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.