Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Peeve: Primaries

Here's a peeve where I break with a lot of my liberal & progressive friends. Most of them want a return to the old Washington State primary system, on grounds that "that's what the people want."

Well, screw that. We're not just democratic, we're a constitutional republic. That means we don't always let the people have what they want every single moment. We make them think long and hard about it and force them to arrive at a partial consensus before changing the fundamental rules.

One of the fundamental rules that the people haven't taken the trouble to change is the one acknowledging the right of the people to assembly. The 1st Amendment told Congress not to mess with peaceable assembly. A later amendment took that to the states.

The argument the parties used to end the Washington State primary was based on that. The parties have a right to assemble. Those assembled have a right to choose their new members. They do not have to tolerate party crashers. But the old system let people vote Democrat on one slate, Republican on another, Green on another.

The parties were right to make that objection and I'm glad the old system was struck down. But that decision didn't go far enough for me. I want to see presidential primaries of all kinds outlawed in all states.

Why should taxpayers pay for a process designed to help the major political parties read their minds? If they want to poll us to figure out who among them is electable, let them pay for the polling. There should be no state-run presidential primaries to determine who the parties should nominate. If a party can't do its own nominating it's not a party.

Also, look at the results of yesterday's Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses on the Democratic side. Obama won almost every single caucus (he lost in American Samoa.) Clinton won a couple more primaries than Obama did. This is exactly what I would expect. The people who participate in caucuses tend to be more passionate partisans who don't mind getting up and arguing for their candidates. The people who vote in primaries include the political couch potatoes who are less likely to follow politics and more likely to vote for an old familiar name. Or, in many contests, they aren't even members of the party in questions.

I just heard Mark Shields assert that party partisans support Clinton and that Obama's strength is with youth and independents. Mark Shields is confusing party partisanship with age. The people who voted for Obama at rates of 3 to 1 and 4 to 1 in state caucuses yesterday proved their partisanship.

The presidential primaries favor candidates that are relatively centrist, because they must appeal to independents and cross-overs. It is no coincidence that we have been having closer presidential elections just as the parties have been resorting more and more to primaries. By trying to appeal in their nomination process to voters outside their own parties, the two major parties have created an institution that compels them each to resemble the other.

So "Democratic" and "Republican" end up being mere brands, and the people have fewer choices, and candidates with bold new ideas that break with the thinking of the general public don't get a chance to be nominated by either party.

The purpose of the 1st Amendment was to prevent the government from taking actions that would suppress the free flow of ideas. Primaries look democratic, but by helping to take people with new ideas out of play they actually undermine democracy, by reducing genuine choices.

Finally, a caucus is a place for people to argue their views and try to persuade other voters to their candidates and platforms. People say that's an argument against caucuses.

Oh, gee, it's the United States of America of 2008, and we can't be bothered to speak out about our views. We have to do politics anonymously?

You all do know don't you that even states with primaries still have caucuses and it's the people who attend them that argue the platforms of the parties and decide what directions they should go in?

By dispensing with argument, primaries add to the impression that people have no real political voice.

The voice is there, you just have to use it.

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