For a few days, it looked as though the Democratic primary system had truly been hijacked and rigged by Hillary Clinton and her machine. Subsequent revelations have cast doubt on the accusations of Donna Brazile and her credibility more generally. At this point, I personally afford her very little. Between what was alleged to happen in the Democratic Primary and the dissatisfaction of a lot of Republican leaders regarding how their primary went, the fundamental question of who parties belong to and what kind of system they have has come up again. Internationally, primaries of the sort we have are quite rare (though are becoming more common). Generally speaking, parties have historically belonged to elected officials. At some point, however, we stopped viewing it that way. And internationally, more people are beginning to question that.
Seth Masket and Kevin Williamson are not among them, however. Musket proposes a series of more moderate reforms, but with this rationale:
[T]he current primary process still gives too much power to the whims of the people. The Republican Party, in many ways, provided us with a real service last year by showing us what can happen when the party-democracy pendulum swings too far in one direction. The product of that is Trump, a man who not only rejects much of what his party believes in and actively undermines that party’s leadership, but who is also proving to be a highly flawed and divisive president and is facing an unusually strong chance of impeachment or resignation.
Arguing for less-direct voter control of nominations—or of anything, really—is a tough sell in American politics. But quite a few people are or will be open to dramatic reforms in the way we nominate presidential candidates this year. So it’s time to make the argument.
It might not be popular, but the lesson of 2016 was that parties should be allowed to be parties. They don’t have to make decisions in secret, but they should still make decisions, rather than outsourcing those decisions to voters.
Williamson takes a more holistic view:
There is a contradiction within American progressivism, which seeks to make the political process more democratic while pushing the policymaking process in a less democratic direction. For a century, progressives have championed more open primary elections and open primaries, popular ballot measures, referendum and recall processes, and wider voter participation. At the same time, progressives, particularly those of a Wilsonian bent, have sought to remove the substance of policymaking from democratically accountable elected representatives and entrust it to unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies in the belief that panels of experts immune from ordinary democratic oversight could make hard decisions based on reason and evidence rather than on short-term political necessity and popular passions. They regarded the political parties and their infamous smoke-filled rooms as embodiments of corruption and old-fashioned wheeler-dealer politics at odds with the brave new centrally planned world they imagined themselves to be building.
As it turns out, political parties are — like churches, civic groups, unions, trade groups, lobbyists, pressure groups, and business associations — part of the secret sauce of civil society. In much the same way as our senators — in their original, unelected role — were expected to provide a sober brake on the passions of the members of the more democratic House of Representatives, political parties exercised a soft veto that helped to keep extremism and demagoguery in check. Anybody can run for president — but not just anybody can run as the candidate of the Republican party or the Democratic party. Third parties face an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot prevail: The Republican party was a very successful third party, displacing the moribund Whigs.
I honestly think we’ve passed the point where parties can be displaced. There is too much written into our actual laws now regarding ballot access, nigh-universal party demarcation on ballots, and a national party culture. I have no idea what the two political parties will look like in 50 years, but I will bet good money that they will be called “Republican” and Democratic.”
As the co-owner of the #BanPrimaries hashtag, this actually disturbs me a bit because it makes getting rid of primaries somewhere between impossible and undesirable. In my ideal world, we would probably be like most of the rest of the world and give the parties more say in choosing their own leaders, but it would be easier to replace one party for another party if that party declined to remove its cranium from its posterior.
In Canada, for example, the Progressive Conservatives (PC) made one bad decision after another. A new party formed, became bigger than the old, and merged with (essentially absorbed) the PC. We don’t really have a mechanism for that here. Not because of First-Past-The-Post elections (which is also the case in Canada), but because of a combination of our political culture and the electoral college. It’s extremely difficult to imagine how we get from Point A to Point B. That gives all of us a stake in the existing parties, which makes getting rid of primaries a tough nut to crack.
Ideally, we’d have a presidential system that could efficiently handle third parties. That would mean a national popular vote with a runoff, like France, or theoretically an electoral college where the states got together and decided IRV until somebody got over 270 electoral votes (which would require more work than just scrapping the electoral college). But as long as we have only two presidential parties, the rest is likely to fall into line. Even if we had multi-member districts and proportional representation, everything would most likely fall behind the coalitions of the all-important executive elections.
Personally, I have historically favored a two-party system and have believed the supposed virtues of multiparty systems to be wildly overrated. They sound fine in theory, but in practice often lead to ambiguity in the outcome because you so often don’t know who is going to coalition with whom. Further, fringe parties can be ugly and keeping those people subsumed in larger tents (or enough of them so that those who continue to rebel are even more marginalized) has actually served us well over the years. At least, up until those elements gradually came to control one of the two parties. It turns out it was a lower-risk-higher-consequence situation. The situation abroad, however, also looks like it could teeter. Sometimes, no matter the system, you need good voters.
The question is more or less academic at this point. I could make a case – and have been, in my mind – that a country with our regional demography and political diversity is a really hard fit for two countries. I could also consider that in a multiparty system we could have two leftward parties battling for control of Oregon, and two rightward ones in Idaho. But none of that matters with the presidency and the electoral college. The system in California was busted wide open, and what do we have? Democrats, Democrats, and Republicans. And rather than mitigating the problems we have with districts causing inverted outcomes (Democrats get more votes, Republicans more seats) that could actually be a bigger problem in a proportional system:
The grass is always greener and proportional multiparty systems often produce more undemocratic outcomes than the ones we complain about here.
Proportional representation is actually in practice mostly bad pic.twitter.com/skHV2c4JHH
PR just created a larger seat/vote discrepancy than we saw in the US in *two* European elections today due to minimum vote thresholds https://t.co/o0mX2XeVmM
Objectively, "The parliamentary bloc with the most votes not getting the most seats" has happened 8 times in Norway compared to twice in US https://t.co/H04jXjK8KH
The main interest here is giving people the tools to challenge the party apparatus. My ideal scenario might include more in the way of runoffs (instant or otherwise), non-partisan ballots, or blanket primaries, or some combination of the above. In the real world, though, we have primaries and that’s pretty much all we have. So long as that’s the case, I don’t have a problem with parties putting their thumb on the scale somewhat, but the people should retain the ability to overrule them without having to reinvent the entire system.
Please ignore the below, which is caused by a WordPress software fluke.
- David Shor
- David Shor
- David Shor