Sunday, January 13, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

A modest proposal for fixing the primary system. Abandon them altogether. We are living through another cycle in which state after state tries to make itself “relevant” in the nomination process by going as early as possible in the primary cycle, leading to a remarkable overload of primaries in January and February, accompanied by much handwringing about the inanity of the process, along with numerous suggestions for revamping the system, many of which sound intriguing, and none of which, for various reasons, have a tinker’s dam of being acted upon.

The problem with the current system is that since, as the primaries continue sequentially, their importance diminishes over time, and every state wants to be in the front of the queue. There is a readily available alternative, by which every state gets to voice its opinion at the same time, and one that has a long history in this country. It is called a nominating convention. As primaries have expanded, conventions have become increasingly vestigial, replaced by primaries, that, as most agree, give the illusion but not the reality of “choice.” Instead we held hostage to “invented traditions” like the New Hampshire primary, whose significance in American political history goes all the way back to 1952.

Look, most parties in most countries, like Britain, let their parties chose their leaders. It works fine. If you don’t like the candidate they pick, vote for another candidate. If you don’t like any of the candidates, create your own party. It is the job of the convention to pick candidates they think will win, keeping with the ideological turn of the party. It is the job of the people, in the run up to the presidential election, to form issue oriented campaigns or third party candidates, on immigration, the war in Iraq, or whatever. It is the job of the party leaders to examine the political terrain, and co-opt as many of the issues as they can, and pick whom they think will be the best candidate. It is not accident that the heyday of the convention system, let’s say 1868 to 1932, marks the high tide for both the ideological coherence of the two major parties and the proliferation of third parties.

Primaries are a failed progressive reform, that in the interest of increasing popular participation in elections, have been so subverted and traduced, that hardly any of the initial impetus remains. We have not taken money or party leaders out of the system, but they operate behind the scenes. Rather than choosing candidates, the old convention system gave average people, over the course of years, in local elections, the ability to chose the state’s political leaders, who then came together in a convention to chose the candidates. This is probably the best we can hope for. Eliminating primaries, and returning to conventions, will increase the ideological component of our politics, increase the visibility of third parties, minimize the importance of personality and “narrative,” and would restore the selection of the candidates to where they should be, a few months before the general election. The fog of primaries are no better than the old smoke filled rooms, and in many ways are far worse.

1 comment:

Rob Snyder said...

Peter's post reminds me of a comment offered by my old political science professor, Carey McWilliams: the selection of a presidential candidate ought to be a form of "peer review," in which the people who know the candidates best--their fellow politicians--exercise a vital role. That just doesn't happen in the primaries today. And as Carey used to say, does anyone seriously want to argue that the quality of presidential candidates has improved since primaries supplanted conventions?

There were many flaws in the convention system, but today's primaries--driven by fundraising, polling and campaign advertising--are just one more form of consumer culture.