11 January 2012

The Primary Problem and the case for the smoke-filled room

Douglas Turner, whose op-ed for the Buffalo News has been reprinted in papers around the country this week, is disgusted by the low quality of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. He specifically cites Rick Santorum as a "flawed nobody" who has gotten more attention this month than he deserves. Turner blames that fact on the current system of choosing candidates through binding primary elections. He contends that an "open" party convention would not give Santorum or Newt Gingrich, another loser in Turner's opinion, a second look. By an "open convention" Turner means a genuinely deliberative event in which delegates are not bound by the wishes of the voters who appointed them. He argues that the democratization of the nomination process through the vehicle of primaries, which he traces on the Republican side back to 1968 -- though the struggle to establish the primacy of primaries dates back at least a century -- has been at best a mixed blessing, but increasingly a curse.

These so-called reforms are no longer about democracy. The primary process has become the plaything of media conglomerates, and of super PACs triggered by the Supreme Court’s unleashing of corporate money. For the sake of the country, both parties should make their conventions meaningful again by ruling that state primaries and caucuses are advisory only; and end this parade of showboating nonentities. 

Turner may be right that party primaries are "no longer about democracy," but he leaves hanging whether they should be. His desire for "open conventions" implicitly removes the choice of candidates from the party rank and file and elevates convention delegates to the status of legislators within the party, entitled to act according to their own wisdom and to ignore instructions from their constituents. Turner may denounce the influences of money and media, but his implicit conclusion is that the rank and file can't be trusted to select an electable candidate. Indeed, he blames the democratized system for compelling otherwise intelligent people like the late Jack Kemp to pander to ignorance by promoting the teaching of creation science in public schools on the campaign trail. Of course, democracy has always been and always will be accused of promoting pandering to ignorance by critics who mistakenly blame democracy as a political principle for the ignorance of the masses. That point aside, Turner's diatribe raises the question of whether political parties themselves are or should be democracies. That's a question Turner himself doesn't quite seem prepared to answer.

In the list of comments below the article, reader Don Nowak warns against a return, through the "open convention" principle, to "the smoke-filled rooms of yore, when party and regional powers brokered a deal in a back room." Responding to Nowak, Turner insists that he doesn't like "smoke-filled rooms," either. He goes on to claim that "relatively open" conventions picked some pretty good Presidents. And lest he seem partisan in his attacks on Santorum and Gingrich, he argues that an open convention would not have picked an untested figure with a controversial background like the current President, either. On the other hand, he concedes that a "relatively open" 1964 Republican convention nominated an equally "unprepared" and arguably more irresponsible Barry Goldwater. He also claims again that the democratic principle behind direct, binding primaries has been compromised by the power of money in politics, and that the current system should be set aside until the Citizens United decision is overturned. A look back at his own analysis, however, leads one to ask what Super-PACs and media conglomerates have to do with the grass-roots ignorance he initially identified as the problem with primaries.

An "open convention" is not the same thing as a "smoke-filled room." The latter term entered the political lexicon in 1920, when party bosses compromised behind the scenes of  the 1920 Republican convention on Warren G. Harding as their eventually victorious presidential nominee. These bosses presumably had the power to tell delegates under their control to vote for Harding. A truly open convention would be one without smoke-filled rooms and dictation by bosses -- but what makes Turner think that an open convention today would be more immune to the influence of PACs and media than ordinary primary voters? Congress itself, the deliberative model for an open convention of elected delegates, has demonstrated no such immunity. Turner's error is his belief that the right system can avoid the taint of ignorance and irresponsibility that is actually pandemic in our political culture. It may be impossible to reform politics in order to immunize it from corrupt culture. It may yet be possible to save politics by reforming culture, but that starts with us and not the people we vote for.


Anonymous said...

"A look back at his own analysis, however, leads one to ask what Super-PACs and media conglomerates have to do with the grass-roots ignorance he initially identified as the problem with primaries."

Presumably because the ignorant are easily swayed by propaganda and the more money your super PAC has, the more propaganda it can buy. In which case a certain amount of blame may be laid at the feet of multi-media conglomerates for allowing themselves to be used as propaganda machines sculpting opinions, rather than merely to inform and entertain.

Samuel Wilson said...

That's a valid observation, but still leaves open the question of whether ignorance of the traditionalist-superstitious kind the author really deplores is the product of media and PAC manipulation or the default state of the grass roots.