It isn't just coronavirus that can sicken us.
Are you as sick of primary elections as I am?
Historically, party leaders selected candidates for general elections. But letting voters choose party nominees seemed more democratic.
Primaries are now the dominant way to secure a major party's nomination.
Today's polarization may be largely a side effect of primaries. And primaries have actually undermined democracy by making government less responsive to the broad majority of the population. .
Let me lay out the premises upon which I base these dismal conclusions.
In our current political system:
—The total population is distributed along the left-right spectrum in a bell-shaped curve with the largest number of people in the middle.
—There are two major political parties.
—There is a high barrier to development of a third major party.
—Turnout in primaries is higher among voters towards the extreme ends of the left-right spectrum.
—Those voting in primaries usually prioritize policy agreement with candidates over their ability to win the general election. (The most recent Democratic presidential primaries were a major exception to this generalization.)
—Many election districts are "safe" constituencies for one major party or the other, often because of gerrymandering. .
Many incumbents worry more about winning their next primary than about losing the general election. If they lose the primary, ability to win the general election will be irrelevant. This concern discourages leaders from making reasonable compromises with the other party, compromises which, seized upon by extremists in their own party, could defeat them in the next primary.
To defend themselves against primary challengers, Republican politicians move to the right and Democratic politicians to the left, leaving them further apart and increasing polarization.
Government thus becomes less sensitive to moderate voters — the large number of people in the middle of the left-right distribution — who are increasingly limited to choosing between extreme candidates, right or left, in general elections.
If we could abolish primaries and restore choice of nominees to party leaders, government would become more sensitive to general public opinion — more democratic.
Party leaders, prioritizing victory in the general elections, are more likely to nominate candidates who appeal to the large number of moderate voters occupying the middle of the bell-shaped curve.
Eliminating primaries would therefore increase moderation in candidates of both parties and increase the number of competitive constituencies, despite gerrymandering.
It would thus increase the sensitivity of elected officials to general public opinion and their willingness to compromise with leaders of the other party.
Unfortunately, it will be difficult to get rid of primaries. Eliminating them will be labeled "rolling back democracy" since the intent of establishing primaries was to make government more democratic.
The intent of an action is one thing, and its actual consequences may be quite different.
But rolling back a well-meant reform will strike many as "reactionary."
A rollback here would indeed be reactionary. But if things used to be better it is progress to go back to them. "Progress through reaction" isn't always a contradiction in terms.
A century ago, the "long ballot" — where large numbers of local officials "from the dogcatcher on up" were directly elected — was considered a democratic reform. But public control over government action — the bottom line in a democracy — actually was reduced.
Thus, voters were unwilling and unable to get and evaluate the information needed in order to vote intelligently for such a long list of officials. Either they didn't vote, or they voted blindly.
The long ballot was soon abandoned, with a few unfortunate lingering exceptions.
More voting does not always enhance democracy. It's high time to abandon primary elections. If enough people become convinced it would be a good idea, this reform will become possible.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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