A little while ago, I put up a post Over There about the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the UK Labour* Party. The post is little more than a bunch of links and blockquotes. I made the decision to play it relatively straight, even including a couple of things that I like about Corbyn. Had I gone another route, I would have used the title of this post.

Labour didn’t have a “primary” per se, but it had the closest thing to which the UK has ever seen. Instead of leadership being determined by active party members, it was determined by more or less anyone who wanted to participate. Or at least anyone willing to drop a modicum of coin to do so.

Combine this with Trumpmania, and it starts to fill in a pretty strong case against primaries. Now, my criticism of Trumpmania is not based (solely) on my disagreements with him and the direction he would take the party… but because he is a tourist. He has little invested in the party. There don’t seem to be very many issues that he has particularly thought about or cares about. He’s found The Issue, and most of the rest is just attitude. If it were Jeff Sessions or Tom Tancredo running on the immigration issue and/or economic populism, I’d be worried about now. I’d be worried that “Wow, this is what the other party is going to be.”

But Trump is Trump, and I still can’t think of him as a potential president. What mostly concerns me about him is the extent to which he has taken an already flawed process and runs a non-negligible risk or distorting the entire thing. He could hand it to Jeb Bush, or hand it to Ted Cruz, depending on how the chips fall. The result is entirely the point. The sticking point is what primaries are supposed to be doing, and what they are doing.

We seem to have fallen into this notion that primaries are supposed to be expressions of democracy at work. Except they’re not, really. The parties aren’t governments that owe particular rights to its people. Parties are organizations with a more sectarian purpose. It is just as legitimate for a political party to choose its nominees by lottery, or people smoking cigars in the back room, than it is with an open vote. People can like, or dislike, the result of these selections (or the process), but that’s not some grand Civil Rights Violation, as it would be if people were being prevented from voting at all, but rather an objection that should be registered by voting for the party with the candidate you prefer. Theoretically, that alone prevents parties from nominating too stupidly.

Of course, the parties (or at least one of them) is pretty stupid when it comes to selection process. Jeb Bush is a terrible candidate. But even before he was a terrible candidate, he was still a terrible candidate. He was practically inviting a revolt by the rank and file. He was inviting 2016 to be the first election in at least 35 years (more accurately 50) where the challengers actually won. I had the outline of a post about what was shaping up to maybe be a huge Bush/Walker battle, but it could have been any number of people (a field that widened as Jeb demonstrated himself a worse and worse candidate). But the challengers went with Trump. Because of course they did because they haven’t a tactical bone in their body, Trump is what happens when you decide to vote with your viscerals, and because primaries are terrible and stupid.

Except… here’s the thing.

In parliamentary systems, which usually don’t have primaries, there are correctives to prevent a party from getting too complacent about its relationship with its rank-and-file. If the Progressive Conservatives of Canada become too complacent, a Canadian Reform Party can pop up, challenge it, and either overtake it as the “party of the right” or (more likely, and what actually happened after a few mutations) force a merger in which it plays the lead role. If the Liberal Party of Canada becomes too complacent, the same thing can happen with the NDP. Which may be what we’re seeing now, or maybe the Liberals will rebound, but either way it’s fighting for its political life right now and that’s a good thing. They can’t just keep on keeping on arguing to the stalwarts “Hey, we’re better than the other guys.”

We don’t have a parliamentary system here. We don’t have a multi-party system with mixed-member districts, but we don’t even have a parliamentary system without that, like Canada does. We have a more complex system with the two parties virtually hard-coded in there. The barriers to entry are exceedingly high. A new party outside the duopoly would not just need to get more votes than the other two parties to win the presidency, but would need a majority of electoral votes or (likely) need to have a majority of the congressional delegations in a lot of states. That’s why we haven’t seen a durable new party in over 100 years and it’s entirely possible that we won’t again for another 100.

We have a two party system and while there is no telling what the parties will stand for in 100 years, there is little doubt that they will either be called the Republican and Democratic Parties or will be a direct rebranding of one or the other. And if there is a revolution within the party, it’s as likely as not to occur through the primaries. While the populist impulse of primaries can lead parties towards more populist candidates, the lack of any primary system can lead to an unaccountable stagnation and if the parties are immutable that’s a real problem.

So I am not yet at the point where I am ready to completely disregard primaries. I would gladly take it as part of a suite of other reforms (getting rid of the electoral college, IRV, fusion tickets, etc), but I’m not there yet on its own. Labour has time to self-correct, Trump is stagnating, and maybe all is a bit closer to being right with the world.


Category: Statehouse

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

3 Responses to Primaries Are Terrible, Exhibit B (A Rant)

  1. James Hanley says:

    Very well said.

  2. James K says:

    The thing is that there’s nothing inherent to the Westminster system that leads to multiple parties. Australia is basically a 2-party state, and New Zealand was for most of time before we adopted MMP in 1993. And for most of our parties, the leader is chosen by the caucus, not the membership (as is the case still for the Tories in the UK I think), so not even members get to vote on who leads the party.

    • trumwill says:

      Yeah, without multimember districts parties will usually default to two. But it is still generally more fluid because an upstart party has fewer hurdles to challenge one of the big two. Hard, but doable. In our presidential system, it’s darn near impossible. (In other presidential systems, it’s more possible.)

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