Friday, April 13, 2012

Que Pasa article on primaries

Chile is considering moving to primaries. I wrote a piece for Que Pasa, a weekly here in Santiago, saying that may not be such a good idea.

If you want the Spanish (edited down to a very short version), it's here.  The slightly longer, English version is here:

Primary elections: Who Needs Them? Michael Munger, Duke University

There are debates in Chile about reforming the process by which parties choose candidates. As a political science professor, frequent expert witness in court, and former candidate myself, I can report on a century of US experience. The short answer is that primaries are little more than poorly designed lotteries. Primaries reward extremism, reduce the accountability of parties, and devalue the brand name that parties depend on to represent the voting public.

For most of US history, the parties were entirely responsible for choosing their own candidates. Since these candidates then had to face each other, and the electorate, in the general election, the parties were obliged to try to balance their own ideological goals with genuine leadership ability and experience in administration. The result was true competition among the party's best, a system that gave us great Presidents such as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, the system also often chose weaker leaders, but the point is that the party organization, those who cared about the party, chose the party's standard bearer for the election.

In a primary system, all power is taken out of the hands of the party leadership, and placed into the hands of a fragmented, disorganized group called "the party in the electorate." In most primary elections, turnout is 15% or less, with some votes seeing less than 10% of the eligible electorate. These tend to be the most extreme, most ideological voters, because centrist voters are not interested in primaries. Furthermore, because primary votes often choose between 3, or 5 or even 7 candidates, the results simply reflect random chance. The candidate who happens to be more extreme, or by himself ideologically, will win because all the centrist candidates split the centrist vote. The US system has become increasingly polarized, as extremist voters with ideological motivations have come to dominate the party professionals who are also concerned about electability and leadership.

In one famous example, American Nazi Party leader David Duke decided to run as a Republican in Lousiana. In order to run as a Republican, Mr. Duke needed only to sign a piece of paper. He did not need the permission of "his" party, and in fact the Republicans had no way of stopping him from soiling their party's reputation. Mr. Duke, who routinely wore a full Nazi SS uniform and celebrated the birthday of Adolph Hitler, "won" the 1988 primary for a Louisiana House seat with just 33% of the vote. Many Republicans were forced to work against him supporting other candidates, because they had no control over their own party's candidate.

In a perfect world, a primary system would seem to bring candidate selection and the political process closer to the people. What could be wrong with that? The problem is that, in politics, there are two things that economists call "public good." The first is information: voters don't know much about candidates. The job of parties is to recruit, train, and then put forward the best candidates, the most BLANK leaders. In a primary system, a candidate who is excellent but unknown will never be selected.

The second public good is collective action: the ability to excite voters about the coherent message, and legislative program, of the party. But if the party cannot choose its own candidates, then it cannot possibly present a coherent, attractive program to voters. The party will not even be able to agree among itself, because its own members will represent a confused and incoherent random sample of opinions.

In my work in federal courts in California, Washington, Texas, and Florida, I have written and argued for the position that parties must be able to present a candidate of their choice, and to pursue a legislative program of their choice. Some political scientists go so far as to say that, without responsible parties, democracy itself is impossible. If that is right, and I believe that it is, then a primary system that weakens parties also weakens democracy.

1 comment:

Chris Lawrence said...

For David Duke, you can at least blame the "jungle primary" system in Louisiana, which was ironically designed to produce more centrist candidates (thereby giving conservative, white Democrats a chance in a state increasingly divided between liberal, black Democrats and even-more-conservative, white Republicans) than the closed primary system it replaced.

Oh, and ReCAPTCHA gave me "anguess" as one of my words for the win.