A walk down the beer aisle at a supermarket gives testimony to the power of a free market. Whether your priority is quality, price, brand, or style, there is a product to meet your desires.
A walk to your polling place reveals the opposite: few brands on the shelves, and competitors clamoring to sound alike. Despite heavy regulation, our beer market is free and functional, but our political market feels more like a Soviet grocery during a wheat shortage. Shelves are bare in the marketplace of ideas.
Voters have no choice in November in five of seven local state House districts and one of two state Senate districts. Locally, parties are competing for two vacant seats and one incumbency. In the August Knox County election, every fee office and more than half the Commission seats were uncontested.
Limited choices are not the only problem with our partisan system. Having just two parties automatically polarizes debate, regardless of how much or little difference there is on the broader spectrum of ideas.
Consider, for example, Knoxville's recent visit from the National Socialist Movement. You might be surprised to discover who willfully chooses to call themselves a "socialist." It's not the same people who get called socialists in the local media.
With as much variety on political shelves as we have in the beer cooler, we would know what socialism looks like, but it hasn't been on the shelves in America since before most of us were born. Decades of snickering derision by Republicans has stripped the term of meaning, so when people who need an armed battalion of police to ensure their safety call for the president to be stripped of his rights and citizenship, they call themselves what Republicans call the President.
An absence of choice can decay into an absence of meaning.
Before we despair, look to the governor's race! You may think it's just Bill Haslam versus Mike McWherter, but there are 14 other candidates. Several are independents running outside the party system, one is a Green, and there is David Gatchell, running as an advocate for "NOTA," a national movement working to enact "none of the above" as a choice in every election. Nevada has been doing this since 1976, and Iowa and Massachusetts are considering it.
Why so many candidates for governor? Partially it is the ego or naivety of the candidates, but it is also because the law makes it easier to form a statewide political party than a local party. A third party in Knox County would have to get 5 percent of registered voters to sign a petition granting them ballot access, whereas statewide it takes 2.5 percent of the number of voters participating in a gubernatorial election. That works out to about 10,000 within the county but just 45,000 across the whole state. Third parties also need to maintain support once they form, and this requires that they receive 5 percent of the vote in a statewide contest or 20 percent in a local contest. These laws lure parties and candidates into statewide efforts.
Either way, the task is too onerous for most third parties. Greens, Libertarians, and the Constitution Party have all tried and failed several times and keep trying. Despite abundant media attention, the Tea Party has not attained ballot access.
They have an ace up the sleeve, however. Stacey Campfield, a featured speaker at the first Tea Party rally in Knoxville, has won more than 20 percent of the vote in every local contest he has entered. Were Campfield to declare himself a member of the Tea Party, he could be listed that way on November's ballot.
The attention he would get in a narrowly divided state Senate would be the perfect vehicle for a statewide signature drive, so Campfield is in a unique position to leverage the Tea Party into statewide legitimacy for the 2012 elections, when they could field candidates for Bob Corker's U.S. Senate seat or even the presidency.
Think about that when you're in the beer aisle.