The 2020 presidential debates have begun, and already journalists are back to asking their standard question: Yes, candidates X and Y may be winning over partisan audiences of likely primary voters, but can they pivot back to a more broadly popular stance for the general election?
This is our biennial, right-out-in-the-open reminder that the primaries make our politicians even more disingenuous, and our politics even more idiotic and divisive, than they would otherwise be. And once the elections are over, any executive or legislator tempted to try governing reasonably is thwarted by — you guessed it — the specter of the next round of primaries. Unless you govern from the fringes you’ll be challenged from the fringes, and in the primaries, the fringes rule.
Not that we could easily do anything about this. Based on the 2016 uproar in the Democratic Party over superdelegates, it’s clear that most Americans believe that primaries are a fundamental expression of one-person-one-vote, as if they sprang directly from the logic of the Constitution.
But the freedom to vote for various parties’ nominees and the assurance that every vote will count — the real bedrocks of our system — are completely distinct from the rather crazy (and recent) notion that citizens should dictate nominees to the parties — should dictate to them, effectively, their philosophies and platforms. The whole point of a party — from the perspective of the citizens who create it — is that they know what they want it to stand for, and they wish to nominate people who actually believe in whatever that is. That way the electorate can vote for ideals without guessing about pivots.
In contrast to this quaint notion, the parties today are just dogs chasing their own tails (or Twitter feeds), and look what it’s given us for a president: a reality-TV star who is not only as rapacious as Bill Clinton, and more clearly a draft-dodger, and (who knew this was possible?) far more dishonest. He is also an ignorant and vindictive child who inhabits his own paranoid, self-serving fantasy world while attempting to mold our government into his own personal servant and protector.
Some commentators have argued that Trump is not really a Republican, but the larger point is that Republicanism has lost whatever meaning it might once have had, so little power of self-determination has the primary system left the parties. The parties’ waywardness therefore goes well beyond Trump. The GOP — despite its inclusion of some decent individuals — has become thuggish and directionless. Even when its members controlled both the legislature and the White House, they couldn’t pass anything but a gift package to their donors.
This is a party that gave up a long time ago on conservatism. Their approach to banking and business regulation is not conservative; it’s radical and reckless. Their approach to gun legislation is radical and reckless. Their approach to the health of the planet, on which all our lives depend, is radical and reckless, likewise their approach to the national debt and their approach, or lack thereof, to the chasm separating the haves from the have-nots — historically one of the great destabilizers of any society.
Their approach to abortion (which can only be meaningfully outlawed among poor women and which can only be thoroughly policed if miscarriage is thoroughly policed) grows more blindly fanatical by the day. They have no plan for infrastructure, immigration, or health care. There is no philosophy. They’re just fighting messaging wars in pursuit of power for the sake of power.
The Republicans’ degradation is so severe that it should make easy work for the party of opposition. No dishonesty, no exaggeration is needed to criticize the GOP: Any straightforward appraisal of that party would at this point be devastating. And any straightforward policy agenda — one, for example, that would attract both the center and the center-left and that would offend neither common sense nor fiscal mathematics — would have the entire playing field to itself.
But the Democrats have their own primaries, their own fringes. They too are trying to stay within boundaries that they have no choice but to narrow daily. On the whole their 2020 candidates exhibit a good deal of moderation. But activists, who play an amplified role in the primaries, are pushing hard to the left, toward Medicare for All (though the projected, and necessary, cost savings are uncertain and employer-provided plans very popular), impeachment (a political bonfire around which Trump would dance with a can of gasoline), slavery reparations (the ultimate debate minefield), and “socialism” (not that Bernie Sanders, who wears this brand, literally wants socialism; he’s just experimenting to see how efficiently he can scare every voter over forty away from the party).
Yes, the internet and fake news and social-media echo chambers are also to blame for the sorry state of our politics, and on the right, so too is the ongoing nativist reaction to the sunset of America’s white majority. All these factors are energizing a lot of half-baked, cocksure passion. But it’s the primaries that put that passion, that tribalism, in the driver’s seat. Six percent of America’s eligible voters cast primary ballots for Donald Trump. Six percent. The six Trumpiest percent of the population.
Of course it’s not as though we were guaranteed great candidates before primaries took control of our system, but the party heads in their smoke-filled rooms did at least set a modest minimum standard for knowledge, competence, and centrism. Trump never would have been chosen by a smoke-filled room, nor would our previous child-man president George W. Bush. Not until 1980 was the Republican presidential nominee fully determined before the convention by the primaries. In other words only since 1980 has the party been operating without gatekeepers. But within one generation of that sea change, in 2004, Karl Rove was able to successfully bet that an election could be won by appealing to the base alone, for what they lack in numbers they more than make up for in intensity — and potency, thanks to the primaries.
We could do with a little less intensity: less populism, more competence. Hamilton and Madison were right to worry, as they did so frequently in The Federalist, about popular passions and mob mentalities. So what do we do? Open primaries have been touted as a way to increase the participation of less partisan voters, but less partisan people don’t show up to open primaries in large numbers. Besides, less partisan doesn’t necessarily mean more responsible. In 2016 Donald Trump actually fared best in states that had open primaries.
The New Left
The obvious thing would be to do away with primaries altogether, but that would be a very, very hard sell. Remembering how we got here reminds us of both the tragedy and the seeming inevitability of our situation. The decisive push came on the Democratic side in 1968, during a period of extreme emotion and division. In 1968 the Democratic Convention nominated Hubert Humphrey even though he hadn’t won any of the party’s 15 primaries. It was a bitterly divided and tumultuous time: The two parties were in the midst of their historic identity swap in regard to race relations; there was a generation gap, a sex gap, a Vietnam gap. The New Left, which Trump voters still reject, was bursting into view against a backdrop of assassinations, race riots, and a horrifying, dishonest war, splitting communities and families. And now we’re stuck with the pro-primary momentum imparted by those times. The division of that era changed our political system in ways that are helping to keep us divided today.
We ought to try to free the next generation from this legacy by imparting to them a new paradigm, a new understanding of normalcy. Normal should mean, among other things, no primaries. That would mean a return to smoke-filled rooms, which, as I said, would never present us with another Donald Trump. Unless, of course, they would; unless we’ve already passed though that looking glass.
Party leaders have now seen with new clarity how powerful a steady diet of tribal pabulum can be when voters are happily letting algorithms spoon it into them. And both parties can see how easy, in one sense, a candidate like Trump can make political life: All you need to do is smile and keep your mouth shut while your crybaby tyrant picks a few fights and drives turnout. You may lose, but if you win, you won’t have to strain yourself crafting meaningful arguments or policies during, or after, the campaign. So just forget everything I said, get back to your algorithms, and I’ll see you at the primaries. U S A ! U S A !