Participation in Primary Elections

In the United States, out primary elections process is broken. Voting takes place in the middle of the week on a Tuesday with very low voter turnout. Within our primary system, the candidates who do the best often end up being more extreme than candidates who we would otherwise elect. Rather than putting forward a middle of the road candidate, most political primaries manage to put forward a candidate who excites the most devoted voters who usually end up being the most extreme in their views and opinions.

 

Our primary system used to be controlled by parties themselves, but both major parties have opened up their primary system with the intent of creating a more democratic system with broader participation from the general public. The problem, however, is that the system created does not actually allow most people to participate in political primaries. Jonathan Rauch explores the problems with our current system in his book Political Realism, “A crucial premise of populist reform, namely that most people want to participate more in politics, turns out to be wrong.” Most American’s do not know when the primary elections in their state are, especially during years when we are not electing a new president. In general, we usually do not want to think too hard about our politics and about our representatives. Most people are not well informed about issues and generally hold to a few assumptions about parties and political issues. Creating a system that requires more participation from the people sounds ideal, but in reality it is not what we want, and it does not seem to lead to the kinds of outcomes that would be best.

 

Rauch continues, “Instead of opening decision-making to a broader, more diverse, and more representative spectrum … primaries have skewed decision-making toward the notably narrow, ideologically extreme, and decidedly non representative sliver of voters who turn out in primary elections.” When control of primaries was taken away from political parties, strategic thinking, demographic changes, and consideration of broad concern for political issues went out the door. The people who participate in primaries don’t represent most of the people in the United States. Primary voters tend to be whiter, older, and wealthier than most Americans, driving politics in a direction that is not favored by the majority. Our country claims to support ever greater democracy, but the outcomes that we receive are not always what we want and are sometimes worse than the original problem. It appears that parties should wrestle control of primaries back from the general public to put forward more representative and mainstream candidates.

 

I also want to focus on the fact that open primaries take away from the strategic thinking and planning that parties try to do in order to position themselves for the future. Thinking strategically is different than thinking tactically, which is a focus on the short term wins and the objectives of “right now”. A large political voting mass is more of a tactical thermometer than a rationally coherent group. When a political party is thinking about who to put forward as a candidate, they can be strategic and nominate someone who has reasonable views that align with party ideology on issues that the country currently faces and will face in the future. When a narrowly interested voting block selects a nomination, their short term desire for a win against the other side and their often unreliable sense about current economic conditions drive the nomination with little real concern about what would be good in the long term.

The Solution to Non-Functioning Politics

In the United States we don’t like the way our politics looks from the outside. We don’t like the fact that special interests lobby and seem to buy legislators. We don’t like that it is hard to have a voice and have a say in what happens. We don’t like that political families seem to stay in power for long periods of time. And our primary solution to all of these problems is to try to make our country more democratic and to increase participation in our governing process.

 

We have focused on increasing participation because it feels like the right thing to do.  One way to increase participation and expand democracy is to increase voter turnout and make it easier for people to vote. Another strategy we have pushed for has been to encourage more political outsiders to run for office and to support their candidacies through individual donations and through our actual votes. These strategies however, do not necessarily address the problem that we face with governance and the things about government that frustrate our public. Changing the mix of people participating in governance may chance some of the optics and signal something different to our population, but it does not necessarily address the problems and challenges that people dislike about our government.

 

Jonathan Rauch looks at what can happen when government is directed by political amateurs rather than career politicians in his book Political Realism. He is skeptical that political amateurs can navigate the political landscape and build necessary coalitions to help move good legislation forward. Rauch quotes a New York University School of Law professor to demonstrate his fears of increased participation from political outsiders, “In the midst of the declining governing capacity of the American democratic order, we ought to focus less on ‘participation’ as the magical solution and more on the real dynamics of how to facilitate the organization of effective political power.”

 

Stability is underrated yet drastically important in any political system, and often times stability comes from relationships and coalitions within government. Political outsiders and amateurs are focused on specific issues and often brand themselves as being outside the normal relationships and spheres of influence within the political system. There are certainly times to inject politics with new faces and new relationships, but to continually stock legislatures with amateur politicians makes the overall process of governing more difficult and makes the organization of political power a greater challenge and battle. Changing the “who” of politics does not solve all of our problems alone.

 

This does not give us a perfect solution, but it is clear that simply encouraging more people to vote and encouraging more political amateurs with strong political opinions to run for office won’t solve how we distribute and organize power in government. It is important that people recognize that more passion and energy is not necessarily the answer they want. Unfortunately, however, I think we may be stuck with this increasingly angry and outsider political ethos for some time. Very few of us have coherent political ideologies about many issues, but all of us are good at analyzing identities and finding where we fit. Once we have staked our identity claim, we learn what ideologies to support and begin to push toward greater participation among people who share our identities and use the right ideological words to signal their faithfulness to our identity. Breaking this system seems to me to be the place to start to change government as opposed to trying to break the participation structures we dislike inside government.

