfect candidate - although she will prove far abler and potentially far more successful contender than her casual critics imagine -- and 2008 may not be the perfect year for her to try and break the stranglehold of excessive partisanship that has rendered American elections so frustrating and frequently meaningless. But she has an opportunity to deliver a perfect message: American politics needs to be freer, more open, more exciting and, yes, more unsettling.

The status quo of two parties with bitterly competing electoral strategies but one frame of reference when it comes to so many of the critical demands of governance has not made America safer, more just or more free. Rather, it has confirmed the worst fears of the progressives - and of the founders - about a nation guided by a surplus of partisanship and a deficit of principle. To the extent that Sheehan speaks to those fears and counters them with a promise of a purer politics - a politics steeped in the best traditions of Hiram Johnson, Bob La Follette and their progressive allies - her race will be a redeeming and refreshing reminder that elections can be about more than petty partisanship.

John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

(c) 2007 The Nation

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