Saturday, November 2, 2019

Boo to Party Primaries!

I rarely read National Review, but this latest piece by Jonah Goldberg 
came to my attention yesterday. Clearly I can't collude with Goldberg in putting Coolidge in the same rank with the Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Truman, and Kennedy! Aside from that, however, there is little in Goldberg's article that I and others haven't mused about before - at least since the wave of party reforms starting in the 1970s has so undermined the ability of political parties to do their job and serve their purpose in a democracy.

The basic case is familiar and needs no repetition here. (And anyway Goldberg summarizes it well enough.) He somewhat overstates his case, of course. I think there is some valid place and role for party primaries as part of larger balanced process that takes other factors and actors into account. Primaries were still limited in number and influence in 1960, when JFK (in conspicuous contrast to LBJ that same year) went the primary route. Of course, Kennedy had to do so, because he had to prove that a Roman Catholic could win Protestant votes - and the only forum for doing that was the primaries. Having overcome that hurdle he was able to win support from other actors in the nominating process and go on to the nomination and the presidency.

And, despite Goldberg's legitimate critique of the outsized role played by Iowa and New Hampshire, I think there is a convincing case to be made for some form of the kind of "retail politics" those states uniquely embody. Forcing candidates to be tested by actual encounters with actual voters - something that cannot possibly be done on the larger national stage - has a very obvious value and deserves to play some part at some point in the process.

The problem has come about because primaries (and caucuses), having acquired an aura of exclusive democratic legitimacy, have become virtually the only element in the process. The Democrats invented "super delegates" (essentially a relic of when actual officeholders and convention delegates decided things) to counter that, but the same pseudo-democratic ideology that has elevated primaries to such an overly mighty role has also diminished the super delegates' potential role.

At present, the only other element that significantly counters the primaries is the fundraising contest, which - prior to any primary or caucus votes ever even being cast - has become overly decisive, as if money weren't already excessively powerful in our society and politics!

What is so obviously lacking in the nominating process is what the Founders (following ancient authors like Aristotle and Polybius) sought to incorporate into our national government, namely a "mixed constitution," including elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy in a single system intended to avoid the dangers and dysfunctions specific to each system on its own.

In other words, we need a more "mixed" nominating process - one which incorporates the ostensible democracy of primaries and caucuses but balances that with more traditional elements such as a weightier role for actual officeholders and other political actors. And, while it would be utopian to aspire to eliminate money's influence altogether, balancing the total dependence on campaigning for voters in primaries and caucuses could also balance the excessive and corrupting influence of money, at least somewhat.

As we keep struggling with our increasingly unsatisfactory electoral process - and its increasingly unsatisfactory outcomes - we would do well to face up to the fact that we really would be a lot better off with better functioning, less "base"-driven political parties, to get back to which we would need to find ways to undo some of the damage we have contrived to do to both the process and the parties themselves over the last half-century.

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