However, many among their parties find them to be unsatisfactory candidates.
At many points during the primaries, the primary system itself seemed to boost Clinton and Trump above other contenders, knocking back better qualified and more popular candidates.
So today I’d like to examine what other systems we could use instead, and whether they might produce a better result.
A Method to the Madness
Presidential primaries were a Progressive invention. And like most Progressive inventions, they’ve never really worked properly. But it wasn’t always a big deal.
The traditional method used to involve the conventions themselves selecting presidential candidates, possibly through a “smoke-filled room” where leaders got together in an attempt to control the process.
Then primaries became the dominant method, with the McGovern reforms in the Democrat party and corresponding Republican reforms after the violence-marred 1968 presidential election season.
The selection of party leaders is one of the principal gray areas in a democratic system.
There are three groups of people who could reasonably get involved:
- The party’s office-holders at the national level.
- The party’s activists, those who care most about politics and the party’s belief system.
- The general public.
Primaries give the general public the greatest say in selecting leaders.
This has two problems:
- Unless there’s tight screening (there wasn’t in several of the early “open primaries” this time), voters who don’t believe in the party’s tenets or intend to support it in November may participate.
- Many voters have very little interest in or knowledge of politics, and don’t take the time to consider the candidates who are running. In a democracy, their vote counts equally with the votes of knowledgeable folks. (For example, this year Trump was supported by many Democrats who may well vote for Hillary Clinton in November, and who were attracted by his TV personality rather than by his positions on important issues.
The opposite extreme involves having Presidential candidates selected by Washington insiders (whether or not mediated by a convention). This option was used by the Republicans in 1988-2012. The two Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were all Washington-approved candidates, sold to the electorate by a massive money machine.
The Republicans rebelled against this system this year, largely because of the donor-approved attempts in 2007 and 2013 to pass immigration-broadening measures over the strong objections of the Republican base.
With Jeb Bush and to a lesser extent Marco Rubio, insider selection therefore failed miserably.
In the Democrat party, the “super-delegate” system and a massive financial advantage allowed Washington insiders to select Hillary Clinton. This method runs the huge risk of producing a leader completely unrepresentative of his or her voters or party’s principles. It also tends to produce mediocre presidents.
The third method, used in most pre-1968 convention systems, was to select a nominee through local caucuses, giving activists the most control. This ensures that nominees reflect the views of their most committed supporters, a problem with the first two methods. Provided the state caucuses selecting delegates are adequately publicized and open, it also allows for outside participation and the inclusion of new blood.
Activists’ selection tends to produce candidates with wide party support, which is useful in the grind of the general election campaign as well as fundraising. It also tends to produce candidates fully representative of the party’s views, rather than the moderates favored by large donors.
This system would produce a true democracy, in which voters chose between candidates truly representative of their parties’ belief systems. And it would result in fewer presidents who broke promises to their electors. Think George H.W. Bush on taxes or George W. Bush on the “modest” foreign policy he promised in 2000.
If nothing else, this system would have a much higher level of intellectual integrity.
It would also produce a better government, because presidents would have the courage of their convictions, and would be less swayed by the next opinion poll or focus group.
Activism Could Lead the Change
Anyone can become a political activist. It just requires a strong interest in politics, some knowledge, and a willingness to engage in the grunt work that surrounds elections in a democratic system.
A system that requires candidates to be elected by activists, with each state’s activists selecting delegates to a national convention, would be the most democratic.
Each state’s delegation would be dominated by that state’s governor and other elected officials, not by party donors and Washington insiders. So the system would respond automatically when the national parties got too far from their supporters.
This year, such a system would have produced Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders as candidates.
The big donors may grind their teeth at such a choice, but the electorate as a whole would be far happier. Whichever of those two won in November would significantly improve the government from 2017 to 2021 then the current prospects will.