Presidential Primaries Might Be a Terrible Idea

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Political parties aren’t the government, even though the Democrats and Republicans have so entirely weaved their parties into the machinery of government and the electoral system. Constitutionally, the two major parties are no more “official” than the Natural Law Party or the Rent is Too Damn High Party. They are nongovernmental associations that organize to field candidates for public office around the shared positions and values of whatever coalition of interests they can cobble together.

As such, they can choose the candidates they’ll run for office any way they like. Right now, the two major parties base these decisions largely on constituents’ votes in primary elections and caucuses, run through a very porous filter of delegate allocation. But if they chose, they could have party bosses choose candidates in smoke-filled rooms. They could even draw straws to see who would run for what, or have prospective candidates engage in medieval combat. It’s up to them.

The primary system we have now is relatively new, and on its face, the idea that the constituents of a party would choose a presidential candidate by (more or less) a popular vote seems like a good idea. It feels, if nothing else, fair. This is a democracy, and so we’ll pick our candidates democratically.

We take this for granted as the wisest and most morally correct method. We can see this whenever the prospect of something that might contradict the popular verdict arises, like superdelegates in the Democratic Party, the specter of a brokered convention, or when the particular rules of a given primary or caucus seem less than straightforward. People’s hackles are raised, and there is much crowing about the right to vote and the subverting of democracy.

But of course, we do not have a constitutional right to vote for party nominees. (Indeed, we don’t even have a constitutional right to vote at all, but that’s another discussion.) Candidacies aren’t political offices. It may be cynical or underhanded for a party to subvert the will of its primary voters, but it’s not against the law or a violation of representative democracy.

In case you can’t tell, I’m no longer convinced that primaries are the best way to choose candidates for office. Even just confining the discussion to the presidency, it no longer seems self-evident, as it once did, that the two major political parties are doing anybody any favors (themselves or the American people) with the primary system as it is. I also don’t know if the alternatives are any better.

I used to work for the electoral reform organization FairVote, and wrote many thousands of words about ways in which the primary system could be improved, but those improvements always focused on increasing the democratic fairness of the primary system, including holding either a single National Primary Day or having a rotating calendar of primary elections, all to reduce the outsized influence of New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina on the process. As I write today, though, I’m not sure we should be having these elections at all.

Obviously, it’s this year’s election that’s making me lose faith in the system. The clearest example of primaries-as-shitshow is the GOP race, where an angry, violent, and happily ignorant band of racists is about to lift Donald Trump to the nomination. There is no way this is a good result, not for the Republicans, and not for the country as a whole, which will be subject to his idiocy and thuggery, and have to go through the motions of treating his candidacy with a show of seriousness. It’s abysmal. And if someone like Cruz were the other “popular” alternative among the GOP primary electorate, that’s no better. He’s a maniac, and such a maniac that even his own lunatic colleagues loathe him.

It’s not the same with the Democratic Party, but it’s still bad. Not because Bernie Sanders, if nominated, would be somehow be a disaster (though he would be far more likely to lose in my opinion). He’d be fine and perfectly respectable, and I’d be proud to vote for him, though I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s. But the fact that the choice of the Democratic Party’s nominee is being left largely up to Democratic voters, the supporters of the two candidates are incentivized to vilify the candidate they don’t support. If there were no primary contest being held, Bernie people and Hillary people would overlap, and everyone would be cool with each other, working together toward common goals, even if not all of those goals are shared in precisely equal measure. But since we’re subjecting them to a popular election, we have Bernie supporters trying to convince the world that Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee, is evil incarnate, a lying, heartless monster who must be destroyed, which of course damages her chances for the general election and overall poisons political discourse among the constituents of the only party that is, right now, serious about governing.

So imagine a scenario in which a presidential nominee is chosen by existing officeholders within a political party, and that’s it. All the party’s governors, Members of Congress, and heck, even the state legislators and mayors and whatnot, all get together, in person or virtually, and argue and debate until they hold a vote, and then pick their party nominees. It has at least the whiff of representative democracy in that all the stakeholders will have been themselves elected, but it avoids the mob-driven death march of the primary campaign.

