Over at Dispatches a comment I made about the open primaries led to this question from Michael Heath.
Are we seeing an effective mutation of the general [election] into a two-stage run-off?
The background of the question is my claim that our changing primary system, particularly open primaries*, are causing a decline in the parties’ ability to discipline candidates and elected officials, because the parties aren’t the ones selecting their nominees; the public is. And if the parties can’t discipline their own elected officials, the public can’t effectively discipline the parties.†
This is a bit paradoxical. The push for primaries as the method of selecting nominees came as part of the generalized demand for more democratic structures and processes in U.S. politics. It is partly associated with the progressive movement, which also pushed for such direct democracy tools as the initiative, referendum, and recall. But it is also part of a “from the beginning” expansion of democratic forms in the U.S., from the elimination of the property restriction for voting, the shifting of selection of the electoral college from state legislatures to the public, to the direct election of senators and universal suffrage. So this is all about the expansion of democracy.
Yet political scientists say democracy is inconceivable without political parties to help organize the public and to offer them coherent policy alternatives. I’ve never found this quite wholly persuasive as an empirical claim, but as a normative claim it may have more certainty. Certainly democracy seems to function better if it is clear whom we can hold accountable. It’s easy to say we hold the individual legislators accountable, but each legislator can be pleasing to his her own district without their cumulative actions adding up to any coherent policy whole, particularly in an era of excessively gerrymandered districts. So this extension of democracy may in fact be undermining democracy.
More specifically, the candidate selection process seems to be a true slippery slope, a continuum on which there is no logical stopping place short of the far end. We began in this country with party caucuses, which were nothing more than a collection of party elites sitting around saying, “How about young Johnny Smith? He’d make a damn good Congressman, eh?” This is where the mythical image of the smoke-filled room came from. The candidate selection process was closed even to most active party regulars. This shifted in the mid-19th century to the convention system,‡ which allowed more party activists to get involved, but still excluded the rank and file. The demands of the rank and file led to the primary (the closed one), where any party registered voter could help select the nominee. This led to the open primary, which led to the blanket primary, which led to California’s “top two” primary, in which all the candidates for any given office, from all parties, are listed together (in a blanket primary, the parties are usually in separate columns), and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election regardless of party affiliation. If two Democrats are the top vote-getters, the general election will be between two Democrats.
That may be the end-point of the continuum, or perhaps eliminating the party ID from the candidates is. I suspect not the latter because most candidates will themselves want that party ID by their name. But perhaps the voters in California will collectively want to take that last step and have a true pure two-stage run-off election. That is, instead of the parties producing nominees for the public to select from, the public selects the nominees and then votes between them.
This is all very bad. First, let’s just admit that the public governs badly. Anyone who’s looked at how the initiative and referendum process has tied up California’s budget knows that. There are sophisticated theoretical and technical reasons that explain why the public governs badly, but that’s its own overly long post, to be saved for another day. Please, for the moment, allow me to just stipulate it.
Second, it’s a system that’s ripe for creating perverse outcomes. Theoretically, the “most preferred” candidate should win the election. For technical reasons it sometimes impossible to define exactly which candidate is most preferred,** but we can say that a good electoral system will not produce a winner who is clearly less preferred. However that is precisely what the “top two” primary can do.
Assume a “top two” primary with four Democratic and eight Republican candidates, in a district that is 40% Democrat and 60% Republican. For simplicity, assume every voter is party-identified, and nobody crosses party lines. Also assume that each Democratic is identically popular as each other Democrat, and each Republican is identically popular as each other Republican.
In the primary those four Democrats will equally split 40% of the vote, getting 10% each (assume just enough difference to distinguish a winner among them). Those eight Republicans will split 60% of the vote, each getting 7.5% of the vote. Two Democrats will win the primary, and so one Democrat will win the general election, even though each of the Republicans is preferred.
Advocates of ever more power to the people never think about these kinds of possibilities, and when brought to their attention they usually just dismiss them. Democracy is treated as absolute, incommensurable, so no other concerns can possibly justify any constraint on the Demos.
Noticeably, as we have shifted more nomination power to the Demos, our polis has grown more dysfunctional. It’s hard to say that this correlation necessarily has any causation, but I suspect it does, particularly in conjunction with excessive gerrymandering. (Nomination by the public encourages pandering–gerrymandering encourages pandering to the dominant extreme.) However the public places all the blame on Congress, rather than on themselves. Most ironically, the public places the blame on the members of Congress, whom they themselves chose and nominated.
Of course most people are placing the blame on other people’s representatives, and are satisfied enough with their own. But they fail to see that a decent nomination system would produce more representatives that we could all live with, that would behave reasonably and legislate rationally, both because they would be likely to be intrinsically more rational people and because the parties would be enabled to discipline them.
It’s anathema to suggest limiting democracy. The tide is clearly in favor of ever more open primaries, and to argue for rolling back primaries is to demand reversal of a two-century long tendency. Nevertheless, we are rapidly approaching–it would appear–the end point of the candidate-selection continuum. Clearly it’s not serving us well. When we get to that end point and we have a wholly disfunctional democracy, what pseudo-solution will the demophiles propose then?
*Definitions: Closed primary: Voters must be registered to vote under a particular party’s label, and can only vote that party’s ticket. Independent/non-partisan voters (like me) cannot vote in the primary. Open primary: All voters can vote in the primary, whether party-identified or independent/non-partisan. Ind/non-part voters must select only one party’s ballot to vote. In some states, party-identified voters can cross over by selecting a party ballot other than their own. Blanket primary: All registered voters may participate, both parties are listed on the same ballot, and a voter can vote in the Democratic primary for one office, the Republican primary for another office, the Green primary for a third office, etc.
†This is, by now, an old theme in political science, dating back to early/mid 20th century. See, e.g., this famous, if perhaps ill-considered report by the American Political Science Association’s Committee on Political Parties, one of the very few times the APSA tried to speak as an organization on an issue (beyond it’s regular call for more funding for the NSF).
‡Trivia time: 180 points to the first person to name the first U.S. president who was nominated by convention.
**That’s another long post, but one assignment I give students is an election with six candidates, where each candidate’s number of supporters is fixed and invariant, but the method of counting the votes changes. Using simple plurality voting, simple plurality runoff, sequential runoff, approval voting, and a Borda count, five different candidates win, although no voter ever changes his/her vote. In the book I adapted it from, an additional method, the Condorcet method, produces a sixth unique winner. (I don’t use that one in the assignment because it’s so slow and cumbersome, and the students are taxed enough already on this project.) The essential question is, if different methods of counting votes produce different outcomes, how can we say which candidate is most preferred?
If you’d like to play with that exercise yourself, you can download it here.