The Weaknesses of a Popular Primary System - The Atlantic
Except, perhaps, in a round-about way, a 1979 book about the presidential-primary system. James Ceaser, a University of Virginia professor, outlined the history and potential weaknesses of various nomination processes, including one that largely relies on popular primaries. Starting in the early 1970s, Democrats and Republicans began reforming their primary-election processes, transferring influence over nominations away from party leaders to voters. This kind of system is theoretically more democratic, but it also has weaknesses—some of which have been on display in 2016.
Tue May 31 13:20:40 2016 - permalink -
I spoke with Ceaser about Trump and the unintended effects of trying to make democracy more democratic.
But the essential change—the people are the source of the nomination—came in ’72.
There was some modification of that deliberately in the Democratic Party in the ’80s with the Hunt Commission—they felt they had gone too far in some ways. They pulled back a little bit and instituted these superdelegates, which was a way of making sure party officials would be at the convention
But [it was fear of] popular appeals that emphasize emotion—in short, getting people elected who don’t have the qualifications that people think would be good for a statesman and leader.
When Woodrow Wilson proposed [a popular-vote nomination system], the idea was that the types of appeals made to the public would be high-minded, and we would have these very deliberative debates by great statesmen. The minute this got underway, though, people started believing more in propaganda, public relations, and advertising.
you notice something in play: people for whom running for the presidency is their entry into politics rather than the capstone of a career.
This is the antithesis of what some had in mind originally—this shouldn’t be an entry-level job.
There are disadvantages to a limited system, too—no system is perfect. It can become stale; it can protect too much of the status quo; it can fail to hear messages that are surging up. This is a point that has been made in both the Sanders and Trump phenomena—there is something the political class is missing that became clear in this primary process. So it’s not as if one has all the benefits and none of the disadvantages—it’s a mix.
Is the choice really between party bosses and Trump-like demagogues?
And that’s the superdelegate idea—you try to mix.
The problem they are going to run up against is, yeah, there are good arguments for what they say—but are the American people going to swallow this?
You also have two candidates who weren’t members of their party. That’s another extraordinary thing: The party used to say hey, we control this, we’re going to pick the one that we want. Now, a party at the national level is kind of like a public utility. They don’t have a basis even of limiting who the candidates are to their own party. But they came in and rented a party because that’s the way the rules are set up.
A party was a private organization that worked by its own rules and had its own purposes. It wasn’t obliged to run things according to popular majority rule of all the people, but maybe majority rule of all the party members—people who have been important in the party.
By “public utility,” in a way, I mean [they’re] running an election by some neutral rule—they’re just sort of running the election for the candidates. Anyone can walk in, and the party can’t really shape this very much.
Usually it works out—most of the time, you’ve gotten good candidates out of it—but now it’s come to the point that they haven’t been able to say, “Well, we don’t want this person because he hasn’t been a member of the party.” You would think a party would be able to do that.
Not the bosses—the best minds and leaders in the party vying against each other, putting forward their program and their ideas, and letting the mass of people in the party make the decision, not the party leaders. That was the idea—you’d have a high-minded debate, and the people would decide, it would be highly legitimate because there’s no stronger principal in a democracy than that the people should rule. Instead of forcing people to make deals behind the scenes and all that used to go on at conventions, they would articulate a program and the best person would win. That was the hope.
This system puts an emphasis on oratory
what you’ve seen is a lot of public relations running these things, and money is playing a role.
Another reason that you haven’t had third parties: possible third-party candidates under the closed system just say, “What the heck? I’m not going to start a third party. I’m going to go into one of the major parties and take over and win.”