The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Instead of boosting democracy, primary elections are undermining it

Why our politics are growing ever more extreme — and democracy itself is under siege

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 24. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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Republicans have embarked on an unrelenting acceleration of the culture wars. From Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security policies creating a backup of trucks with shipments in April despite inflation and empty store shelves, to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on Disney, the GOP is pushing rightward on cultural issues and throwing red meat to its base. And this isn’t limited to far-right states. It’s happening in swing states and states becoming more competitive, like Texas and Florida, but also Wisconsin — where the GOP still claims that the 2020 presidential election had rampant fraud despite absolutely no evidence — and even Virginia.

Understanding why the GOP is catering to extreme voters, even in places where trying to appeal to moderates seems more politically expedient, requires scrutiny of U.S. political history. The Founding Fathers feared political parties and demagogues, and designed institutions that would thwart them. But changes to the constitutional system, especially the widespread adoption of primary elections in the 1970s, have distorted and weakened our democracy by creating a perverse incentive structure that rewards playing to unrepresentative extremists.

The founders never intended for direct democracy or political parties. They saw the constitutional system they designed — the electoral college, indirect election of senators, etc. — as a bulwark against too much popular rule, one that would contain what they considered excessive democracy, while retaining sufficient elements of political representation to secure its ratification.

Yet parties emerged quickly in the new American republic and only grew stronger in the early 19th century because of the efforts of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, who breached old political norms to avenge past defeats.

By the 1830s, the political nominating convention emerged to select each party’s candidates, who would then compete to win the appeal of voters in a fairly open democracy — at least for White men.

Though the Whig Party died in the 1850s, and the Civil War upended American politics in the 1860s, the convention system took root. Political machines, such as Tammany Hall in New York, seized on its contours to turn conventions into the purview of insiders who didn’t much care about the whims of average voters.

But during the Progressive Era of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, elite divisions and the frustrated ambitions of politicians provoked challenges to this system. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, for example, promoted the adoption of primary elections as a political tool to catapult himself to the governorship, then the Senate and finally a leading presidential candidate.

Some of these upstarts pushed party primaries as a key organ of democracy — theoretically taking power out of the hands of corrupt party elites and political machines and giving it to voters.

But these proponents of primaries faced opposition not only from the establishment, but from dissident Progressives, including Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, who argued that the primaries would actually have the opposite effect. They would weaken representative government because they repudiated the Constitution’s filters on demagogues and “the people.”

As Henry J. Ford — Princeton University professor and president of the American Political Science Association from 1918 to 1919 — explained, instead of “giving power to the people,” in practice, primaries would thwart the “select[ion] of the wisest and best for public office.”

Other detractors went further, charging that primaries would favor “pestiferous demagogues” and “brazenfaced men of a lower type of character.” Voters were distracted and poorly informed and would, therefore, favor candidates who excelled at the “repulsive and disgraceful undertaking” of “begging for an office” by making outlandish promises and practicing the deceptions of a demagogue.

Studies taken after the launch of direct primaries in some states reported that these contests tended “to weaken and destroy the party” and diminished America’s capacity to govern in the public interest.

These arguments carried the day for the next 50 years, watering down primaries and blocking their expansion. For example, although the 1968 Democratic presidential primary featured some unusual circumstances — with the sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson, dropping out of the race and a leading contender, Robert F. Kennedy, being assassinated — Vice President Hubert Humphrey still managed to capture the party’s nomination without running in a single primary contest.

But primaries received renewed attention in the late 1960s and ’70s, thanks in part to Democrats’ disastrous, fractious 1968 convention and a push from Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.). McGovern helped pass significant changes to the nomination process aimed at making it more democratic. He then took advantage of those changes by entering the Democratic presidential primary in 1972 and ushering in a new era — one in which the people decided the party’s presidential nominee in primary elections, not party bosses at the convention.

The number of Democratic presidential primaries rose rapidly from 15 in 1968 to 27 in 1976 and 37 in 1980, roughly where it has hovered ever since. The Republican Party made similar changes to its process. The proportion of delegates chosen by primary elections (as opposed to party chairs) more than doubled in both major political parties — from about 40 percent in 1968 to 75 percent by 1980 to 94 percent by 2020. And the Republicans’ convention in 1976, in which President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan went to Kansas City separated by a razor-thin margin of delegates, was the last convention where the outcome was truly in doubt when delegates arrived.

The rise of the primary produced a fundamental shift in political power and incentives. It forced ambitious politicians to court the voters who would show up to select party nominees in races for Congress and the presidency.

These changes seem to have proved the early-20th-century critics of the primary correct, fueling partisan polarization and stratified and ideological parties.

Why? Because primaries feature low turnouts. Only a quarter to a third of Democrats and Republicans turn out for primaries during presidential campaigns; about half of that during midterm elections. And the voters who show up are activists and those with extreme views. In 2010, far-right tea party candidates scored several upsets over establishment Republicans in primaries with turnouts generally under 15 percent. On the left in 2018, political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) won a stunning primary victory over the more moderate Rep. Joseph Crowley, a member of the Democratic leadership, in an election with only 12 percent turnout.

True rule by the “people” isn’t attainable under such a system that prioritizes the extremes, and the results end up feeding perpetual cycles of disappointment, populist attacks and promises of democratic renewal that prove meaningless.

No one epitomized the dark side of robust primaries more than former president Donald Trump. By winning the hearts of merely a third of primary votes, he captured the Republican nomination in 2016 despite clear indications that he would repudiate American democratic rules, procedures and norms. Party officials had few institutional tools to derail his rise, even though they and a majority of their voters favored someone else.

We see the power of the primary throughout our politics in 2022 — from the push by DeSantis and Abbott to court far-right voters rather than appealing to the middle, to Sen Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) relentlessly pushing baseless claims about covid-19 and vaccines and the rapid reinvention of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) from moderate acolyte of Paul D. Ryan to Trump loyalist. The grip of primaries on members of Congress also accounts for the startling reversal of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) against removing Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising — they had “had it” with the then-president, until party activists surged behind him.

The ascendancies of ideological extremists is not an aberration but a predicted result of the changes to the electoral process undertaken first by the Democratic Party after 1968. America now faces the recurring threat of anti-regime candidates and demagogues.

Though proposals to save American democracy abound — from abolishing the electoral college to overhauling campaign finance laws — none will succeed without pragmatic primary election reform.

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