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  • The Trappings of Democracy
  • John Frederick Martin (bio)

Across the world, no major political party selects its nominees for high office through plebiscites open to all voters, except for U.S. parties. The British Labour Party chooses its leaders at a national convention, dominated by members of parliament, union leaders, and local constituency delegates. In France, a country of neraly 60 million people, some 300,000 members of the Socialist Party participated in the nominating fight to select Segolene Royal as party leader. Pasok, in Greece, recently revived the ancient Athenian practice of selecting nominators by lot, convening a random group of party members to interview candidates, deliberate, and select nominees for local office. Through most of the 20th century, Tory grandees in Britain left voters entirely out of the consultation, sounding out only each other about who they wanted for party leader and, more importantly, who they didn't want, so as to coalesce around the least objectionable grandee. That kind of deliberation is the polar opposite of what occurs in the American system, but all major democracies occupy a place on the spectrum closer to that pole than to ours.

In spite of its uniquely plebiscitary character—to some degree because of it—the American system is flawed; and as we commence another long, presidential nominating season, it is worth considering why that is so. Our method of sequential state contests eliminates most candidates at the very start of the process; that premature elimination of candidates deprives the vast majority of voters of choice, when choice should be the purpose of elections. Equally undemocratic is the predominance of plurality victories, which produce a winner who often is not preferred by most voters. Money—more than elsewhere in the world—is incongruously a requirement of our ostensibly democratic system. The run-up to the nomination drags on and on, making the campaign last almost as long as the presidential term itself. Because of the fundraising and the immense time commitment, many good people do not run, and the field often seems unnaturally constricted, even strange. The nominating process has a powerful logic (at once democratic and federalist) of its own, but in practice it has become so quirky and undemocratic, so divorced from party goals and good government, as to become a cause for concern.1

Concern is all the more warranted, because the nominating step of our two-step presidential selection process is the more consequential one. In the general election the choice is between just two people (barring third party candidates), but those two will have emerged from the earlier stage when the eligible pool was limitless and the choice was vast. The alternative left behind in the second stage is but one, but the alternatives discarded in the first stage, any one of whom might have made a better president, are infinite. So a democracy had better get the first stage right.

It is hard to imagine the important role that a political party—part club, part church, and part saloon—once played in an overwhelmingly rural society. Party affiliation helped connect people to their state and country, to the world beyond their isolated lives. The rare visit of a state or even national leader, torchlight parades, all-day caucus meetings aggregating neighbors from surrounding hamlets—these party activities alleviated what Karl Marx unkindly called the idiocy of rural life. Voters, convening normally in caucuses at the county and congressional district level, would select delegates to a state convention, who in turn would select delegates to the national convention, to choose the party's nominee. As historian Alan Ware has stressed, from the age of Jackson, nominating politics have been characterized by mass participation.2

Although that system and ours today share mass participation of voters, there are differences between the two. In the 19th century, once national delegates emerged from this multitiered process they were not pledged to a candidate. Pledging was not logical when candidates did not campaign for the nomination but rather indicated their availability; nor did it come naturally to delegates who themselves were prominent citizens and party leaders (survivors of this filtered, layered selection process), "from society's upper crust," as...


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