Too Much Democracy?

When I was working with a colleague in the Political Science department a couple of years ago, he convinced me that one of the problems with our electoral system was actually “too much democracy”–that too many of the votes we cast for state and local offices are not informed choices between, say, the candidates for county auditor, but simply opportunities to support our favored political party.

His position was that choices in these “downticket” elections are both uninformed (at least, about the merits of the candidates) and burdensome– time-consuming for voters and vote-counters alike–and for some voters, part of a ballot they see as intimidating.)

Whether we continue to vote for coroners and county surveyors, his observations raise some foundational questions about what sorts of electoral processes define actual democracy.

Along the same lines, an article from the Atlantic also challenged the assumption that “more” is better–where “more” is greater decision-making by the grass roots. The first Democratic debate of the 2020 election cycle had just been held, and the article criticized the decision to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the national exposure of the debate stage.

Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history. Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican. The Democrats in 2016 faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat. And yet, after the election, the Democrats changed their rules to reduce the power of the party establishment by limiting the role of superdelegates, who had been free to support the candidate of their choosing at the party convention, and whose ranks had been filled by elected officials and party leaders. Then, as the 2020 race began, the party deferred to measures of popular sentiment to determine who should make the cut for the debates, all but ensuring runs by publicity-hungry outsiders.

The authors pointed out that no other major democracy uses primary elections to choose its political candidates. The Founders certainly didn’t provide for primaries. (As the authors noted, Abraham Lincoln didn’t win his party’s nomination because he ran a good ground game in New Hampshire. Party elders chose him.)

In fact, America didn’t have binding primaries until the 1970s.

The new system—consisting of primaries, plus a handful of caucuses—seemed to work: Most nominees were experienced politicians with impressive résumés and strong ties to their party. Starting in 1976, Democratic nominees included two vice presidents, three successful governors, and three prominent senators (albeit one with little national experience). Republican nominees included a vice president, three successful governors, and two prominent senators. All were acceptable to their party establishment and to their party’s base.

In 2016, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders exploited what the authors term the primary system’s “fragility.” The electorate had come to view the establishment’s seal of approval with hostility, and that encouraged outsider candidates to claim that their lack of party support showed “authenticity.” Meanwhile, the media provided lots of coverage to rogue candidates.

What to do?

Restoring the old era of smoke-filled rooms is neither possible nor desirable. Primaries bring important information to the nominating process. They test candidates’ ability to excite voters and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for up-and-comers and neglected constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina. But as 2016 made clear, primaries are only half of a functional nominating system. The other half is input from political insiders and professionals who can vet candidates, steer them to appropriate races, and, as a last resort, block them if they are unacceptable to the party or unfit to govern.

This eminently reasonable observation is sure to infuriate ideologues in both parties, who insist that the electorate is all-knowing, and that party professionals are all part of some corrupt “establishment.” Yet survey after survey finds a significant majority of the electorate woefully ignorant of the most basic elements of the system of government for which they are choosing leadership.

When candidates are supported despite a lack of evidence that they know what the job entails and what the rules are, celebrity trumps competence.

As the authors conclude,

The current system is democratic only in form, not in substance. Without professional input, the nominating process is vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures, and activists. As entertainment, America’s current primary system works pretty well; as a way to vet candidates for the world’s most important and difficult job, it is at best unreliable—and at worst destabilizing, even dangerous.

Trump certainly proves their point.


  1. You cannot discuss the failing primary system without including fund raising and the use of advertisement in that discussion. Money and political persuasion are so intertwined in the system that one cannot see where one begins and other one ends.
    One of the results of that corrupted system is the number of persons who run for public office not to win an election, but to build a war chest with which to buy influence with other candidates or to simply push a radical idea in the name of their personal religion.
    One needs only to look at the current occupant of the White House to know that the system has failed. Band-aides and tweaks are not going to make things right again. Maybe nothing will.

