A controversy recently arose over cancellation of 2020 Republican presidential primaries in several states. This upset Donald Trump's Republican challengers, but some Democrats also joined in denouncing the cancellations as "undemocratic."
But both parties have sometimes canceled presidential primaries when their incumbents were seeking re-election. Partisan criticism here was just another example of politicians invoking principles in an unprincipled way.
We actually do need to reconsider primaries' place in American politics, though. Like several other "democratic" reforms, primary elections have actually made politicians less accountable to the American public, for reasons I will explain. If we could eliminate them all and let party leaders (in "back rooms" but hopefully not smoke-filled ones!) decide who to nominate for each office, this would make our country more democratic.
Eliminating all primaries, however, would be difficult. Perhaps as an easier first step, we could eliminate primaries for all offices (not just the presidency) when an incumbent party member seeks re-election. This might be especially beneficial for elections to Congress.
To minimize corruption, general rules applied across the board often are better than making specific decisions case by case. During the early nineteenth century, valuable corporate charters were granted by enacting special legislation for each corporation. State legislators were often bribed to support granting a particular charter. The solution was to enact general legislation stating under what conditions corporate charters would be granted and then apply these general rules to each applicant.
By analogy, a general rule that eligible incumbents automatically get their party's nomination without having to win a primary election would produce many benefits.
It would prevent presidents from expelling dissident members of Congress from their party by sponsoring primary election challengers. Reducing presidential leverage would encourage diversity within that president's party and encourage its members of Congress to avoid partisan gridlock by making reasonable compromises with members of the other party.
This in turn would strengthen Congressional independence and help restore constitutional balance among the three branches of our government, which has increasingly been dominated by the executive and judicial branches.
Automatic re-nomination would avoid campaign "flip flops" by incumbents. These occur after the candidate veers leftwards (if a Democrat) or rightwards (if a Republican) in order to win a primary in which extremists in both parties are more likely to vote. The candidate then shifts towards the political center in order to appeal to the larger numbers of moderates who vote in general elections, including independents and those weakly committed to the other party.
It would also avoid something even worse than flip-flopping, namely when a primary winner sticks to an extremist position, wins the general election anyhow, and remains an implacable foe of reasonable compromises in the Senate or House.
Most incumbents now fear primaries more than general elections. Democrats are afraid of challengers who accuse them of not being liberal enough. Republicans are afraid of challengers who claim they are not conservative enough. As I indicated earlier, extremists in both parties are most likely to vote in primary elections. Thanks to partisan gerrymandering, those re-nominated usually can win the general election. But if candidates from both parties move towards the middle of the political spectrum, general elections will themselves become more competitive since most general election voters are in the middle of the road.
Getting rid of primary elections just for incumbents would help reduce political gridlock in Congress. Getting rid of all primary elections would be even better.
Party leaders would choose people they can evaluate personally rather than on the basis of images expensively transmitted through the media, images which primary voters must rely on. This would improve nominee quality and reduce the importance of money in beginning a political campaign.
Getting rid of primaries would not make our system less democratic. Party leaders would want to nominate people with broad public appeal who could win the general election. Public opinion would still be very powerful here even if expressed indirectly rather than directly.
If they didn't need to adopt extreme positions in order to win primaries, politicians could become more sensitive to overall public opinion as expressed in general elections. This is more democratic, not less.
Some readers might feel that a really terrible incumbent shouldn't be automatically re-nominated. But voters could still throw the bum out in the general election.
If partisan loyalties prevent too many voters from voting for the other party in such cases, we might need to amend the Constitution to allow recall of federal officials during their terms, as many states allow for their own officers, a reform that might be a good idea in any event.
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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