Democratic Heresies

My husband and I have had a long-running argument about primary elections. (Hey–you argue with your spouse about whatever is important in your house, and we nerds will argue about what preoccupies us…)

My husband insists that primaries have contributed mightily to political polarization. It’s unarguable that the people who turn out for primary elections are more partisan and ideological than other voters, and he’s nostalgic for the smoke-filled rooms where party elders chose candidates more likely to appeal to the moderate middle.

My rejoinder has been that more democracy is good, and smoke-filled rooms had their dark side. We just need more competitive primaries, and more people voting in them.

Now, a respected scholar at the Brookings Institution has weighed in…on my husband’s side.

Noting the recent resignation of the Speaker, she writes

John Boehner became Speaker at a point in time when four different reform ideas—all enacted with the best of intentions—interacted in ways that made his job impossible. These are structural and will impede the job of the next Speaker as well.

Primaries. The United States is one of the very few democracies in the world that uses primaries to nominate the members of the legislative branch. That means, for all practical purposes, anyone can become the nominee of a political party simply by declaring, running and winning. It also means that defying the party leader, in this case the Speaker, has very few consequences. While Boehner has been able to strip some of his problem members of committee assignments that has not proven to be a very powerful tool. Unlike leaders in parliamentary parties, Boehner cannot decide to keep someone off the list for bad behavior. And primaries are notoriously low turnout events in which a small group of ideologically motivated voters can control outcomes. Thus it is no wonder that Members of Congress have come to fear being “primaried” more than they fear displeasing the leadership.

She identifies three other “reforms” and their unintended consequences: parties (actually, their loss of power; they have less clout than billionaires with SuperPaks), privacy (which has diminished, taking with it the ability to negotiate in relative confidence), and pork (eliminating the goodies that everyone criticized also eliminated the ability to wheel and deal and actually get stuff done.)

I hate it when my husband turns out to be right….


  1. Are you kidding me? What jackass scholar from the Brookings Institute came up with this bowl of garbage? If the primary system has a flaw, it is the lack of participation by the public in party politics. The two political parties need to be more open in order to attract membership. Only with a primary system does the public get a voice in who is going to be the nominee for an upcoming election. Can you imagine who the Republican Party would pick out of the current pack of candidates for the presidential nomination? You were right to begin with, and I am sorry, but your hubby is wrong. And, how could you cave to this just because it came out of the Brookings Institute? You’ve got my blood boiling this morning.

  2. It sickens me that the Indiana Democratic Party forced at least one of the early candidates to drop from the race by threatening to withhold her current position from her (amazing – that’s what the party in power has done). If the Party is actually going to select who will run in the General instead of allowing the electorate to do so, then let’s end the expensive, time-consuming Primary system by law.

  3. I’m going to join Theresa’s rant; YOU are right, Sheila. Consider the fact that the public may have voted to select Mourdock vs. Senator Richard Lugar in that primary BUT…it was the Republican party who put all backing on Mourdock. Their lack of loyalty, and common sense, going against Senator Lugar who voted the needs of his constituents on a few occasions rather than follow the GOP pseudo religious based platform lost them that election. As it turned out; it was to the benefit of the Indiana Democrats who elected Donnelly after Mourdock went waaaaaay over the line with his (basic Republican) religious view on rape and abortion. Had the local GOP not backed Mourdock, the state of Indiana would easily have reelected senior statesman Senator Richard Lugar. Although there hasn’t been much difference between Donnelly and Lugar when you get down to the nitty-gritty of senatorial action in Congress.

    I would like to maintain what little voice I have in selecting who will be the nominee on election day. Will the GOP actually back any of the current fools on their campaign roster or…is this entire ridiculous dog-and-pony show a setup and they have someone to spring on us at the last minute? No idea who that could be; Senator Richard Lugar is still out of favor with the party and Mayor Bill Hudnut is too ill to be considered. Where in this country is a viable Republican to consider replacing the clown carload of fools we are subjected to on a daily basis?

  4. I was a history teacher, and I’ll have to agree with Doug, because history shows that to be correct.
    But, history says: We went to the primary system because people were really tired of the smoke-filled rooms giving the nation such luminaries as Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and Warren G. Harding on the national level, and governors like Warren McCray and Edward Jackson.

    The primary system has now become corrupt in its own way. How else could we have people like those that populate the Indiana Gen. Ass. holding any office at all, even as members of the advisory board to the township trustees?
    ‘Reformers’ need to be thinking in terms of another system to put into place for a generation or two. Either that, or everybody should be able to exercise their constitutional freedoms by being required to vote — in every election. But, doesn’t that seem kind of like a contradictory approach?

  5. Susan S. I don’t think Boehner will need to find a job. He is leaving that seat loaded with loot. That last word is intentional.