  2. I have been complaining to a friend about the lack of information regarding primary candidates and primary election awareness. I was unaware of the last Indiana primary till receiving an E-mail from a candidate seeking my vote 2 days before the election. I received a “thank you for the information” from a commenter on this blog living in the southern part of the state who was also unaware of a primary election until he read my complaint here.

    The Indianapolis Star and local TV news channels used to be our sources for information; we also used to receive flyers in the mail from those seeking our vote in primary and general elections giving us names and promises. As the friend pointed out; there are web sites for all of them but…when we do not have their names or intention to run for office, we cannot research information. Or…could the fact that personal, business and political information can be so easily researched on the Internet one reason they stay in the shadows till the last minute?

    “When candidates are supported despite a lack of evidence that they know what the job entails and what the rules are, celebrity trumps competence.”

    People have poo-pooed my belief that many voters vote for a familiar name while knowing nothing about their past actions or future intentions. Brian Bosma is an excellent example; more than three decades of sitting in the Indiana House and until four years ago no opponent…from either party.

  3. The primary debates are starting to look like a waste of time. The campaigns are made for tv and sound bites. There has to be a better way that engages voters and still limits the party bosses’ control.

  4. I do not trust the party organizations because of the influence of money. We need public financing of campaigns. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that.

  5. IMHO there is way too much money and waaaaaay too much time dedicated to the primaries. One thing we can be sure of is that, regardless of who wins November 3rd, we will have some notion of who will be running in 2024 by November 4th. I like Great Britain’s model of a 5 week election cycle, without televised advertising.

    As for information, here in sunny southwest Florida, we all receive a sample ballot in the mail a couple of weeks before the election. It’s a good idea (which is a rare thing in sunny southwest Florida).

  6. The Republican Party has the upper hand, especially in the upcoming Presidential election. The environment has much more of a WAR-LIKE atmosphere than an election in a democracy. It’s a winner take all for the Republicans and their candidate, Donald Trump, just as would be expected from any Fascist dictator. Presently, the Democratic Party has no answer for the ATTACK and, seemingly, will have no answer in November’s Presidential election, unless some miracle happens.

  7. Granted you specified this for certain position, but it seems counter-intuitive to hold this position as well as that the electoral college should be abolished in favor of the popular vote. I’m not sure that it is apples to oranges given what I am sure is also the general populations ignorance to issues at the forefront of a Presidential election (particularly when those up for election are not morally uncouth).

  8. Thank you, Anne Bryant!

    I refer to the Democracy Index, which ranks the USA 25th, or a “flawed democracy.”

    As Anne points out, roughly 22-24 states are controlled by Koch’s hundreds of millions in political spending. And like the Koch’s, Mike Bloomberg is trying to buy a presidency and his spending is applauded by every major newspaper and television media company in America. Don’t you think the MSM has lobbyists preventing public campaign finance bills or restricting campaign donation dollar limits?

    What about a five-party system to spread out candidates and make it difficult for the Oligarchs to own the entire process?

    Our two-party system has already been acquired from the top-down. Does the Indiana Democratic Party even try? They get zero support from the national party.

    It’s challenging to get people involved in our rigged political system. They don’t see the point, and so our voter participation numbers are pathetic. The DNC proved their point in 2016’s primary. Don’t forget; it was the strategy of Hillary’s campaign to prop up the buffoon (DJT) with the DNC’s media connections while they screwed over Bernie Sanders. Her emails with John Podesta are on Wikileaks. 😉

    The most intelligent man in the world told us the political and media systems were rigged in the 40s. Has anybody seen any signs by either party in fixing our rigged socio-political-economic systems in the last 60 years?

    If anything, it’s only gotten worse.

  9. Lazy,

    The general population is used to having someone else do their thinking for them, and when a void occurs, that vacuum sucks in every sort of verminous carrion that can be produced by man.

    It’s a reflection on the warp speed evolution of social media, and the infatuation with reality TV and the worship of so-called celebrities including those who are famous because they are famous, LOL!

