04 March 2010

The Bipolarchy and Primary Elections

In the opinion of Professor Henry Jones Ford of Princeton, the United States already had too many elections going on in 1909. The establishment of direct primary elections, through which the party rank and file would directly choose candidates for office, threatened to create another layer of burdensome elections, but that may have been the least of his problems with the proposal.

Ford's 1909 essay on "The Direct Primary" was praised in the latest American Conservative magazine as a work of prophecy that predicted unfortunate consequences unintended at the time by the progressives in both major parties who pushed for direct primaries. The intended consequence, Ford notes, was to take control of political parties, or at least the selection of candidates, away from tyrannical party bosses, and put it in the hands of "the people," i.e. the partisan rank and file. "This is pure nonsense," Ford wrote.

Politics has been, is and always will be carried on by politicians, just as art is carried on by artists, engineering by engineers, business by business men. All that the direct primary, or any other political reform, can do is to affect the character of the politicians by altering the conditions that govern political activity, thus determining its extent and quality. The direct primary may take advantage and opportunity from one set of politicians and confer them upon another set, but politicians there will always be so long as there is politics. The only thing that is open to control is the sort of politicians we shall have.

Direct primaries, Ford warned, would alter the conditions, first by expanding the ranks of "politicians," by which Ford meant the "spoilsmen" who would conduct the electioneering for the primary campaigns. "The more elections there are," he wrote, "the larger becomes the class of professional politicians to be supported by the community." Worse, direct primaries would increase "graft pressure" by increasing the cost of electioneering. If it became more expensive to secure a party nomination, as Ford expected would be the case, successful politicians could be expected to "find ways and means of reimbursement and compensation" through graft.

In some cases, Ford considered direct primaries doubly unnecessary because he believed that certain offices should not have been filled by elections. He was a believer in executive responsibility, assuming that government would work more efficiently in many cases if officeholders were appointed by and responsible to executives rather than elected by the people. A culture of perpetual electioneering diffused responsibility and created opportunities for irresponsible conduct. By comparison, Ford argued, the then prevailing "oligarchy" of party bosses had "a principle of responsibility that is gross and imperfect, but is nevertheless genuine" because "party organization has a corporate interest that may be reached and acted upon by public opinion, and be held to some responsibility for results." The presumptive independence of all elected officials in a system of direct primaries might render each official more accountable to the people, but Ford warned that it could make the system as a whole less accountable by breaking up existing hierarchies of responsibility.

Our political class is inordinately numerous and inordinately expensive; but the only effectual way of curtailing their number and diminishing the burden of their support is to have less for them to do. Elections should be reduced in number. The direct primary proposes to give the politicians more to do. It provides for a series of elections in advance of the present series. And, at the same time, it strikes down party responsibility by providing that party agents shall no longer hold their posts by efficiency, as now, but by faction favor. The practical effect will be to substitute for existing boss rule a far more corrupt, degraded and impervious sort of boss rule.

Bearing in mind that political parties themselves are arguably redundant if not parasitical institutions, Ford's argument has merit. To an extent, however, he may have misrepresented the situation on the ground. Direct primaries would not be a new round of elections, but would replace existing rounds of indirect primary elections in which local partisans chose delegates to conventions where candidates were nominated -- the system by which the major parties still choose their presidential candidates. However, these primaries were often a matter of routine unless a personal rivalry disrupted the usual orderly process. If that happened, the primary would be contested between a "Regular" and "Opposition" ticket of delegates, with varying degrees of vehemence and spending. A direct primary, meanwhile, could accommodate a larger field of candidates for any nomination, while requiring all of them to spend more to get the public's attention. Thus democratization of the nomination process plutocratized the process of running for office, pricing it further out of the range of the average person than it had already been.

Since boss rule represents power founded on organized personal connection, it may admit poor men to its sphere and may select poor men for its candidates. Thus it has frequently occurred that poor men of ability have been raised to high office by dint of personal ability, and party interest is thus made subservient to public interests. The case of Abraham Lincoln is typical. But when power is conditioned upon ability to finance costly electioneering campaigns, plutocratic rule is established.

Ford, if challenged, would probably defend the American Bipolarchy as it existed in his time, so long as the major parties remained the sort of top-down hierarchies that assured, in his opinion, at least a minimum of responsible government. He had no illusions about the virtues of such a system.

[A] system of party responsibility ... is a poor substitute for representative government, for it is unconstitutional in its structure and oligarchic in its authority. It secures its revenues by processes of extortion, justified by custom in consideration of its necessities. Corporations serve as its toll-takers, turning over to it large sums and receiving legislative favor and official protection in return.

But he saw no benefit from expanding the scope of electioneering and fundraising. If anything, from his perspective direct primaries might have appeared to lend undeserved legitimacy to the necessary evils of partisan government. As I suggested in a recent post, that seems to have been the case, depending on how much less likely defeated candidates in direct primaries were to bolt and run as independents compared to when party nominations were decided in an "undemocratic" manner. Patrick J. Deneen argues that direct primaries eventually enhanced the influence of ideology, with bad consequences for the country's conservative tradition. That observation makes sense, since ideology allows candidates to differentiate themselves from each other in an attempt to make personal rivalries more significant (and less plainly personal) in voters' minds. Historically, direct primaries met resistance from the local bosses Ford had halfheartedly defended. Those bosses probably saw direct primaries as part of a centralization process that would give more power to state and national party leaders (hence Governor Charles Evans Hughes's support for the idea in New York). " But while bosses and machines come and go," Ford wrote, "the boss and the machine are always with us." If anything, the machine became more powerful in the process, democratizing itself in order to consolidate its oligarchic power over the country.

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