02 March 2010

The Primaries: Does Democracy Undermine Democracy?

Today is Primary Day in Texas, with the most interesting election of the month possibly concluding in the selection of a Republican candidate for governor. The incumbent, Rick Perry, faces two strong challengers: U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson and self-style Tea Partier Debra Medina. While Perry, compared to whom George W. Bush is said to have been "a raving liberal as governor," appears to be the model of a talk-radio conservative, and Hutchinson seems to appeal to the center-right, Medina strides or strays onto off-limits turf, attacking Perry and Hutchinson as big spenders and corporate stooges but also giving a politically-incorrect answer to a Glenn Beck query about 9/11 conspiracy theories. That may be one reason why Sarah Palin, supposedly an idol of Tea Partiers, is supporting Perry, just as she's supporting Senator McCain against a Tea-fueled primary challenger in Arizona.

The winner must get 50% of the vote, but most observers expect Perry, the front runner, to fall short of a majority. He will most likely have to wage a runoff campaign against the second-place finisher, which might yet be Medina despite the damage done by the Beck interview. The ultimate winner will face a comparatively unified Democratic party, and given that fact liberals and progressives may scoff at the Republican spectacle or take pleasure at the divisive conflict. But someone who believes in greater democracy in America might ask why, given the apparent diversity within the Republican party, Texans as a whole shouldn't have as many choices as Republicans do. Perry, Hutchinson and Medina seem to represent distinct constituencies? Why shouldn't all of them be represented on the November ballot? For that matter, try this thought exercise: what if these were the only three candidates on the fall ballot? A disaster for progressive-minded Texans, no? Not necessarily. While all three primary contenders are conservatives, if they all had to compete on the November ballot common sense tells us that at least one of them, presumably wanting to win, would begin moving leftward. Such a scenario might produce a synthesis of conservatism and progressivism that's impossible as long as each side is supposedly guaranteed representation in November thanks to our American Bipolarchy. As long as there's a Democrat who's assumed to get liberal votes, Republicans or conservatives have no incentive to appeal to them.

Unless a defeated Medina bolts, which I think unlikely, the diversity within Texas conservatism is destined to be homogenized in the service of a single candidate for the fall election. Primaries, arguably, are a more public expression of the Leninist principle of "democratic centrism." In a Leninist party, free debate is supposed to prevail at the highest level of management, but once that debate is settled, party discipline requires all members to endorse the prevailing party line unconditionally. In the American context, the democratic nature of the direct primary process in most cases intimidates defeated contenders into submission. When the nomination process was less democratic, party discipline was less rigid.

Consider my home town of Troy in the year 1905, a mayoral election year. The incumbent, Joseph F. Hogan, was a Democrat who had alienated the party bosses. There was a Democratic primary that year, but party members didn't choose the mayoral candidate directly. Instead, they chose delegates to a convention where the candidate would be chosen. At the primary, they chose between delegates loyal to Mayor Hogan and "Regular" delegates loyal to the party leadership. Regulars would nominate whomever the bosses told them to. Hogan lost the primary and the Democratic convention nominated another man to succeed him. In response, Hogan formed his own party and secured a spot on the November ballot. A similar process split the Republican party. A reformer, Thomas W. Hislop, believed that he'd been promised the mayoral nomination by the GOP leadership. He'd been assured by a rumored contender, Elias P. Mann, that Mann would not contest the nomination. The weekend before the primary, however, the leadership endorsed Mann. On Primary Day, Troy Republicans endorsed the Regular ticket of delegates, who nominated Mann. In protest, Hislop formed his own party. As a result, there were four "major" candidates for mayor, not counting socialists and prohibitionists. In this divided environment, Mann won the election with little more than 30% of the vote, becoming Troy's first Republican mayor in more than thirty years.

Because Hogan and Hislop could claim that the primary elections weren't truly democratic as long as primary voters didn't choose candidates directly, they felt justified in carrying their claims into November. It's reasonable to question whether either man would have done so had he lost a direct primary. Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt could use undemocratic or indirect primaries as an excuse to bolt from the Republican party in 1912 and outpoll its candidate, the incumbent President, as the candidate of the Progressive Party. Presidential primaries are actually just as indirect as nearly all primaries used to be, but it's hard to imagine a losing contender for a major-party nomination bolting now the way Roosevelt did.

The Texas primary comes one day after I received the new American Conservative, in which I was pointed by Patrick J. Deneen toward a fascinating article that appeared back in 1909, just as progressives of both parties were advocating the general adoption of direct primaries. Readers may recall that Charles Evans Hughes, then governor of New York and a historical apologist for the Bipolarchy, called for direct primaries because he thought they'd break the power of local party bosses who'd impeded his reform agenda. But a Princeton political scientist, Henry Jones Ford, warned in "The Direct Primary" that direct primaries would have consequences unintended by their advocates. While appearing to democratize the selection of candidates by breaking bosses' power of dictation, direct primaries, Ford predicted, would undermine democracy by pricing elections out of most people's reach. Ford claimed that direct primaries would actually consolidate a plutocracy of campaign donors. Deneen adds to Ford's apparently prescient analysis the conclusion that direct primaries made the major parties more ideologically rigid, thanks to the rise of well-funded national advocacy groups. That emphasis on ideology may also explain the "democratic centrism" that prevails in the major parties.

Later this week I hope to present excerpts from Ford's article, which is available in several formats online, unfiltered by Deneen's paleoconservative perspective. He may prove even more of a prophet than even Deneen realizes if it turns out that the democratization of direct primaries was a factor in the consolidation of the American Bipolarchy. It may seem simply wrong for any democratization process to have that kind of effect, but we have to remember to ask what was being democratized here. If the thing itself is a cancer on the body politic, then it's fair to ask whether any degree of democratization could make a Bipolarchy any less cancerous.

Texas Update, March 3: Gov. Perry actually eked out a majority win to avoid a runoff. He got 51% of the vote to about 30% for Sen. Hutchinson and around 17% for Medina. On the radio this morning I heard Perry boasting as if he'd won a general election, equating his victory over fellow Republicans with GOP wins over Democrats in recent months. He presents his triumph over Kay "Bailout" Hutchinson as a rebuke of "Washington" comparable with Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts, among other uprisings. I'm curious to know if exit polls were taken to identify Tea Partiers. I suspect that they made up most of Medina's total, though much of her support reportedly comes from not necessarily related Ron Paul loyalists. The big question for future reference is whether Sarah Palin can claim credit for Perry's victory. Did she sway TPs from Medina to Perry, or did more TPs reject Medina after her interview with Glenn Beck? As for the larger issue of my original post, Hutchinson has conceded and endorsed Perry for the general election, but it was unclear from what I've read whether Medina has done so. If she tries to rally diehard antiparty TPs for the general election, she might cause more problems for Perry in the fall than she has so far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem with parties is that it guarantees a loyal party member a hand up in the next election, whether he/she actually did anything for the constituents. If we replaced all party members with independents, they would actually have to do something to earn another term. In order to accomplish anything, they'd have to learn to compromise and cooperate. There could be no shouts of "partisanship" if an elected official is accused of wrongdoing and any investigation would be more likely to be fair.

We would still have gridlock at times, but it would be an honest gridlock, rather than mere obstructionism to keep one party from succeeding at something and mar the other party's chance at the next election.

The down side is in such a situation, we, "the people" would actually have to get off our asses and do some work in researching the candidates, their records, their stand on important issues and their character. I'm guessing the main impediment to good government in this country isn't the bipolarchy as much as it is the citizens themselves.