Monday, May 16, 2016

When is an election not an election?


Walter Shapiro has covered decades of primaries. This year those primaries have once again exposed messy contradictions in the process.

For all its faults, the 2016 campaign has one shimmering achievement: The presidential race has identified a form of representative democracy that arouses more bipartisan hatred than the United States Congress.

Because in many states we go to the same polling place we'll go to in November and vote with the same machines, we think of primaries as just another election that for some unknown reason is held at a weird time of year. Most of us don't bother to vote, since this isn't the real election. But it is just an election, isn't it?

Well, no. Presidential primaries are "intra-party deliberations" by which political parties chose their candidates in the general (November) election. Though it looks like they are part of our governing system, they aren't (although in most locations state governments pay for them and use them for "non-partisan" balloting for some offices.)

It's when we think of primaries as just another majoritarian election that their peculiarities stand out. In fact, the presidential primaries are a messy sequence of accreted practice, a hodgepodge deriving from various historical periods. The direction of the developing candidate selection process is generally toward offering the option of universal participation -- but the system is full of holes and pitfalls. I'm just going to comment briefly on a few of the systems that various states and the two parties have used this year. There's been a lot of clarifying commentary and the season is not over yet!
  • Caucuses: What could be more "democratic" (small "d") than neighbors getting together in a high school gym to compare candidates and press for their choice of candidate? Well -- almost anything, according to Josh Marshall who maintains that caucus processes are the most effective voter suppression method in politics today. Participation is way lower than in primary elections; people who can't give two hours of an evening to the process, such as parents and many workers, are disenfranchised, as are folks who fear they can't figure it out in front of their neighbors. More people vote in states with primary ballot systems and voters have a clearer understanding of what they are doing.
  • Closed primaries: Because the New York State primary unexpectedly took place before nominees had been decided by earlier states, the strict rule requiring potential voters to have signed up with a party preference months in advance came under a spotlight. The rule excluded some number of independents who expected to be able to vote in the presidential primary. Most states have more lenient rules, or open primaries, or simply no party registration at all, but New York's system came into being for a democratic (small "d") reason. Unlike most states, New York has several viable small parties -- Working Families, Greens, etc -- that have electoral influence. Without some such provision, they fear the Dems and GOPers could "steal" their nominations with a relatively few last minute party switchers who vote on their line for the major party candidates.
  • Super delegates: Hey, if we get to vote for our presidential candidate choices, how come there are so-called "super-delegates" who get to vote at party conventions without having to face any voters? Both parties have these, 712 for the Dems, 437 for the GOPers. They consist of elected officials like governors and congresscritters, and people who run the party apparatus like chairs of state committees, etc. The argument for including them with special status in the nomination process is that they are the people who keep the parties going when politics is not front and center of popular attention. Whenever a nomination contest is close, the side with less support tries to round them up; but since this is a deeply majoritarian country, such efforts are likely to fail. I guess this year's messy process should teach us to "never say never" to any possible outcome, but I have some sympathy with the idea that the people who do the day to day party work should get a role.
  • Top two primary: Fortunately this abomination doesn't extend to the presidential contest, though we have it for all state voting in California. Washington does this too. If we had it for President, we'd probably get a ballot in November with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and no GOPer on it. If Alabama used it, the choices would probably be Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. How anyone could think this is a good process tweak, I can't imagine. It actively and intentionally suppresses minority parties.
The political scientist Julia Azari has been writing thoughtful commentary on the presidential primary process throughout this season.

One of the reasons advocates for human rights and other freedoms tend to also favor open political processes is that we assume good institutions will choose leaders who will protect freedom and justice. Open elections are certainly better in this regard. But they're not a guarantee that parties and candidates who rely on bigoted appeals or talk about curtailing freedoms won't win sometimes.

This is especially important when we talk about American institutions in historical context. ... The old convention system, with its brokers and geographic organization, was more pluralistic — it was easier, under the pre-reform convention system, to ensure that a party nominee was acceptable to most factions within a party. As we are now learning, the current primary system allows a candidate to be nominated with a plurality of voters if no strong opponent emerges.

But here's the thing: While these old institutions were far better at avoiding a conundrum in which a party nominates a candidate that many of its members don't really like, they were hardly a bulwark against failures of substantive democracy. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with American history can point to at least a few instances of racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

... the lesson of the 2016 nomination season is that procedural democracy cannot be counted on to protect substantive democratic values at all times. Leaders and ordinary citizens have to actually face up to the difficult questions about race, gender, and other forms of inequality, about the human tendency to form groups and be awful to each other, and about the history of doing so that lurks beneath the surface of so many democracies.

The entire article is worth taking the time for, as is her earlier musing focused less on the GOP nomination of an extra-Party demagogue and more on the experience of Sanders partisans in this season.
***
Much as flying to Massachusetts feels as if I'd suddenly dropped into a different phase of spring, it also feels as if I'm in a different phase of the political season. Here the TV advertising deluge has long come and gone. Partisan passions, in full flood some weeks back, have receded. The Presidential contest is faraway -- important, perhaps scary, but somewhere else. Meanwhile, in the California I left behind, core partisans were just warming up for the June 7 crescendo.

There is much to criticize about the length of our presidential candidate selection process. But one national cataclysmic election day is plenty for one year. We are probably better from the seasonal variations and respites. Or so I suspect.

2 comments:

Classof65 said...

Just read a newspaper story about FBI planting microphones all over the bay area under rocks, at bus stops, picking up private conversations -- supposedly to "protect" citizens from terrorism... I assume your local media MAY have reported on this (or not).

janinsanfran said...

Wouldn't be surprised. We have to keep on videoing THEM.

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