Should I join a major political party?
April 4, 2012 8:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm a U.S. citizen currently registered as "No Party". Why should I, or shouldn't I, join one of the political parties?

I started out as a member of Party X*, but about 10 years ago I changed my affiliation to No Party (the only option in my state - we don't have an Independent party). I've been considering declaring a party affiliation again, but I can't convince myself that there's any good reason to.

You may ask what my political persuasions are. Well, that's just the problem: I'm sympathetic with one of the major parties probably 50% of the time. Sympathetic with the other one probably 15% of the time. The other 35% of the time I feel like they are both a big clown show.

I know which party I would join if I were to join one. But what's the use? What are the historical, philosophical, practical, civic, and other reasons for joining a party?

* I wrote this whole question using the actual political party names, but then went back and erased them because I don't want to digress into discussions about which party is best. I really just want to know why anyone would want to join any party.
posted by crapples to Law & Government (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
To vote in the primaries, and to have parties to attend.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:39 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless you want to vote in party primaries, I don't see any compelling reasons to declare yourself.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:39 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some states have closed primaries and you can only vote in the [Republican] primary if you're a registered Republican. For instance.
posted by rtha at 8:39 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your state has closed primaries you can only vote in the primaries for the party which you are registered as.
posted by griphus at 8:40 AM on April 4, 2012

As far as I can tell, the only reason to register with a party is so that you can vote in the primary if your state has closed (read: members-only) primaries. Otherwise, I suspect it just gets you on the mailing list(s).

(on preview, everyone got there first)
posted by jquinby at 8:41 AM on April 4, 2012

In the past, I have joined a party for the ability to vote in primaries. What I got was the ability to vote in primaries and being spammed and auto-dialed into oblivion because there is no good way to opt out from such things and information like phone numbers is required. So for me personally it's just not worth it.
posted by Kimberly at 8:41 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I registered to vote in closed primaries, but I noticed a change in my mail. (I don't have a landline so I don't get autodialled.) My partner, who was 'no party' at the time, used to get mailings from both parties and I'd only get fliers from the one I was registered with. So my amount of junk mail actually went down, instead of up.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:44 AM on April 4, 2012

I should have said in my question: "Besides being able to vote in the primaries..." Are there other good reasons?
posted by crapples at 8:47 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as the clown show, that's my particular orientation 90% of the time. As far as practical uses of selecting an affiliation, having the opportunity to vote in primaries seems to stand out to me. And there is no need to vote with your affiliation in the general election, so it won't hurt you to affiliate, other than the potential money-grubbing calls.
posted by Stan Grossman at 8:49 AM on April 4, 2012

Another take on primaries: I've heard of people registering with the "other" party in order to vote for a candidate (in the primary) that they think less likely to win (in the general) against the candidate from their actually preferred party.
posted by attercoppe at 8:54 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a (rather tortured) argument that any reduction in the number of registered no-party/independent voters reduces the degree to which politicians pander to a small, fickle band of undeclared centrists. Mostly I'm sure that's done in response to polls, not registration figures. But if your 50% support of (let's just say) the Democrats comes when they are being authentically and clearly Democratic, rather than trying to please everyone with the result of pleasing no-one, you could argue that registering as a Democrat would exert a microscopic pull in that direction.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:55 AM on April 4, 2012

Somebody somewhere probably keeps records of how many registered Whatevers there are in a particular state or district. Your individual choice on whether to register might only have a small effect on these numbers, but in aggregate, it might matter.

You don't want Party Y to incorrectly claim that Party X is losing membership, and you might want Party X to claim its membership is increasing. (Maybe. I have no idea what political wonks would use these numbers for, anyhow, but I expect they're kept).
posted by nat at 8:57 AM on April 4, 2012

Actually, I wonder if, as a "swing voter," you're going to be a target this year for all kinds of spamming--you may want to register for that reason. What cobaltnine says may very well be true, although for the very first time I even started got robocalls from the other party in the weeks leading up to our state's primary. However, if you view even the party with which you have the most sympathy as a "clown show," you're going to be irritated with its constant requests for money.