Or maybe we still have primary elections, but as they have at times been, they are straw polls, beauty pageants, displays of strength and potential support among the grassroots. And after the entirely non-binding straw poll votes are held, the aforementioned party officials take that into account when making their decision.

Or maybe there’s something else that makes more sense. Maybe a board of directors of a party should just hash it out in a room, with or without the smoke. Maybe a randomly chosen “papal conclave” of party stakeholders should figure it out and draft a candidate. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that we have a problem with primary elections. They’re producing bad results, either in the candidates they annoint or the damage they do to a party. I can’t say I’m now wholly opposed to them in principle, but I can say that perhaps it’s time to at least consider that we should save all the democracy for Election Day itself.

Trump Can’t Be Stopped by Shaming His Voters

Photo by Evan Guest (CC BY 2.0)
The editorial board of the Washington Post wants to stop Trump from getting the Republican nomination, citing Trump’s lies, threats, lack of an actual agenda, lack of experience, admiration for Putin, and the fact that “he wants the United States to commit war crimes.” Where do they turn?

Certainly there are Republican leaders who understand all this: people such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.); former president George W. Bush and former presidential nominees Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney; and governors, senators and community leaders across the country. … If Mr. Trump is to be stopped, now is the time for leaders of conscience to say they will not and cannot support him and to do what they can to stop him. We understand that Mr. Trump would seek to use this to his benefit, and that he might succeed. But what is the choice? Is the Republican Party truly not going to resist its own debasement?

It would be hard to find a clearer example of how this primary race has been so utterly misunderstood by the political and journalistic class. In the past, these so-called “leaders of conscience” (please) have thrived off of what I described in my previous post as the decades-long project of cultivating a Republican electorate of fanatical ignoramuses. The very men the Post wants taking action to stop Trump are the same who benefited (to greater and lesser degrees) from the fomenting of rage and fear and the celebration of idiocy, the radiation of which Trump is now photosynthesizing. These men and their operations created the Trump candidacy. Trump is their baby.

And the idea that these old-timers could now step in and somehow shame and tut-tut the mob into making a more noble or self-sacrificing choice of candidate is laughable. These men represent much of what the Trump electorate is gleefully rejecting. These voters don’t want another Dole-Romney figure. They want a Mussolini-Barnum figure.

A poll out today for Florida shows Trump about to clobber Rubio, ostensibly the candidate to whom “leaders of conscience” should be directing support. Trump is not going to be stopped at the polls. Electorally, this is over.

Which points to the sole way these party patriarchs could stop Trump from getting the nomination, and it won’t happen. The Republican Party is not a part of the government (nor it the Democratic). It is a private organization that fosters and supports candidates for political office. The party could, if it so chose, simply change its rules, or suspend them entirely, and decide by fiat that, nope, we’re not nominating Trump. Somewhere in a smoke-filled room (or whatever sketchy place powerful people meet these days) these besuited, old white dudes could gather and decide to pull the plug on the primaries, and enact some alternative means of choosing someone else. It will never happen, and it would be a disaster of a wholly different sort. But that’s all they’ve got.

So Trump it is, and may whatever god you believe in have mercy on your soul.

Trump Will Be the Nominee and the GOP (Unfortunately) Will Be Fine

Donald Trump will be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. I thought this months ago, and today it’s blindingly obvious. What baffles me is that this is only now dawning on the political class. He was written off as a joke when he entered the race (and in the case of Huffington Post, officially written off as a joke), but even then I knew he’d have some solid base of support. How could I have been so prophetic, when I usually screw these things up? Because the horrible things he said, his history of conspiracy mongering, his perceived independence from the establishment, and his grotesque bravado were the prime ingredients for the perfect contemporary right-wing candidate.

