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Primary Fixation: the Unintended Consequences of American Democracy


It’s primary season again, with the usual media attention in America and curiosity around the world. Many see this series of state-level elections, which determines who will be the presidential nominees of the two parties, as a democratic process worthy of imitation. Yet the American primary process has done more to make America ungovernable than it has to democratise politics.

The creation of party primaries was a well-intentioned reform with roots in the progressive era in the early 20th century. It was intended to reduce the role of political bosses and give people a direct influence on those who would govern them. The primaries got off to a slow start and for most of the 20th century were inconsequential. However, the nomination and eventual defeat in 1968 of Hubert Humphrey, a standard bearer for the Democratic leadership and the Vietnam war, led the party to review its internal processes. The head of the committee that reviewed these processes, Senator George McGovern, took advantage of the changes he advocated by dominating the primaries and becoming his party’s nominee in 1972. He lost in a landslide, but the primary system remained… in both parties.

The current primary season seems likely to offer a series of opportunities for rank and file partisans to express their frustration with mainstream candidates in both parties. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have benefitted from such sentiments in the Republican Party. Bernie Sanders has found the primary and caucus system ideal for channelling the support of idealistic young people.

Many in the US and beyond see the primaries as grassroots democracy. Politicians in other countries, as for example in France, have urged the adoption of a primary system for their own presidential elections. While often this is because politicians see the adoption of primaries as improving their own chances for political advance, few see the primaries as one of the key reasons for the US being so ungovernable.

Most members of Congress – especially, though not exclusively, Republicans – fear any form of compromise because they know they will face a challenge from a more ideologically pure candidate in the next primary. Since most Congressional seats are in safe districts, incumbents have more to fear from ideological purists in their own party than they do from the opposition. They fear the primary, not the general election.

This is not a problem at the presidential level, since the presidency is up for grabs in ways that Congress is not. So while primaries lead to political extremism at the Congressional level, they need not do the same for presidential candidates.

However, as this electoral season illustrates, primary elections often favour outsiders, and are more easily won by populists. Populism is not inherently a bad thing. In one sense, populism simply describes a candidate who is more closely connected to the aspirations of the electorate of the party. Historically, this was the case of William Jennings Bryan, who represented the Democrats’ rural electoral base and who feared the urban domination of economic policy. It was certainly the case of George McGovern, even though his populist connections did not extend beyond the anti-war baby boomers.

Populism, of course can have a darker side. It is about an unmediated relationship between leader and led. At its most extreme, it leads to fascism. Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, all used their skills in manipulating mass publics to establish authoritarian regimes. Some commentators have seen Donald Trump’s nativism and his racist innuendos in the same vein. Ted Cruz has appealed to Christian Evangelicals in ways that recall Father Coughlin, the fascist-sympathizing radio priest of the 1930s.

In Europe, and in many democratic parliamentary systems, politicians serve a long apprenticeship before they run for substantive positions. They work their way up the party organisation. The party then rewards them for their service by nominating them for office. First, they are nominated in constituencies where they are unlikely to win, later in “safe” seats. The American system is different. In the US anyone with enough money to buy television advertising can have a decent chance of getting elected in a primary and then in a general election.

There are two consequences to the US system of primaries. First, the skills necessary to win a primary are not the same as the skills needed to govern. A smooth-talking telegenic candidate (Marco Rubio comes to mind) can win office while having none of the skills of compromise and coalition building so necessary to governing.

The second consequence of the primary system is to put a premium on money. Candidates who can raise large sums of money are at an advantage. This is not just because they can purchase commercial television time (media fragmentation and the rise of social media have made TV commercials less important, at least to reach younger voters), but also because they can hire political operatives so necessary to winning in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. At the very least, candidates need to spend much of their time raising money, at worst they need to spend much of that time listening to those who give it to them. While it’s true that the Internet has made it possible to raise much of that money from small contributors (Bernie Sanders and Barak Obama did this), big contributors can compensate for those candidates who lack mass appeal (Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, for example). Unlike the case of Spiderman, great money (and eventually power) means little responsibility… except to the donor. The effect can be paradoxical: Trump, a billionaire real estate baron, has made part of his appeal the fact that he is self-financed and thus not beholden to (other) fat cats.

The American system of primary elections is a sobering illustration of the unintended consequences of democratic reform. There is a tendency for academics, and especially for those of us on the left, to consider democracy an absolute value. The more the better. But in a world where few people have the time to carefully consider their electoral options, where policy choices often demand the understanding of complexities which are rarely clear, and where there are incentives for hucksters and charlatans, democracy can have hidden dangers. People should be able to influence decisions that affect them. They should certainly be the arbiters of their own destinies. But democracy requires that people not only decide for themselves, but that they take into consideration the interests of others. This makes the stakes much higher. Democratic choice often occurs within a cloud of possibilities. Primaries can make it harder, not easier, to find solutions to our collective problems.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

Harvey Feigenbaum is professor of Political Science and International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washington, DC.

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