    Garbage in! Garbage out! Lazy; Disinclination or aversion to effort or work; idleness; indolence; slothfulness; sluggishness. The Hebrew verb ʽa·tsalʹ means “be sluggish.” The adjective related to this verb is translated “lazy one.” The Greek word o·kne·rosʹ means “sluggish, slothful.” Another term, no·throsʹ, means “sluggish, dull.”

    So obviously, laziness has been a problem for a long long long time, many millennia!

    A description of the lazy man is given in the book of Proverbs. First of all, he throws up barriers in his own mind to justify himself in not starting on a project. “The way of the lazy one is like a brier hedge.” (Proverbs 15:19) He views his task as a road ahead filled with briers, very difficult to traverse. Then he makes ridiculous excuses for his slothfulness, saying: “There is a lion outside! In the midst of the public squares I shall be murdered!” as if a danger that actually does not exist attended the job. (Proverbs 22:13) Frequently laziness is accompanied by cowardice, a fearful holding back. Haven’t you noticed this very thing yourself?

    Sometimes Scripture can deftly point out appropriate meanings and even solutions. There is always an excuse to be lazy, in the end, the lazy pay a price, although in this day and age, everyone pays a price!

    Effort, curiosity, unfortunate beliefs, and manipulated rules are all a casualty or a result of being lazy.

    Freedom of speech, this has been weaponized to the detriment of everyone, because of laziness, no one wants to take the time to refute obviously false information. It’s much easier to believe a forceful ignorance than a gentle truth. Social media is forcefully ignorant, because you have the ignorant spewing agendas across the spectrum. Forceful ignorance is more entertaining, so people naturally flock towards the entertainment value which manipulates their critical thinking abilities, and before you know it, you have a reality show POTUS who was obviously quite insane!

    There is no fix for this, you will have a hesitancy to mess with any First Amendment guarantees, because of laziness, they will throw the baby out with the bathwater. The freedom of press has already been pared back, soon it will be the the freedom to address grievances to the government, or freedom to congregate, or freedom of religion, and of course freedom of speech.

    For most folks, like I commented on before, a conscience is a valuable thing, it can really ferret out the shenanigans if it is healthy. Unfortunately, people are inclined to run roughshod over there conscience, there is no “let your conscience be your guide” because people are not inclined to listen. Instead of a conscience, they let social media, tribal affiliations, “forceful ignorance,” and improbable conspiratorial beliefs do their thinking for them. So it ends up being the blind leading the blind!

    When you have learned researchers who promote inaccurate theorems, such as Richard Dawkins, who stated; “the universe has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”

    With ideas like that actually taught in schools, along with all of the other stupidity that goes along with the above-mentioned, is it any wonder why laziness and stupidity are the norm?

  10. Course 101 in Presidential Targeting

    The major problem we’re facing is TARGETING. The Democrats don’t know how to hit their target with WORDS. In artillery terms its call CREEPING to the target which went out of fashion in the 19th century. Although my battles, when on active duty in the early ’60s, were on the military golf courses, nevertheless, I was trained as an artillery officer [and forward observer] at Fort Sill’s Artillery School.

    BACK THEN, you learned, if anything, that your first round (called in by the forward observer) should overshoot your target, which would mean at least calling Donald Trump a FASCIST DICTATOR. If that appears to have gone too far, then what you do is fire your next ORIENTATION round below the target. Finally, if things work close to perfection, after proper CALIBRATION from both of your rounds, you should hit somewhere near your target. It’s called FIRING FOR EFFECT.

    Politically speaking the process might best be called P2T: Pre-emptive Targeted Truth.

  11. In the late 50s or early 60s historian David Donald (a noted Civil War & Lincoln historian) wrote a pamphlet-sized essay called “An Excess of Democracy”. His main point was that the Civil War was caused by this very thing — too much of a good thing where everybody had a voice, no matter the ethics and morals, practicality, or the actual wishes of the majority of the citizens, whether they could legally vote or not.
    IMHO, we’re locked onto this same scenario today, and whether we have another war, or the country just falls apart, we won’t know until it’s happened. BUT, most of the politically interested and informed will have a pretty good idea. And, right now, it ain’t lookin’ good.