The GOP has been cultivating the Trump electorate for generations now. You can draw a direct line from Nixon’s “silent majority,” through Reagan’s sunny obliviousness, through George W. Bush’s flippant swagger, through rabid anti-intellectualism of Sarah Palin, right to the substanceless jingoistic braggadocio of Donald Trump. For decades, the Republican Party has succeeded by intentionally fostering an electorate of fanatical ignoramuses, and now this their harvest.

So each time the pundit class declared that the latest offense to decency vomited up by Trump would finally – finally! – sink his candidacy, I thought, no, this will only solidify his current base of support, and probably attract more. And that’s what happened every time. It just shows how utterly out of touch the political class is when they think that the contemporary GOP electorate would be, say, horrified at someone who disparaged Mexicans, Muslims, women, or the disabled, or that they’d recoil at someone who dissed John McCain – the GOP base hates John McCain! Where have you people been?

So here we are, with Trump having racked up three huge primary victories in a row, and folks are still scrambling to figure out how Trump is ultimately beaten. Sorry, folks. This is your guy. Cruz can’t beat him, because there’s too much overlap in their supporters, and Trump’s foundation is granite-solid by now. Cruz’s best hope is that he can peel some of Trump’s people off, but he’s going to need a lot of very strong pick-axes to do that. So no dice. Rubio has very little overlap with the Trump base, so his only hope is to sop up what’s left of the drop-outs’ support, and convince voters of Kasich’s lack of viability. I don’t think he can do it in time, not by a long shot. I presume when he loses the nomination, though, he’ll declare victory anyway.

Oh, and apparently Kasich could maybe possibly beat Trump in Ohio. That’s about as meaningful as Howard Dean’s post-dropout victory in Vermont in 2004.

There’s also a lot of talk about how Trump’s ascension means the end of the GOP. The splintering among the Republican Party’s constituencies, they say, is irreparable and will lead to a total overhaul of the party.

Please.

First of all, this is what was said about the GOP after they lost so badly in 2008. “GOP in exile” and whatnot. Did they rejigger their party as they licked their wounds? No. They steeled themselves (and Steele’d themselves), and if anything became even more resolute in their increasingly extreme positions.

Second of all, while the GOP has a real problem when it comes to the presidency right now, owing as much to demographics and the Electoral College as their to their own madness, in congressional districts and statehouses they are doing just fine. More than fine. Because stupidly complacent moderates and liberals skip midterm and off-year elections, the most extreme corners of the Republican Party control state legislatures, city councils, school boards, and, oh yes, Congress. So maybe the White House is a tougher climb for the GOP right now, they are otherwise sitting very, very pretty.

So to sum up, Trump will be the nominee of the Republican Party because he is exactly what the GOP has been training its electorate to want. And while it may cost them the White House (or at least I really, really hope so), it’s only going to strengthen their determination and tighten their grip on every other aspect of government they control. And that’s where the real problem is.

The Trump-Loving GOP McCain Helped Create

Photos by Frank Plitt and David Shankbone
I keep starting and then deleting tweets that convey my overall feeling about the whole Trump-v-McCain slap fight going on right now. I know that if I’m not careful, I’ll trip a wire. But this morning, via @VideoSawyer, I find an essay by Jim Wright that, while not a tweet, gets the point across very well. You really have to read the whole thing, because it cleverly builds to a kind of crescendo, but here’s a taste of what I mean:

Donald Trump is the face of the modern Republican party.

Trump has been polling at the top of the GOP field and you’re just now figuring out what a douchebag he is? Well, that’s just plain hysterical.

Trump badmouthed old Johnny Walnuts, insulted his military service, did he?

And you’re all insulted and outraged? Heh heh, sorry Mr. Veteran, Sir. I have no idea where Little Donny learned that behavior from, no idea. Bad, Donny, bad! You apologize to this faggoty liberal pinko commie traitor right now!

Gee, I wonder where Little Donny learned those words, learned his contempt, learned to Swiftboat a veteran. Gee, I wonder.

Donald Trump is the GOP personified.

Almost as important, though, is Wright’s addendum to the post, where he explains that McCain’s life as a public figure is entirely fair game, that he has “no use” for the senator from Arizona, but that whatever else, “he went when called.”