  6. Here’s a fact we seem to be overlooking on this issue. That list of possible party candidates is still coming from those smoke-filled rooms where party members decide the list. We are still selecting from the options they hand out to us; we only THINK we are making these decisions.

  7. Thanks Prof. I have long held the same thought as your Hubby. The primary system keeps pulling both parties to the edges when the people who do all the work are in the middle. I LOVED George McGovern but this primary mess has been just awful for all of us. The crazies have WAY too much power to screw everything up for the rest of us.

  8. Open Primaries. It works in other states, why not Indiana?
    The two party system is set up to fail, which is a feature, not an error.

  9. I will line up on the side that believes the Primary is a better choice than smoke filled back rooms. A few reforms would make the Primary System better. 1.) Limit Campaign Contributions by amount and who can contribute. Essentially, non human beings such as PACs should not be allowed to contribute to campaigns. Non-humans cannot vote therefore they should not be able to contribute to campaigns. 2.) Have an open primary. You should not have to declare your self as a Democrat or Republican. How could this work? Once you enter the voting booth, you can choose on the ballot to vote Republican or Democrat. You could not cross over to the other party. You could then make your selections for that particular party.

    Finally, have “free” or nominal cost via the Government Channels for each candidate to give a 5 or 10 minute speech about why they should be elected.

  10. Yeah, primaries seem to be flawed. Here in Michigan, two people just bounced (one expelled and the other resigned an hour before expulsion) from the statehouse have filed to run for their “open” seats. I suspect in these gerrymandered districts when 6+ people are running too, one of them might win the primary – and it’s doubtful that the district would flip to the other party in the general. But that said, should this happen I think it would prove that the primary itself is not the problem rather, the populace participating – the voters- in the primary and why they vote. If that this the problem, changing the primary system doesn’t fix that.

  11. Personally I don’t vote in primaries here in Indiana as I am not officially a member of a political party. I kind of wish we’d either use caucuses or a primary system like California’s, I don’t see why the public needs to decide who a party selects for an election.

  12. Maybe the point is that each option has a cost: the smoke-filled room may result in a more cooperative and harmonious congress; the primary approach could engage more voters. At different times, one approach may be better than the other. In our current situation, maybe the smoke-filled room approach would be better. If it results in a more cooperative congress, then the primary approach may engage more voters against the backdrop of a less toxic congress and political process.

  13. There exist a troika of problems yoked closely together that poison our current system. The primary system is one, and its partners in harness are non-participation by the electorate and highly partisan bases in each party. Add to those three the boatloads of money showered by ideologues on ideologues and we have the perfect storm.

    For all of the murky images conjured by the phrase “smoke filled rooms’ those rooms never-the-less produced (my opinion) better, more rational candidates on the whole. Yes, money is a real problem and Citizens United was perhaps the worst Supreme Court system since Dred Scott, but in those back rooms political clout was at least partially balanced by the desire to win elections, not the hearts of a rabid base.

    We keep asking how we are going to drive up turnout, particularly in off year elections. The answer is simple: we are not. For whatever reason, be it apathy, ignorance or stupidity many (most) people don’t bother. That is not going to change unless one of two impossible events take place: 1. People get payed to vote, or 2. they have to pay NOT to vote. Neither idea will ever happen.

    I understand, and even agree with, previous posters who have said they prefer the primary system because it gives them a voice. The problem is the free speech allotted to those voices merely a whisper in the cacophony that is produced by the poison of Citizen United.

    Finally, if we want to defuse the increasingly rabid bases of both parties we need a restoration of something similar the old and much maligned “Fairness Act,” as cable news and political radio spew lies and poison 24-7 with no checks or balances.

    I do not expect voters to become more informed or interested, and at least under this court and congress Citizen’s United will remain the evil overlord of the airwaves that misinform, rather than inform the voters, then the primary system will continue to churn out puppets whose strings are pulled by money men in toto and who respond to the most ideological wings of their party.

    I wish he were not, but Sheila your husband is right. Money, ignorance, apathy and lies rule the primary system. Those are insoluble problems. Let’s get back to smoky-filled rooms and shady back hall deals. At least the results may–and I write that with tenuous hope–produce more candidates from both parties ready to govern, not dictate.

    Thank you for your time and your excellent column.

  14. The Brookings Institute was only talking about Republicans–because Democrats never, NEVER allow primary challenges. Once you are a democratic in office, never fear any movement on the left, the DINO’s have your back. No where is that more true than Indiana. I’m sorry, but if I’m supposed to get excited about him being governor, my question is where is the daylight between him and Pence? Also, in my district, the 4th, the Dems refuse to spend any money on a challenger, stating it is a waste of their money. Say WHAT??? And they wonder why I don’t contribute to the party. The Indiana Dems have GOT to divorce themselves from the Republican Lite politics of Evan Bayh. If I hear one more time that I am just ‘naive’ trying to run a real democrat I’ll scream, especially since I don’t see their Republican Lite candidates going anywhere. Why do you think the 500 pound Bernie in the room has the Dem party bosses wetting themselves? Their ‘hold onto power by any means’ strategy is why voting just doesn’t matter. It’s vanilla or chocolate. It’s Hillary and Biden. It’s business as usual. So Brookings was definitely not talking to the democratic party. Before Sanders, it was business as usual.

