In the current American Conservative Leo Linbeck III, one of the masterminds of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, takes credit for bringing down incumbents from across the political spectrum, from "a mainstream Democrat in Texas" to "a Tea Party-supported Republican in Illinois." While Linbeck identifies himself as a "conservative communitarian" who favors "lower taxes [and] a smaller public sector" yet is "closer to my progressive friends" on criminal justice issues, he notes that the CPA has had nearly every possible label attached to it -- "we have been called conservatives, liberals, Tea Partiers, anarchists, right-wingers and both pro-Obama and anti-Obama." That doesn't bother him much. He is more anti-incumbent than anti-liberal. "I firmly believe that a more conservative Congress will not save America," he writes, "In fact, a conservative Congress will probably make things worse."
In Linbeck's view, a right-wing recapture of the U.S. Senate would only give a bad system fresh yet undeserved legitimacy for one group of people. For him, the important question isn't who controls Congress, but what does Congress control. He believes that the legislative branch has claimed too much power for itself at the expense of localities -- not just the smaller units of government but local political party organizations and activists. Linbeck observes that Congress was originally expected to be the more fiscally conservative branch of government, the Framers having expected the Executive Branch to have the strongest urge to spend money. He claims that Congress functioned as the Framers expected for little more than a century, and dates the legislative power grab from the point in the Progressive Era when direct primaries replaced the caucus-and-convention system for selecting party candidates. This was a reform that seemed necessary at the time because the old system concentrated power in the hands of local party bosses who proved corrupt. "Reform was needed," Linbeck acknowledges, "but primaries had unintended consequences -- one of which is that incumbents rarely lose." The movement for direct primaries may not have begun as a scheme to entrench incumbents in power, but somehow it has worked out that way in practice. Linbeck traces the rise of "Centocracy" -- an awkward synonym for what the Framers would have called "consolidated government" -- to the failure of the check party bosses used to exercise on incumbents' accumulation of power. The Campaign for Primary Accountability is meant to reassert that check by funding or otherwise supporting candidates in any party who want to challenge incumbents. Linbeck believes that "anti-centocracy conservatives" can make common cause with "progressives [who] are repelled by the growth of the national-security state and ... believe Congress has abetted Wall Street in the looting of the financial system." He wants the CPA to appeal to progressives who favor localism and are "deeply suspicious of centralized power." For those who think that centralized power defines progressivism, he reminds his readers that "there is ... a difference between progressives and progressive Democrats," just as there is a difference between "conservatives" and "conservative Republicans." Progressives and conservatives can agree to disagree on policy while combining to "move decision-making closer to the people" by restoring local constituencies' power to choose candidates.
Primaries are the only meaningful check on incumbency, Linbeck claims. Term limits, nonpartisan redistricting and campaign-finance regulations are all either inadequate or counterproductive remedies in his view. On the last option he argues that "no law will pass Congress that does adversely affects incumbents," and that wealthy interests will always find ways to influence incumbents, going "underground" if necessary. Linbeck seems to like campaign-finance reform in the long term -- it's one of the issues he claims to be closer to progressives on -- but for the time being insurgencies like the CPA "have to close the funding gap between incumbents and challengers [to] create a level playing field that will force incumbents to pay more heed to Main Street than to K Street."
Linbeck promotes an ideal while ignoring a historical pitfall mentioned in his own article. On the evidence he presents, the only effective check on incumbent self-aggrandizement in American history has been the existence of local bosses with the power to dictate who would run for offices. While acknowledging that "many local bosses were corrupt," he leaves himself room to argue that the old system in itself wasn't corrupt. But he doesn't suggest that the system could operate without bosses, though he reserves no place for bosses in his ideal future system of primary accountability. In his vision, an active citizenry, well funded if necessary, will hold incumbents to account when necessary. Despite his skepticism about term limits, Linbeck might even endorse a return to the old practice of "forced rotation," -- the system that allowed Abraham Lincoln to serve only one term in the House of Representatives before another Whig got his turn in that Illinois district. Could forced rotation be enforced without a boss's power? Ideally the answer would be no, and I think Linbeck is a sincere idealist on this subject. But just as the old system produced bosses who abused their power over candidate selection, isn't it possible, if not likely, that a system designed to check incumbency within a party structure will shift power into hands just as likely to abuse it, if in different ways? If Linbeck depends on money to level the playing field, for instance, might there not be an unintended consequence in the rise of money brokers -- including those like the CPA who are not strictly local -- whose power of the purse would determine who can run for office and who can't? Some cynics might suspect that for the CPA this would not be an unintended consequence, but even if we give Linbeck the benefit of the doubt he hasn't yet demonstrated that his democratic idealism won't succumb to the fumes of smoke-filled rooms. This might be the place for him or others in the CPA to argue that the benefit is worth the risk, or to argue from history that the nation was better off when local bosses, despite their own abuses of power, checked incumbency and prevented abuses of power at a higher level. We'd then have to weigh the historical evidence indicating that Congresses before direct primaries were quite abusive of power in their own fashion. Linbeck worries that the system prevailing today offers no remedy to the paradox of low public opinion of Congress and high re-election rates, but hopes that he's found its weak point in the primary process. Yet he isn't really proposing to change the system; he only wants to re-activate it with citizen vigilance and enthusiasm -- and money. It sounds good in theory, but as a proper conservative might say, practice is the tricky part.