  12. Let’s see, the populace has ever deepening distrust of “professional”politicians so we should let them pick the candidates?

    Peggy is right on with limited the election cycle. Don’t think we can banish TV ads – if we allow pharma and hospitals to “ad” nauseum us….that bugaboo 1st Amendment.

    If we are going to have parties, let ONLY the registered members vote in primaries. But – let’s loosen things up to allow new parties to form with mass petitions.

  13. Anne Bryant has the answer – public financing of elections. (See contra: Citizens United v. FEC.) When such as the Kochs and Bloombergs overpower primaries with money rather than reasoned stances on governing it is not surprising that many stay home or cast reluctant votes for the “winner.” It cannot be overstated that when the public pays for the process the politicians are far more likely to truly represent their funders, as they do now though, unfortunately, for candidates who are products of money and smoke-filled rooms rather than for dedication of the common good.

    Secondary effects? With public funding we can reasonably expect a far lesser influence in politics by the ALECs and Kochs of this world, thus aligning citizens with our real rather than pretended democratic values set forth in the Athenian model in Jefferson’s library. The unlikely ideal in the selection of candidates would be an honest coalition of professionals in smoke-filled rooms and the democratic mob dedicated via public financing to the selection and election of Democratic candidates, a genuine unity which I think would provide incentive for voters to leave their couches in November.

    I am personally concerned with the advent of huge money into the politics of both parties since its effects call for loyalty to the rich and continuing wage and wealth inequality for the working class, a result at great odds with small-d values. Neither Republicans nor Democrats should have this cross to bear in the selection and election of their candidates, so public financing? Yes, since our failure to take money out of politics while reversing Citizens United may have been a contributing factor to the criminal administration we are now enduring. When we retake both houses of Congress and the Oval Office in November, this issue should (along with the Paris Accord, the Iran atomic treaty etc.) be one of the Top Ten for our immediate attention and resolution. Our task (whatever the methodology)? Win in November.

  14. Yes. Voter sloth. Badly run primaries. Too much money in the system. An interminable election cycle. I’m sure there are other factors like runaway demagoguery.

    O.K. Where do we start to fix these things, and how do these things get fixed? I think it’s voter sloth that fuels all the negatives that follow. As the old adage goes, if that mule won’t budge while plowing, use a bigger axe handle to get its attention. The axe handles in voter sloth are money, polls, more money, TV ads, primaries and B.S., counter-productive debates.

  15. To me starting with many choices and giving them time to reveal who they are to voters and whittling down the group over several events all make a great deal of democratic sense. All I would change is the financing of it and the chaotic circus of whistle stop tours and baby kissing. That’s so last century.

    More debates, better websites to present the written word and much less need to spend time on fund raising.

    I have only seen face to face one President in my life (Obama) and there were several thousand people between us and my opinion is that I’m not unusual.

    More effort on relative plans less on entertainment.

  16. Perhaps one way to avoid the so-called Free Speech reason of Citizens United would be to limit campaign donations from only a human being over the age of 18 and then limit the amount.

    The back-room is speaking:
    Was channel surfing and happened on MSDNC and Chris – The Pompous – Matthews. He and his guests spent most of the time worrying about the Corporate Democrats – Centrists as they say- beating themselves up and Bernie slips in to be nominated or long shot Warren.

    Bloomberg, alarms them not because he is a billionaire oligarch happy with the way the system works for Bloomberg but, that Bloomberg further divides the Centrists vote. By the way watching Matthews is like chewing aspirin and trying to swallow it without water.

    The Cable News Networks are Informational Advocacy Networks. You know in advance the spinning each will present.

    Even though Democrats are objecting to the winner take all Electoral College, some it seems are perfectly happy with the Super Delegates being able to intervene to tilt the primary process. Tim Kaine Hillary’s running mate in 2016 is quoted as saying:

    “I have long believed there should be no superdelegates. These positions are given undue influence in the popular nominating contest and make the process less democratic.”

