Primaries and Democracy

There’s a lot of discussion of primary elections right now, and in a few weeks everyone will forget about all of it. But in the meantime, it’s worth considering what primaries are, and asking what you think they should be.

In the United States, primaries are the way that (some) political parties choose their candidates for public office. In most countries, that’s not how it works; rather, party leaders vet candidates and decide who best represents the party. In the US, over the course of the 20th century, the primary system developed to make candidate selection more democratic.

If you think of primary elections as the mechanism by which a party chooses its candidates for a general election, then an open primary makes very little sense. The primary is for members of the party.

The party aspect is important because it means that individual candidates don’t have to qualify for the ballot. If you’re the chosen candidate for a party that qualifies, you’re on the ballot.

This mechanism probably saves a lot of money and agita, but it’s not inherently required. It would be possible to separate candidacies from parties entirely, if we were willing to insist that each and every candidate individually got enough signatures to get on the ballot wherever necessary.

A more plausible approach, if you want to make the whole process less party-driven, is to let parties choose who gets on the primary ballot, but then have open primaries followed by a general election between the top two candidates, regardless of party. You could end up with two Democrats or two Republicans, and no one else. California has adopted this approach for some elected offices.

Parties and democracy

There’s a big question, though, and that’s whether you think political parties should have an important role to play in American politics. I don’t have a simple answer to that. Do you think there’s a value in every election having a bunch of implausible candidates from implausible parties on the ballot? Is there something great about the way the Working Families Party in New York always nominates all of the Democratic candidates so you can vote for them on the WF ticket instead? Do we want political leaders — who, let’s remember, are themselves elected, not just materialized by magic — to play a role in selecting candidates, or should the process be purely electoral?

It’s easy to sort of default to wanting everything to be as democratic — as voter-driven — as possible. But we should keep in mind that we don’t live in a pure democracy. We have a representative democracy, with a lot of undemocratic mechanisms — two senators per state (originally appointed by the state governments), lifelong Supreme Court membership, the electoral college. You can see these mechanisms as flaws; that’s a reasonable idea. But to dismiss them without thought is maybe a bit hasty.

Beyond that, it’s worth remembering that we’ve had political parties for a very long time. They have tended to play a role in unifying disparate elected officials around unifying ideas and principles. Parties are a mechanism by which activists can push new ideas into the political mainstream. Rather than trying to elect a revolutionary outsider (President Debs, anyone?), you bend your party so that its representatives come to support your plank: integration, say, or not raising taxes, or banking reform, or denying climate change.

Again, there’s no right or wrong here. It’s not that simple. But primaries, for now, are party affairs, not first-round general elections, and any thoughts on what primaries should be would do well at least to start with an understanding of what they are.