Reflections – The Primary Effect – Larry Edwards

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“The Primary Effect”
By Larry G. Edwards

In a recent issue of This Week magazine Robert Samuelson from The Washington Post penned an article entitled “Bring Back the Party Bosses.” Lately, as the national primary season rolls on, I have been thinking about the same issue.

As most of us remember from our American Government class, political primaries developed as a way to widen participation and “democratize” the selection of party nominees. That certainly seems like a good idea. But as I watched (haphazardly to be sure) the coverage of the primaries, I began to wonder about the unintended consequences of this democratization.

Samuelson says those consequences include the fact that the primary “favors campaigning skills over governing skills and personality over substance.” He goes on to suggest that “It has made presidents of inexperienced ‘outsider’ figures…and helped intensely partisan candidates….” If an outsider can garner the votes and earn the resulting delegates, that outsider can thumb his nose at the party establishment. Also, because primaries typically limit participation to registered party members, successful primary candidates tend to be more extreme than the general voting populace. A current and classic example is Bernie Sanders. No matter how strong his showing may be in the primaries, does any sober-minded person really think we will elect a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” as president?

Because of this democratization in the selection of political party nominees, candidates must espouse positions that the party faithful cherish but that will not necessarily resonate with the general populace. In addition, in their efforts to appeal to the most zealous partisans, those most likely to vote in the primaries, candidates often pledge not to compromise with the other party or work with the government establishment. These tendencies will be more pronounced in a period of frustration or crisis, causing candidates to be even more strident in their pledges. Perhaps no one epitomizes these tendencies more than Donald Trump. The dilemma for the Republican Party involves two questions? First, can the party establishment keep him from winning the nomination? Second, if he does get the nomination, can he win?

While I am hardly a Luddite, I have begun to wonder, like Mr. Samuelson, whether there is some wisdom in allowing more experienced, wiser heads greater influence over the selection of party nominees. As Justice Scalia might have reminded us, this country was founded by elites and originally created a government run almost exclusively by those elites. Since the US Senate was originally selected by state legislatures, the President was selected by a curious appendage known as the Electoral College and the Federal Judiciary was nominated by the President and approved by the Senate, only in the House of Representatives did the hoi polloi have a direct voice.

In most professions such as medicine, the law, science, teaching, etc., we tend to give deference to those educated and experienced in their chosen field. It seems sad that we give such short shrift to people successful and experienced in the political arena.

1 Comments for : Reflections – The Primary Effect – Larry Edwards
    • Bart binning
    • April 11, 2016

    Over the past few years I have been re-evaluating political assumptions and unintended consequences:
    1. A few weeks (or days) ago, there was an editorial supporting a change in tax focus, towards consumption and away from income – i.e. A value added tax (VAT) al la Europe, or flat tax. When the VAT was first proposed for the USA some 20 years ago, I thought it was the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Today I think a VAT may be the best because it will eliminate most tax preferences that are a huge cause of a perception that the government plays favorites – those with the most money get the most favors.
    2. There was another editorial that suggested that the best way to reform the political parties was to loosen donation restrictions to state political parties. Funding is how new legislators are elected and if there was more funding available from the state political parts, at a time of term limits, this would go a long way towards unifying fractured parties. Because legislators are currently largely responsible for their own funding, they tend to be a political party unto themselves.

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