I am a member of a political party because I was brought up in it as a kind of civic religion that goes much deeper than the one whose church I attended throughout my childhood, and it shaped my values in an even more fundamental way. That's the only reason other than being able to vote in a primary that comes to mind for me for joining a party, and as you don't really seem to have that kind of attachment, it may not make sense for you.
posted by tully_monster at 8:57 AM on April 4, 2012

It's easy to discount the primaries, but, depending on where you live, the primary may be the more important election. I live in an urban area that leans so heavily Democrat, all the municipal and state offices are effectively determined through the primary vote. In many cases, the Democrats' nominee runs unopposed in the general election. Since we have closed primaries, registering as unaffiliated (which I would prefer to do) or a member of another party would be disenfranchising myself.
posted by weebil at 9:09 AM on April 4, 2012

It's not just the primary - joining the party means you are eligible to participate in the governance and activities of the party locally. I know it seems ridiculous if you pay most of your attention to national office seekers, but in fact, parties are grassroots organizations at their base.

Most larger towns have party committees for either party, and also a state-level organization. You can go to events, trainings, and strategy sessions, or by joining the executive committees you can plan these. You can attend the nominating conventions and become more deeply involved in the process of cultivating and fielding candidates you actually believe in - so that you have the power to make the candidates seeking office less of a "clown show." You can plan and host issues forums, candidate meet and greets, represent your personal concerns and priority issues to the party to ensure it represents your voice, etc.

A lot of people make what I think is a fundamental mistake in participating in American politics, and that is confining their interests to the national level. Candidates get to the national level through, and because of, state and local party organizations. That's where shit happens, and the door is wide open for you to walk in and shape the way things go, find people you believe in and help advance them to positions where they can do more good.
posted by Miko at 9:31 AM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

(To find local organizations, Google name of town and/or name of state + [Democratic|Republican] + committee.)
posted by Miko at 9:32 AM on April 4, 2012

I am sure this my thought process is probably erroneous, but I register with smaller parties whose values I agree with in hopes that someday we will have more than a 2 party system, and that people looking at the #s will go, 'hey, there keeps being more and more people who don't agree with either one of us!'

I am sure it is just a fantasy, but it's why I register with a party.
posted by Vaike at 9:40 AM on April 4, 2012

I'm a Democrat. Just checked the events calendar for my local committee. As a sampling, here's what they've been doing in just the last three months:

1. Hosted a conference call w/ the First Lady on the 2012 campaign
2. Had a Day of Action involving circulating nominating petitions for all the offices opening up for election this November
3. Had a State of the Union Watch & Discussion party
4. Had ward elections to select delegates to the state nominating convention (this could be you). There were 35 spots to award and not all wards even nominated someone. (This, in short, is exactly why American politics suck - people are staying home yelling at their televisions rather than getting involved in their own leadership).
5. Had a volunteer organizational meeting in support of the Senate candidate going up this fall.
6. Had a volunteer organizational meeting in support of the state Senate candidate going up this fall.
7. Had a potluck.
8. Ran a bus trip to assist in the NH primaries.

So yeah, there is a lot of stuff that happens if you join a party and get active in it.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've never been enrolled in a political party (I'm fortunate enough to live in a state where unenrolled voters can choose a primary ballot for any party). I would never join a political party unless I actually supported more than 50% of its platform and policies.

I do donate to candidates individually, but I have never donated to a political party. I think the two-party system is a bug, not a feature.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:47 AM on April 4, 2012

I am no party registered too, for the "big clown show" reason. I think a good argument to stay unaffiliated is to send a message, however small it may be, that there are many people who purposefully don't associate with either of the two choices currently offered.

I had a comment about this on a post in the blue awhile back. As long as the two parties are the only two choices, they both win. And that makes a lot of true reforms all but impossible. Democrats know it's not important to truly work in support of gay rights or drug war/criminal justice reform or anti-death penalty because if those issues are paramount to voters they're sure not voting Republican. Republicans know it's not important to truly rein in government pork or our insanely complicated tax code because if those issues are paramount to voters they're surely not voting Democrat. And there is never enough of a threat from the 3d party candidate that DOES believe in those reforms to make either party do anything real about it. Instead, you get two choices that work hard to seem different from one another but practically speaking clump together on issues of any political risk.

In fact, the two party system makes even HEARING those other voices difficult. For example, Gary Johnson - whether you believe in his message or not - has positions against the drug war, in favor of gay rights, against the death penalty, against the PATRIOT Act and the TSA, in favor of due process rights for Guantanamo prisoners, in favor of broader immigration policies, etc. Similarly, the Green Party takes a number of blunt and unambiguous stances for gender equality, anti-corporate influence, diversity, and ecology. But the Commission on Presidential Debates - which was started cooperatively by the Republican and Democrat parties - draws up the rules for who is allowed to participate in the debates and requires 15% polling to get in. That shuts out any 3d party candidate, even if they are on all 50 ballots, and just continues the 2-party cycle.

