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"What's the Point of Having a Primary If It's Not Partisan?"

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Opinion: Dukakis on California Primary

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In an interview with the Los Angeles Times recently, former Democratic presidential nominee and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis asks a great rhetorical question: "What's the point of having a primary if it's not partisan?"

California -- where Dukakis now lives each winter when he teaches at UCLA -- is having just such a non-partisan primary right now. It's widely seen as some kind of political reform, even though it's not clear what such a primary does, except provide some vague hope that, in certain kinds of districts, the winner may be more moderate.

The former Massachusetts governor clearly believes there's no point in such a primary. Because, for people in most states, the point of politics is to build movements and organize people. California politics is almost entirely about media.

The value of parties, as Dukakis points out in this interview, is in the connections they create between people.

More party activism -- which is undermined by the non-partisan "top-two" primary -- creates "more engagement with people face to face; you really appreciate the positive reaction you get. You contact people, they ask you a few questions, they may be interested, and by the time the conversation is over, another block captain. You don't get that unless you knock on somebody's door."

Dukakis' views are worth considering right now, as his state -- Massachusetts -- produces yet another presidential nominee, former Gov. Mitt Romney. Why does Massachusetts do so well in presidential politics (though it hasn't produced a winner)? Because it has the kind of connecting, human politics that parties provide.

One final note: Dukakis gets off a great line at the end of the interview, when he's asked what his advice is to his students who wish to go into public service: "Just remember two things; live moderately, and have a good but conventional sex life."

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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