Machines Versus Partisianship

Political parties seem to have a problem today. Voters dislike being part of a political party and have choosen to register or refer to themselves as non-partisan in greater numbers today than in the past. Political parties have also lost control of their candidate nominations, and when a party makes a big push toward their preferred candidate, cries of corruption and system rigging erupt from the public.

However, at the same time, voters more consistently vote for a single party today than they did in the past. When we look at voters who register non-partisan and ask if they lean toward a particular party, we see that they overwhelmingly vote for members of that party in each election. Non-partisan voters who lean toward a party often end up voting along party lines at the same or higher rates as voters who are registered with a party. So while our parties seem to be loosing steam, partisanship seems to be growing.

Jonathan Rauch looks at this phenomenon from another perspective in his book Political Realism. He specifically looks at votes within congress and how congressional members seem to align within parties. Rauch writes,

“It’s often said that parties are stronger than ever because votes on Capitol Hill are so consistently partisan. But that can be (and usually is) because the majority party is allowing votes only when its factions agree, whereas machines facilitate decision-making when fellow partisans don’t agree. Ideological solidarity is a brittle glue, and reliance on it for intra-party cohesion is a sign of a weak party machine, not a strong one.”

What Rauch argues is that our parties need to find ways to create cohesion beyond ideology. Rather than relying on individual voter or policy maker issue stances to align, parties need to be able to bring different groups together within the political process. Parties which are only able to attract loosely committed voters fail to create a community of thoughtful and considerate political participants. The perspectives, views, and alternatives available to the party shrink, and in the public we see a fixation on a single issue from a single point of view, while in legislative bodies we see a limited number of votes on a limited number of partisan issues. This does not strengthen democracy, and easily breaks down, leading to the cynicism, criticism, and frustration that we see surrounding the American political system today.

I also think there is another phenomenon surrounding the abandonment of political parties and the staunch partisan voting pattern in the United States. Political identity is a powerful signal, indicating which group you are a part of and often influenced by both overt and hidden factors. In The Elephant and the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at our hidden agendas and our group signaling in politics. We often don’t want to admin when we align with a party out of self interest or out of group identification. We hide behind a veil claiming that it is specific issues that drive our political alignment, but studies frequently show that almost no one has a real grasp of any given issue or any given legislator’s stance on an issue. What we are really displaying today, at least in part, is an institutional distrust driving us away from the parties that we complain about, but an identity stronghold in the claimed political philosophy that we back. Simler and Hanson may better explain why we see this pattern and if Rauch is right, then we must hope that machines can be built to activate local public action before dangerous demagogues use this identity and signaling undercurrent to divide rather than unite local communities.

Issue Based Politics

I believe that politics has always been about identity and about how individuals understood what was in their own self-interest, but in the past politics did not carry such a strong issue based focus, which meant that politics could have more compromise and rational solutions. Jonathan Rauch looks at the ways politics has changed in recent years to understand why our system feels broken and is unable to take action on major issues. Some of the changes in our system are the result of population and demographic changes, and some of the changes in our system are the result of reforms that were intended  to make America more democratic and transparent.

Throughout his book Political Realism, Rauch quotes James Q. Wilson’s 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, noting how accurate many of Wilson’s predictions were regarding the transformations that began to take place in American democracy in the middle of the century. One quote that Rauch includes from Wilson is,

“The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue free resources will be reduced.”

Wilson accurately predicted where politics would end up as our two parties became more ideologically separated and as our parties transformed by competing against each other in a zero sum political system. Many of our decisions and opinions are not formed today through rational process, but instead are formed based entirely on our opposition to the other party. I would argue that most people don’t have a coherent set of issue stances, but instead inform their decisions based on cues from party leaders or based on signals from opposing parties. We also elect politicians based solely on their fidelity to issue stances, making compromise within legislative bodies impossible. There is no way to put politics back into the disordered system of the past where party did not exactly represent issue stances, but we should at least recognize and acknowledge that effective politics sometimes needs to be flexible on issue stances to be able to function.

What I find the most challenging in today’s political system is that we often don’t understand many of the issues that we say are our driving motivations. When asked why we vote the way we do, we often claim that we are voting because an issue is important to us and that a candidate really supports our preferences on that issue. Often times however, we don’t fully understand the issue or a candidates position on an issue. What we favor is simply that a candidate understands the political ques related to an issue and can demonstrate their loyalty to our side or their opposition to another side based on the issue in question.