  15. I believe that ending gerrymandering would make the most difference in opening up choices for voters. In my area, one party has all the power and there really is no reason to vote in a primary when you know that you would never vote for any of the candidates for any of the offices they are running for.

    Gerrymandering and Citizens United are both at the root of a lack of choice.

  16. First please note that there is a leftover conversation from yesterday between Gopper and I.

    As an amateur lawyer, I would like some of you real ones to add to his and my thoughts and other amateurs as well.

    If you have time, please dial back one day and gives us the benefit of more opinions and thoughts.

    For today’s issue my thought is to agree with Sheila’s that more democracy is better. However for that to apply we have to first restore democracy which is compromised today by the same forces that are eating at capitalism.

    In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, generally referred to by its shortened title The Wealth of Nations, the magnum opus of the Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, he opined that perfectly informed buyers and sellers in free markets created an invisible hand that guided that market to an optimum configuration of supply, demand and price. He was a contemporary of our founders so was plugged into the same culture as they.

    The bugs in the timbers of capitalism and democracy today are encouraged by the “perfectly informed” part which fails in the environment of mass media advertising just as Orwell predicted in 1984.

    We are completely misled by professional brainwashers easily bought by the wealthiest among us, both corporations and individuals.

    Thus the fact that today brand restaurants and DIY stores and retailing etc, including politicians, are from the wealthiest not necessarily the best.

    I don’t think that it’s possible to put the technological toothpaste that led to that back in the tube but the fact that it’s a hard problem doesn’t mean that it’s avoidable. Like climate change humanity has to step up to the hard problems too.

    So that’s our challenge. Perfectly informed buyers and voters.

    We once solved that problem by professional journalism but that too was bought out and compromised by the wealthiest.

    What’s next?

  17. “Gerrymandering and Citizens United are both at the root of anti-choice.”

    Nancy; you said it all in that one sentence but…what can we expect from a SCOTUS who has two members, Rehnquist and Scalia who believe, “…innocence is not enough to get you out of prison.” I hold out little hope for any change regarding gerrymandering anywhere in this country or the repeal of Citizens United with the current good old boys, including Uncle Thomas, seated on SCOTUS. They maintain their own “smoke filled room” to make decisions regarding all our lives with no fear of reprisal due to being appointed for life. And we, as American citizens, have NO choice in deciding who sits on that panel or for how long.

  18. Ms Kennedy, I’m throwing my support behind your husband’s argument with my undocumented, unproven thought that more Statesmen are produced, at least identified as potential Statesmen, from the smoke-filled rooms. When I mention Statesmen, I’m thinking of men such as Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn, both gentlemen, both reasonable, and both inclined to search for the win/win situation.

  19. Shiela,
    You know you married Mr. Right, you just didn’t know his first name was always.
    Thanks to our good friend, Valerie, for this gem.
    Peter S

  20. JoAnn, your comment about holding out little hope for any changes to gerrymandering holds true for most of us now. I believe the lack of choice is why so many of the younger generations don’t bother to vote – especially in Indiana. If you really don’t feel that there are any choices to make – why bother? The system is rigged.

    I do hope that Sheila will be able to positively influence other members of the committee she has been appointed to for the study of gerrymandering in Indiana. Yet, I remain cynical about the potential for constructive change by this committee if those in power choose to stop it – since it would most likely erode their position of power.

  21. Girl Cousin you are sooo right on!!! Gregg lost to Pence before so yeah Democrats pick him again. Evan Bayh is firmly in the Corporate Wing of the Democratic Party and always has been along with the Clintons. If we did have decisions made in Smoke filled rooms we have Bush vs Clinton as our only choices.

    You totally right the Corporate Democrats are spinning around with a massive assist by the Corporate Media (Fox, MSNBC and CNN) trying some how to convince us that if we do not want Hillary, we can have Joe Biden. I do not want Hillary Clinton to be the Democrat nominee. I do not want Joe Biden as my second choice either.

    I want Bernie Sanders to carry the flag for the Democrats. I have donated money, time and have a Bernie yard sign, and bumper sticker. Long live the Primary choice we have.

  22. Louie – Yes, oh my YES.

    Biden hasn’t said he’s running and he’s supposed to be our choice if not Hillary. Wrong. So many of us are “FeelingTheBern”

  23. So we want to make a big pivot to the left and level the playing field for the GOP? That worked really well for us with Gene McCarthy and George McGovern.

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