So sitting it out officially is one (little) way of reforming the system.
posted by AgentRocket at 9:55 AM on April 4, 2012

I registered as a member of a political party when it became clear that the other party was batshit insane and had to be kept out of power at all cost.

It didn't really change anything at a practical level, but it feels more honest to me because I really do think that it is important for the non-batshit-insane party to stay in power as much as possible. So it's more of an identity thing than a practical thing.
posted by alms at 10:19 AM on April 4, 2012

In Illinois, here are some reasons you might join a party (other than "increase their numbers"):

*Serve as an election judge. Every precinct has to have at least two judges from differing parties. Different counties have different rules on how exactly it's done, but if you're not registered with a party, you probably can't serve. Most counties pay you for this.

*Run for office in a partisan election. You'll want the party's back-office and money anyway.

*Serve in the party's local governing structure, which can be a stepping stone to running for office, or just a way to serve your local community and help locate and groom good candidates. Most national candidates start local.

Here are some things you can do without joining a party in Illinois:

*Run for non-partisan office.

*Serve as an election observer or emergency lawyer. These are usually party-affiliated but need not be registered with the state as a member of the party.

*Be involved with the local party.

*Vote in either primary; Illinois has an open primary and anyone can pull any primary ticket they please, regardless of party affiliation.

*Stop robocalls -- I'm in the county Democrats' database, and the database says to never, ever phone me, only to e-mail me. I get constant robocalls from the GOP, but I haven't gotten one from the Democrats in 5 years. (When they vet their database, they'll discover I vote in EVERY election, down to municipal primaries in off years, always pull a democratic ticket in the primary, am friendly to door-to-door walkers, and am otherwise involved in party activities. If I was just in there as "don't call, she doesn't like you" they'd probably attempt robocalling periodically just to see if it worked.)

*Go to election parties. You usually get invited for knowing the candidate, which may be more likely if you're in that candidate's party, but if you're involved in local politics, you'll know plenty of local politicos in all parties.

So, I'm actually pretty involved with my local democratic party -- I'm an election day on-call lawyer for them (if there are shenanigans at a polling place, both parties have lawyers in reserve to dispatch immediately to document any problems and to begin the appropriate processes for fixing them), I ran in a non-partisan election using their party support (like database and walk-lists), I've been involved in several local democratic candidates' campaigns, the I cat-sit for the county party chair's cats, etc. But I'm not actually a registered Democrat. The county party doesn't really care because I turn out for events and work for candidates and never miss a primary, which is what's important to them. At this point I'm not going to serve as an election judge in the near future (my kids are too little and the day is SO. LONG.), and I couldn't do the on-call lawyer thing AND serve as an election judge anyway. So really, I just never got around ticking the box and my voter registration renewal comes in the mail automatically. Maybe next time I move I'll register with the party! But yeah, if you're in an open-primary state, registering with a party may not be nearly as important as being INVOLVED with the party.

(Another thing about local politics is it's easier to cross the aisle; I had two friends run as Republicans the last two years, and I supported them both, as did some local Democratic officials, and that's no big deal at all, it's really normal in local races for their to be bipartisan support for some candidates. (It's also really normal for them to be super-ugly.) I get invited to those GOP election parties too ... but only to their fundraisers when it's a personal event.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:20 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Part of the decision is whether you view a party as a process or a product. If it's a process, you want to be involved, to help shape the strategy, represent minority views, and boost up the people you believe in. If you view it as a product, you either "purchase" it or your don't, but your attitude toward it is otherwise passive - as in, you aren't participating in its creation.

So you join a party if, to you, politics is a process rather than a product.
posted by Miko at 12:08 PM on April 4, 2012

I am registered as an independent party. It's allowed in my state. Mr Sunny is registered as a Republican. The only difference to us is the amount of harassing phone calls. The Republicans are really well-funded, and we get endless political robo-calls. Fuckers! I can't even tell you how much I despise that particular tactic.

Therefore, I recommend not registering with a particular party, but you may experience less annoyance with this than I.
posted by annsunny at 2:05 PM on April 4, 2012

Unaffilated here. I hate the "two-party" tyranny and, aside from what everyone else has said about the primaries, I see no good reason to join a party. I changed my affilation in order to vote for a certain Libertarian-leaning Republican from Texas... and now that I have done that, I plan to retreat to my prior state of blissful unaffilated-ness.
posted by brownrd at 6:51 PM on April 4, 2012

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