He may have been the bottom of his class and an admittedly poor pilot, but he met the standards and he did the job. If that’s not courage, I don’t know what is …

And I keep looking for a 140-character way to say all of this, and I can’t. Trump is the ideal 2015 Republican, all jingoistic bluster, and will thereby say lots and lots of awful things. One awful thing among many is this offensive nonsense diminishing the courage and years of unthinkable suffering endured by McCain when a prisoner of war. But I also want to get across a kind of gentle reminder, that as a politician — with only the rarest of exceptions when some tiny, shriveled, death-rattle of a conscience emerges from his grizzled gray matter — John McCain is and has been a cynical, pompous, petty, pandering, entitled, sniveling, backward, show pony who also happens to have the political media machine entirely in his pocket, a machine still under the absurd impression that he is some sort of straight-taking “maverick.” (This image was as as transparently false in 1999 and 2000 as it is today, but who cares.)

John McCain, through his behavior as a politician and his enabling of the Republican noise machine, has helped make the modern GOP that now swoons at the braying of an ass like Trump.

So Donald Trump is, predictably, a detestable subhuman, as Wright says, “all 31 flavors of GOP crazy,” and they deserve him. But let’s not further gild the monumental pedestal, festooned with TV monitors and news tickers, upon which McCain already sits. Enduring five years of torture while in the service of one’s country gives you the right to be called hero. Being insulted by Donald Trump does not. Let’s keep these things separate, please.

Jettison the Brain it No Longer Requires (A Flashback to 2009)

Image by Nick Hobgood

In March of 2009, I discovered the perfect metaphor for the GOP in the animal kingdom. Now that the presidential race is getting going, and fools like Donald Trump and George Pataki and every other yahoo you can imagine is lining up for the big brawl, I thought it might be fun to revisit this six-year-old post, very much at Republicans’ expense. (The original post itself is lost from the Web, but I found it in an old archive folder on my hard drive.)

Of course the references are dated (Bush was president, for one, and we still referred to the Tea Party as teabaggers), but I think the substance holds.

[Time-travel sound effects – March, 2009]

I am very much enjoying Natalie Angier’s witty science primer, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Little did I know that it would give me a brilliant insight into the decidedly nonscientific world of politics.
Witness page 173, where she describes the curious behavior of one particular creature:

. . . the tunicate, or sea squirt, is a mobile hunter in its larval stage and thus has a little brain to help it find prey. But on reaching maturity and attaching itself permanently to a safe niche from which it can filter-feed on whatever passes by, the sea squirt jettisons the brain it no longer requires. “Brains are great consumers of energy,” writes Peter Atkins, a professor of chemistry at Oxford University, “and it is a good idea to get rid of your brain when you discover you have no further need of it.”

Now, am I crazy, or is this not the the perfect analogy for the modern Republican Party? After many painful years of having to “justify” “beliefs” and “policies” with “reasons” and “evidence” — all of which requires energy-consuming thought — now they have Fox News to tell them to have teabag protests for no discernible reason. The point was to be angry, not thinky.

Unfair? Okay, well, you can’t possibly argue with the sea squirt as analogous to the Bush presidency. Prizing the informational processing power of his “gut” over his brain, relying on instinct and faith over data and reflection. Bush (I assume) never physically ejected his gray matter onto the Oval Office carpet, but he might as well have. For a guy who slept as much as he did, you can bet he was looking for ways to conserve energy. What better way than to shut down a major organ he wasn’t using anyway?

There’s something sublime about this sea quirt metaphor. The GOP’s wholesale rejection of the intellect, their disdain for the educated, their anxiety over science, none of it because they are bad, per se, but because they have adapted to the environment in which they live. Finding that their brains were doing them no good whatsoever, that thoughtful, intellectual discourse was getting them nowhere, they hit the eject button and got Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and Glenn Beck. Now they need waste no more precious energy on building neurons and firing synapses. They are a miracle of evolution.

[End time travel.]