Tag Archives: primaries

Living In The Real World

Indiana, among other states, has just come through primary election season. Citizens who have chosen to exercise their franchise and vote–a minority of those who could or should have–have decided what choices we voters will face in November.

In no case of which I am aware will those voters get to pick between God and Mammon–or even between an ideal candidate and  one who is less desirable. For that matter, in no state of which I am aware do citizens of either major party all agree on the characteristics of an ideal candidate.

This being the way of the real world, different people will react to this inescapable situation differently.

Purists and cynics, whose ranks have swelled, will assume a “pox on all their houses” posture. Some will vote, but many will not. In cases where the non-voters’ lack of participation results in the election of a person who will pursue destructive or inhumane policies, they will use that result to justify their belief that the entire system is beyond redemption, and that opting out confirms their moral superiority.

Needless to say, this is not an approach that improves the political landscape.

Those of us who do vote are equally aware of the systemic deficits and corruption of American governance, but we also understand that we live in the real world. There are no ideal or perfect candidates. There are no political parties able to high-mindedly ignore the importance of political fundraising or the contending claims and anxieties of relevant voting constituencies.

There are no political “saviors” whose election will magically bring about the sort of bipartisan agreements necessary for sweeping policy change. Even candidates with whom we agree will have limited ability to move America forward.

Lasting improvements to large-scale systems are overwhelmingly incremental; revolutions just tend to generate counter-revolutions. Recognizing this requires that we must often choose between very imperfect options–and unfortunately, in the real world, refusing to make a choice isn’t possible, because failing to vote is also a choice.

In my view, rational people will recognize that a choice between imperfect options is not the same thing as a choice without consequences.Some imperfect candidates and parties are considerably better than others.

In November, American voters will decide between continued control of our government by a Republican Party that has devolved into a White Nationalist cult, and a Democratic Party that–despite plenty of problems and deficiencies– is far more likely to support policies that will benefit most Americans.

In the real world, support for GOP candidates and/or refusal to cast a ballot are both a vote for that White Nationalist cult and its appalling and unAmerican President. It is a message that the individual is not sufficiently dissatisfied with the status quo to signal that dissatisfaction at the ballot box.

The real world is messy and imperfect. That doesn’t mean that some imperfect choices aren’t better–much better–than others.



Primary Racism?

With political attention focused on the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primaries, Iowa and New Hampshire are rapidly disappearing in the media’s rear-view mirror. But before we bury ourselves in more current analyses and prognostications, it might be well to consider the peculiar order of America’s primary lineup.

I thought about this because I recently came across a post raising an issue I had not previously considered; that the choice of Iowa and New Hampshire as the sites of our earliest political primaries operates to support racism—or at least white privilege—in American life.

This is my epiphany of 2016. Our primary system – like the rest of our political system – is one more example of the racism we so deeply entrench and protect. I don’t pretend that moving the first primaries to more representative states would end racism, but, like pulling down Confederate flags, it couldn’t hurt.

In defense of this conclusion, he points to media coverage of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries—coverage strongly suggesting that the results from these two states tells us something important about the desires of the “American people”— and he places the outsized importance attributed to those contests alongside voting requirements, slating, and gerrymandering, as examples of structures “designed to exclude minorities and protect white privilege.”

Frankly, it would difficult to find two states less representative of America than Iowa and New Hampshire. Only 3% of Iowans and 1% of New Hampshire residents are black in contrast to 13% of the nation. Only 5% of Iowans and 3% of New Hampshire residents are Latino in contrast to 17% of the rest of America. Indeed, having our first primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire is a little like reserving the front of the political bus for “whites only.” When the political parties suggest America has spoken in Iowa and New Hampshire, they imply that white America- the America that really matters to them – has spoken.

Indeed, Iowa and New Hampshire represent an America that hasn’t existed for two hundred years. Thirty-six percent of Iowans and forty percent of New Hampshire residents live in rural communities while only 19% of Americans are rural dwellers. Claiming white farmers and woodsmen are the most politically important people in our nation may have made some demographic sense in the 1800s, but it is patently ridiculous and racist in 2016. Allowing the opinions of whites in Iowa and New Hampshire to have such an inordinate influence on our national election is wrong.

I am less inclined to attribute the structures the author identifies to conscious racism; they are equally likely to be a result of partisanship and happenstance. That said, his larger point is worth considering: although this country has eliminated most of the legal disadvantages and inequities that operated to tilt the playing field in favor of white Americans, even people of good will have yet to recognize–let alone disassemble–the myriad social structures that facilitate racist practices and foster racist assumptions and stereotypes.

There are actually all sorts of good reasons to revisit the importance of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries—reasons having little or nothing to do with race. Even if one finds the post unpersuasive, even if moving the primaries to more representative states wouldn’t really represent a blow against racism, the author is clearly right about one thing: it sure couldn’t hurt.

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….