Down With Primaries! (not an April Fool’s Day Prank)
Most democracies don’t have democratic primaries. By and large, party elites choose candidates, and the people then vote for the parties or the candidates. American democracy, by contrast, relies on popular primaries: Ordinary party members select the candidates, or we have open primaries, in which voters can select candidates from either party.
Why do we do this? American anti-elitism. We see party elites selecting candidates as corrupt backroom dealing. We don’t trust parties to evaluate candidates themselves, to help us make a better democratic choice.
Americans are wrong about this. We should abolish democratic primaries and allow parties to nominate candidates at caucuses or conventions, as is done for some statewide offices in several states like Michigan and Virginia.
Consider two problems. The first is a matter of definition. Some argue, mistakenly, that primaries make our system more democratic. But most democracies rely on their political parties to aid their political choices, and they are as democratic as we are. The people still choose their leaders.
The second problem becomes clear by considering the alternative. We live in a society riven by political polarization; our median primary voter is ultra-partisan. That median primary voter is more ideological than the median party voter -– not to mention the median general election voter.
The case for primaries is that the median primary voter will make a better choice than party elders. This argument might prove out if all party members voted. But that’s not what happens. In some states, senators come from parties that are dominant statewide, and representatives come from gerrymandered districts, which effectively means that the primary is the general election. And again, only the most partisan voters vote in primaries.
Yes, primary voters tend to be more informed, often because they are better educated. But that can make them more biased – and the better educated are good at producing flimsy rationales for their preferences. In our polarized age, the most informed voters can have awful beliefs. Anti-vaxxers do their “research.” They know more than pro-vaxxers. And they’re still wrong.
Many senators, and even more representatives, come from voting blocs that are polarized, hateful, nutty, and tiny. A mere one hundred thousand outlier primary voters can elect officials who help govern the country.
Party elders are far from perfect. They’re often corrupt, and they make bad choices. Nonetheless, they remain the better alternative. They are less polarized than primary voters. And they care more about winning elections than ideology. They produce more level-headed candidates with broader appeal. Party elders have a certain expertise -– winning –- that primary voters often lack.
Again, this is standard practice around the democratic world. Most democracies see parties as essential for democratic functioning. And they acknowledge that parties have expertise.
Consider some recent illustrations. In 2016, GOP party elders would have blocked Donald Trump from the outset. I’m sure that many people reading this are still happy that Trump broke through as he did. But for most Republicans, and most of the country, this proved to be a bad outcome.
Think about it from the other side. Imagine the Democrats had much less control over who they nominated. Charismatic and extreme candidates would come to power more often. Would you rather have President Biden or President AOC? I’m grateful that party elders intervened in the 2020 primary to ensure that Biden won. Biden is a bumbler in some ways. But he is not a socialist, nor especially woke.
If Republican Party elders had had their way in 2016, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would have been the nominee. I have no love for Rubio or Bush: They are too hawkish for my tastes. But Trump damaged the country’s democratic system in ways that Bush or Rubio would not have done. Conversely, had Democratic Party elders not gotten their way four years later, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren might have been the nominee in 2020. If a strong left-wing candidate had become president, instead of Biden, most Americans would have regretted it.
We also can’t forget the role of centrists, who often get stuck with candidates whom they dislike. A democratic system that gives them choices closer to their views is better. I know centrist leaders are boring, and sometimes, they’re worse than partisan candidates. But the United States is simply too polarized right now. We far exceed the acceptable level of political polarization. Abolishing primaries would help alleviate this.
Consider one last advantage. The 24-hour news cycle loves democratic primaries. It gets to cover exciting events for a year longer than it would otherwise. Candidates that control news cycles with scandal and gimmicks get more attention –- and often more votes. Imagine that the 2016 primary never happened. We would have been less entertained, to be sure. But the Republican Party and the country would be stronger today.
Backroom deals? They’re the stuff of democracies around the world -– and of American democracy before the advent of the primary system. We should bring them back.
Bill Gelineau - 2018 Libertarian Nominee for Governor says
The goal in a democracy should always be to find the highest level of consensus. Primaries have clearly not served that purpose.
But, simply eliminating primaries will not effectively fix the problem as long as we have gerrymandered districts.
Our country needs Ranked Choice Voting. Only then will fringe and radical elements be effectively subdued.
Mike in TC says
Before ditching primaries in favor of party conventions, wait until the Michigan state GOP convention upcoming. The squirrels are about to gather in all the nuts. The fervent Trump cult members are posed to nominate unelectable candidates whose only qualification is swearing allegiance to The Big Lie. If that happens, we will get four more years of the coven currently in power.
On the State level, in Michigan Dems vote in Republican primaries and we get “uni-party” candidates. The convention or “closed primary” eliminates that. Precinct Delegates would have more power and that’s where the “grassroots” are. I could go on, but that’s enough reason.
John C Stewart says
I am all for nominating candidates by Primary Elections. As a moderately-conservative Republican, I would never been nominated for State Representative, elected, served 6 years 2000-2006, and voted with my Caucus 98% of the time.
I very much appreciate the author’s references to “CENTRISTS”.
Mike from TC, you made a Dutch, Scot Presbyterian lawyer LOL for 30 seconds. Bob LaBrant, former VP Michigan Chamber of Commerce, has warned against nominating candidates at a convention. Loser of an idea.
Mike from Traverse City, William Milliken, our longest-serving Governor 14 years,1969-1983, is a native son of Traverse City.
Timothy K SULLIVAN says
Interesting article. Reading it reminds me of a discussion I had with Gerry Law when he was my state representative. I felt then, and do now, that Michigan should consider the Louisiana system – with a tweak. Under this system, everyone, regardless of party who wishes to run for a specific office is on the November ballot for that office. If any candidate gets a majority of votes cast, that candidate wins. If no one gets a majority, then the top two candidates have a run-off election. This is the tweak. I would have the runoff occur on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving lest the holiday season be spoiled with campaign ads. If you swear at the TV, it should be over the Lions, not campaign ads.
Matt Crehan says
While the author is right that primaries should be abolished, he makes a quantum leap with his conclusion that DJT would not have been the Republican nominee. Likewise his conclusions about the Democrat Party.
But in any event, primaries should be abolished and candidates should be chosen at conventions. The main reason is simple. Primaries can allow those of the opposite party to vote in a primary they otherwise might not vote in. Case in point: In 1998, a certain mild-mannered attorney by the name of Fieger ran for Governor. Although yours truly supported John Engler, I voted for Fieger in the primary. Not because he had a snowballs chance in hell of winning, but because he would add quite a few colorful comments to the general election. Which is exactly what he did. And if by some off the wall chance he actually won, he would have been so much fun to watch!!
This could not have happened at a party convention that chooses candidates. There, the delegates are dedicated party regulars who take great pride (not to mention time, effort and energy) to choose who they truly believe is the best qualified candidate. Most of the time this includes choosing the candidate that stands the greatest chance of winning the general election. But in any event, the candidate picked has been vetted in much greater detail than a primary usually allows. Not to mention that the eventual candidate actually supports the core party philosophy. (Which means that the RINO will be shot down before it gets to the first vote; the RINO should not be confused with another specie of Republican, the moderate, who has either gone the way of the dodo, or morphed into a quasi-conservative.)
Simply put, it is better to have a fewer number of intense partisans pick candidates for general elections then a greater number of lackadaisical voters who choose candidates based on superficial impressions, often times generated at the last possible moment.
Michael J Wecker says
One of the worst articles I’ve read on this newsletter. Embedded politicians are the problem, and this administration is the prime example of inept performance.