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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fair
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Imagine there's no parties
Why not have lots of loose political associations?

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The state Democratic Party convention will be held next weekend. If they're lucky nothing awful will happen, and in the best-case scenario nothing at all will happen.

If you think I'm joking just ask the Republicans. Their state convention a few weeks ago was a disaster. Whatever carefully planned messages the party might have been trying to get out, they were overwhelmed by debate over a resolution to reaffirm the right of states to secede from the union. Apparently, there was some significant part of the party of Lincoln that thought Lincoln had gotten it wrong.

The delegates quickly dispatched the resolution, but it was too late. It was something like being acquitted of an ax murder. You would rather not have been charged in the first place.

I have attended several state conventions and a couple of national ones. I have enjoyed aspects of them, but I have never once felt that I had anything to do there. State conventions don't nominate candidates, and national conventions only rubberstamp the winner of the primaries. Especially at the national party conventions, the delegates are extras in carefully scripted four-day commercials for the party. As long as nobody goes rogue and talks to a chair, as Clint Eastwood did at the last GOP convention, the party sometimes gets a bump in the polls, but even that almost always rapidly fades.

With so little upside and some substantial risk for embarrassment, why do parties even bother to have conventions? Someday maybe they won't.

But an even better question is, why do we have this hidebound, clunky two-party system in the first place?

What we've experienced in recent decades is the decentralization of everything else, so why not politics? We no longer have three dominant television networks, but rather dozens of cable options. Cities no longer have two or three big daily newspapers but all manner of websites and blogs. Even energy production is trending toward more home- and business-based solar systems as opposed to one big local utility producing energy on a grid.

Technology has allowed us to be more specific about exactly what we want as consumers. So as consumers of politics, there's no reason to be stuck with only two viable choices.

Instead of having to choose between only two models, why not form loose, web-based associations of like-minded people with their own collection of political interests and ideas? These associations could offer their endorsements, financial contributions and volunteer help to candidates whose positions fit theirs. Candidates would become independent brokers stitching together many of these informal associations in the hopes of getting elected.

For example, we could imagine groups of disaffected Republicans who were conservative on taxes and regulation but liberal on social issues forming their own web-based virtual association. Or, in my case, nominal Democrats who think the party is too weak on gun control and climate change forming our own group.

The associations wouldn't be the traditional political action committees or conduits. Those are formed by groups with specific interests in one policy arena -- labor unions, doctors or lawyers for example. And they're usually directed by a committee. What I'm suggesting is average individual citizens who would shop on the web for an association that exactly matched their set of priorities and positions on a wide variety of issues. They could join and then contribute a small amount of money to be given to endorsed candidates. And there's no reason to have those decisions made by a director or a small committee. Members could actually vote on which candidates they want the association to endorse.

This would create a much more fluid system in which a voter could essentially tailor his own micro party. And it has the potential for lessening somewhat the impact of big money in politics. It could essentially work the way crowdsourcing and micro investments do for small business startups.

Best of all, none of this is dependent on unlikely big changes in election law or the current political system. The whole unholy mess could just stay in place but become less relevant. Candidates would still run as Democrats, Republicans, independents or minor-party candidates, but the party labels would mean less. The parties might go the way of the big TV networks -- still players but much reduced in size and influence.

All it takes is a little imagination. Imagine there's no political parties. It's easy if you try.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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