Election 2004

Primary Numbers

There's a good case to be made that primary elections are responsible for much of the evil in modern American politics, from apathy to the power of money.
It could be worse. Remember, Willy Horton was originally Al Gore's inventive way of beating up on co-Democrat Mike Dukakis in the 1988 primary -- but even so, the perennial spectacle of Democrats rooting in each others' dirty linen baskets and waving their soiled finds in public looks like unnecessary party-political harakiri to outsiders.

Month after month, the Democratic contenders have concentrated their venom on each other, letting an incumbent and eminently challengeable President stay relatively unchallenged through gaffe after gaffe.

This public disembowelment is not unique to the Democrats -- but they certainly do specialize in it. What is most surprising is that we are so bogged down in the details that it is decades since anyone seriously questioned the entire process, which has acquired that distinctive American patina of dogmatic unchallengability that coats anything to do with the Constitution.

Americans, even those who consider themselves near-revolutionary, take the primaries for granted without perhaps realizing, or caring, that the whole process that looks completely illogical and undemocratic to all foreigners. In fact, there is a good case to be made that primary elections are responsible for much of the evil in modern American politics, from apathy to the power of money.

Just consider what the primaries are about. It is not the members or active supporters of a party who pick its candidates, but any voter who registers as a supporter. The so-called "open primary" in many states, takes it to even dizzier heights of absurdity. Not only can voters who declare themselves party supporters vote for its candidates without ever shelling out a cent in dues or attending a meeting, but in open primaries, avowed opponents of a party can help choose its candidates.

In Georgia last year incumbent Democrat Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was defeated in the primary -- by cross-voting Republican supporters, according to her. Despairing of a Republican defeating her in the general election, her opponents rallied a "cross party coalition," to defeat her -- in the primary. Incidentally, they also brought in a lot of out of state money to do it. Now, no matter whether one agrees or disagrees with McKinney's fiery brand of politics, such a result has little or nothing to do with democracy as practiced in the rest of the world.

In other democratic countries, the candidates are picked by party members who have paid dues and declared support for the party's principles. Of course, the association of party and principle seems oxymoronic to many disgruntled Americans, but maybe the primaries have had something to do with that as well.

Once again, an outside perspective helps. There are problems in Britain of course, but it's worth looking just to show that it is indeed possible to do things a bit differently. To run as a candidate, prospective members of the British parliament need only the endorsement of the local and national parties. They do not need money for the often fiercely contested process -- even if backing from party officials can help -- since it is the local members who make the selection.

The process is run by the party itself, among members who have paid their dues and accept its rules. Once candidates win the nomination, there are strict limits on spending -- they personally do not need to raise any of it. But that's not so bad. There is no paid radio or TV advertising in Britain (although what media moguls like Rupert Murdoch or Conrad Black will do, unpaid, is another issue.) And Tony Blair has been looking longingly at the American way of doing things, which should be worrying both for Brits and for Americans who are lumbered with the system.

So apart from principle, what's wrong with primaries? Let's begin with apathy. A Democratic presidential primary contest is like a tapeworm, long and with no conclusive ending, copulating with itself all the time, but with no real climax -- except that the results tend to come out covered in crap. How can you expect even activists who have spent such a long and tedious gestation period cheering on one contender to switch the same enthusiasm to a winner whom your hero or heroine of choice has been castigating for all that time?

How can you expect ordinary voters to turn out for someone who has been so thoroughly besmeared by his own alleged party colleagues? Any shining armor would be rusty and dented by the time it comes through this process. Any white horse would be bay when it comes to the finishing lines.

The second and most pernicious aspect of primary contests is that they provide the first of many points of entry for large donors to buy the candidates of their choice. They become a financial steeplechase, in which electorally popular candidates are forced to drop out because they have run out of money. You may remember that Bill Clinton was not the leading candidate when he reached the New York primary back in 1991 -- but he had found out where the checks were to be found, which more than made up for any temporary embarrassment on the voting front.

The osmotic power of big money in elections tends to defeat all the best ideas to combat it. The original idea of primaries was to take politics out of the smoke-filled rooms of the party bosses, where as Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed once said, "I don't care who does the electin', so long as I do the nominatin'."

Apart from anti-smoking laws, all that's happened since is that the fulcrum of the process has moved to rubber chicken-filled banqueting rooms. The amount of money that an individual needs to find to run a primary campaign has risen dramatically -- and with it the influence of those who have money by the bucketful.

We now take it for granted, almost as constitutional in fact, that the race is much more likely to go to the richest than the worthiest.

To win a contested primary, candidates need to find people with money to help them along. Except perhaps in the Iowa caucuses, they cannot target their campaigns to members, so they have to run their campaigns on television and radio. This is a huge cash-gobbling business, whose main end is probably to persuade uncommitted voters that the Democrats are not a cohesive challenge to the incumbent.

Money that comes wholesale is much easier. Howard Dean may have pioneered a neat way to kick-start the campaign with smaller donations and enthusiastic activism, but we can be sure he will be disappointed if bigger checks do not accompany any campaign against Bush.

But that raises an interesting question. Republican presidential candidates traditionally outspend Democrats. But if you added up all that money raised for Democratic primary contenders, and put it against Bush, it would certainly outweigh even all those Halliburton checks. But they'd rather spend it on fighting each other.

Sadly, there are no immediate solutions. The Supreme Court, especially this one, will almost certainly throw out any limits on spending in elections as a restraint on its own version of Free Speech. But the Iowa caucuses, even if derided by some candidates, are in fact a much more representative and serious way for a real party to pick real candidates. But to replicate it nationally, or to reform the primaries, the Democratic Party would have to reform itself as a genuine membership organization, rather than stay as a sort of post office box for big soft money checks and a franchiser of candidates who have bought their nominations. But that raises the question, just who is the Democratic Party now?

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for AlterNet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, the Nation, and Salon.
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