• J.S. Mullen

Against Popular Primaries

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

Over the past twenty years Gallup polls have consistently reported that nearly 40% of Americans hold “Moderate” or “Centrist views.” The current politics on offer, particularly at the national level, however, offer distinctly far-right and far-left platforms respectively.

Why is this?

Looking at the changes in the political landscape over the last decade it is impossible to fail to note the chasm that has opened up between the official positions of the Democratic and Republican parties. The great divergence, which had been quietly festering since the late 1990s, exploded following the economic collapse of 2007/2008/2009. The historical origins of the ideological divergence, the sub-prime provoked crash, and the resulting precipitation of the gulf between the two parties opening up and rapidly expanding are interesting, worth exploring, and critical to understanding the current state of affairs. Ideological popular media and online echo chambers also deserve their share of the blame. However, as I have written at length about these things elsewhere, I would like instead to focus on one of the key structural rather than political or social reasons for the divide between the two parties: Popular Primaries.

Voter turnout in the United States, while not particularly overwhelming in Presidential years (about 60%) and even less so in Midterm elections (around 40%), voter turnout falls off precipitously when we look at voter turnout in party primaries. Party primaries are the elections in which the candidates who will represent their party in the various upcoming races are selected. In 2016 only 28% of eligible voters turned up to vote on primary day, and this was a near record! When the voter data are examined it seems not to matter whether the primary is closed (only registered party members can vote) or open (any resident can vote): turnout is abysmal.

We all know voting can be a pain—taking time off work, waiting in line at the polls—and unlike Presidential or Midterm elections it isn’t as obvious what exactly is on the line. After all, none of these candidates are taking office as a result of these elections. But I argue that these primaries are of crucial import, and when we look at who is voting in these primaries we find the answer to why our politics are becoming increasingly divided despite the plural majority of Americans holding moderate or centrist views.

It is precisely those most fiercely ideological that turn out to vote in primaries. The data is unambiguous. The likelihood of you turning out to vote is directly proportional to how interested, invested, and passionate you are about politics, not how informed you are, not how wealthy, not how educated, not how representative of the majority political beliefs. And so when the opinions of primary voters are examined we unsurprisingly find that the majority of voters in the primaries in both parties are those furthest left or right along the ideological spectrum. They vote for and elect candidates who are the most rigidly ideological, then they run in the general election and the average voter is left with a choice that is more and more commonly being referred to as voting for the lesser of the two evils.

Did you vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton?

Same question rephrased:

Did you vote for Hillary Clinton or against Donald Trump?

Successful democratic systems, if they are to avoid stagnation and decay, require continual compromise. You trade with the opposition to get some things you want by giving them some things they want. No one gets precisely what they want, which is precisely the point in a politically heterogeneous democratic society. The problem is that the popular primary system disincentives exactly this kind of compromising. In fact, it encourages precisely the opposite behavior!

If you are a Democrat or Republican

and you cross the aisle to try and make a deal that is going to be held against you during your next primary campaign. Your fellow Democratic or Republican aspirants are going to point to you and tell those ideological die-hard primary voters I won’t sell you out like that fellow did!

It doesn’t matter that the majority of Presidential or Midterm voters want to see compromise happen, doesn’t matter that they are centrist or moderate, because they aren’t the plural majority of voters showing up at the primaries. They eschew the polls during primary season and then shake their heads at the either/or black/white choice they face at the polls when November rolls around.

One of the easiest ways to improve our present political situation (far easier than getting dark money out of politics or enacting term-limits, and certainly easier than making the change to a system of proportional representation or to a parliamentary rather than presidential system) is to lobby for either the doing away of popular primaries, leaving candidate selection to the party leadership who will select candidates with the broadest appeal, or to enact voter laws requiring that in order to vote in a Presidential or Midterm election one must have voted in the primaries.



But is it more unattractive than our

current situation?

I don’t think so.

December 2019

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