When I was working with a colleague in the Political Science department a couple of years ago, he convinced me that one of the problems with our electoral system was actually “too much democracy”–that too many of the votes we cast for state and local offices are not informed choices between, say, the candidates for county auditor, but simply opportunities to support our favored political party.
His position was that choices in these “downticket” elections are both uninformed (at least, about the merits of the candidates) and burdensome– time-consuming for voters and vote-counters alike–and for some voters, part of a ballot they see as intimidating.)
Whether we continue to vote for coroners and county surveyors, his observations raise some foundational questions about what sorts of electoral processes define actual democracy.
Along the same lines, an article from the Atlantic also challenged the assumption that “more” is better–where “more” is greater decision-making by the grass roots. The first Democratic debate of the 2020 election cycle had just been held, and the article criticized the decision to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the national exposure of the debate stage.
Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history. Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican. The Democrats in 2016 faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat. And yet, after the election, the Democrats changed their rules to reduce the power of the party establishment by limiting the role of superdelegates, who had been free to support the candidate of their choosing at the party convention, and whose ranks had been filled by elected officials and party leaders. Then, as the 2020 race began, the party deferred to measures of popular sentiment to determine who should make the cut for the debates, all but ensuring runs by publicity-hungry outsiders.
The authors pointed out that no other major democracy uses primary elections to choose its political candidates. The Founders certainly didn’t provide for primaries. (As the authors noted, Abraham Lincoln didn’t win his party’s nomination because he ran a good ground game in New Hampshire. Party elders chose him.)
In fact, America didn’t have binding primaries until the 1970s.
The new system—consisting of primaries, plus a handful of caucuses—seemed to work: Most nominees were experienced politicians with impressive résumés and strong ties to their party. Starting in 1976, Democratic nominees included two vice presidents, three successful governors, and three prominent senators (albeit one with little national experience). Republican nominees included a vice president, three successful governors, and two prominent senators. All were acceptable to their party establishment and to their party’s base.
In 2016, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders exploited what the authors term the primary system’s “fragility.” The electorate had come to view the establishment’s seal of approval with hostility, and that encouraged outsider candidates to claim that their lack of party support showed “authenticity.” Meanwhile, the media provided lots of coverage to rogue candidates.
What to do?
Restoring the old era of smoke-filled rooms is neither possible nor desirable. Primaries bring important information to the nominating process. They test candidates’ ability to excite voters and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for up-and-comers and neglected constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina. But as 2016 made clear, primaries are only half of a functional nominating system. The other half is input from political insiders and professionals who can vet candidates, steer them to appropriate races, and, as a last resort, block them if they are unacceptable to the party or unfit to govern.
This eminently reasonable observation is sure to infuriate ideologues in both parties, who insist that the electorate is all-knowing, and that party professionals are all part of some corrupt “establishment.” Yet survey after survey finds a significant majority of the electorate woefully ignorant of the most basic elements of the system of government for which they are choosing leadership.
When candidates are supported despite a lack of evidence that they know what the job entails and what the rules are, celebrity trumps competence.
As the authors conclude,
The current system is democratic only in form, not in substance. Without professional input, the nominating process is vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures, and activists. As entertainment, America’s current primary system works pretty well; as a way to vet candidates for the world’s most important and difficult job, it is at best unreliable—and at worst destabilizing, even dangerous.
Trump certainly proves their point.