    So who are these Super Delegates:
    30 distinguished party leaders (DPL), consisting of current and former presidents, current and former vice-presidents, former congressional leaders, and former DNC chairs.

    236 Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives (including non-voting delegates from DC and territories)

    48 Democratic members of the United States Senate (including Washington, DC shadow senators) and Bernie Sanders

    28 Democratic governors (including territorial governors and the Mayor of the District of Columbia).

    438 other elected members (with 434 votes) from the Democratic National Committee (including the chairs and vice-chairs of each state’s Democratic Party)

    Here in WIKI you can find who some of the Super Delegates have already endorsed.

  17. ML,

    I agree with your take on Chris Matthews. He’s clearly deteriorated over the last few years. Maybe Trump’s very existence has started to soften his brain. Great analogy, BTW. I’m going to use it in my next article.

    Let us all keep in mind that Trump loves the attention that the pundits heap on the voters. Voter fatigue added to voter sloth – often self-fertilizing conditions, is what got Trump elected in the first place when 92 million voters stayed home, and millions more didn’t vote for EITHER presidential candidate. Those are very telling data about what voters respond to.

  18. I agree that too many positions are elected instead of appointed. Whenever I would hear someone say that they “vote for the person and not the party,” I would ask them to tell me what they know about the county surveyor candidates or similar low ballot races. Even the most informed voter doesn’t know much, if anything, about low level candidates. The fact is when you get to the middle to end of the ballot, people default to their party preference. That’s why when political analysts do baseline analysis of partisanship in an election, they look at the races at the bottom of the ballot, not those at the top.

    Having said that, I do think primaries play an important role. I would always say if you take away the primaries you have a system working like Marion County slating to actually pick the candidates (as opposed to just endorsing certain candidates). Marion County slating for both parties has been a joke for a long time. It’s just a way that party bosses can control who is running while pretending that low level party workers are making the decision.

  19. The penchant for elections as the unique tool of democracy needs rethinking. Why should we choose from a list of people, none of whom we want?

    Voters are overwhelmed with the amount of information necessary to make informed decisions about candidates, who offer no guarantee of efficacy or evidence of interest in many of the issues that matter. There are alternatives that could substitute our currently poorly informed system with one where a broad array of interests could have more sway.

    Sortition, which is like jury duty, could easily replace local elections for simple legislative matters, with hiring commissions, also randomly selected from the population, could choose local executives on a time-limited basis. This would eliminate the corrupting influence of money and the need for self-selected, professional politicians.

    This process is being refined through small-scale testing:

  20. I dare you to try to be an informed voter. When you do a Google search on a candidate and they don’t even have a facebook page, you know they were just a wonk placed on the ballot just so there would not be blank space.

    BUT, when they do take an opportunity to speak directly to the voters with a well designed web page, they don’t publish any policy positions because they will just become attack points for the opponents smear campaign.

    As a voter, you can’t win. Is it any wonder voters are uninformed?

  21. Dan Mullendore,

    This time it’s not so much about policy. What policies that are on the table are those that can be accomplished after Democrats take back the Senate and the White House. This election is about a referendum on Donald Trump. What the most effective ad strategy might be for the presidential campaigns is like the one Bloomberg ran showing a continuous loop of Trump’s vomitous remarks juxtaposed against what real presidents sound like.

    The candidate who best sees and promotes the anti-Trump campaign almost exclusively will win and bring in enough Senators to push Moscow Mitch out of office or to the back of the room

  22. Anne Bryant is right. We need a public campaign funding system that will drive Big Money out of our politics. A system that would allocate such funding to political parties based on voter preferences. Task these parties to fund their candidates’ campaigns.

  23. Our Democracy requires an educated electorate. Sadly, education has been intentionally dumbed down by a starvation diet of budget cuts over my lifetime. Without a firm understanding of our tripartite government and the ability to discern between political fact and fiction, many voters simply, and trustingly, rely on the guidance of their respective parties. In this respect, relying on “professional politicians” to nominate candidates seems reasonable. But you must admit it is also paternalistic. Hence, I believe education is the key to democracy.

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