The Electoral Process
Perhaps we are far enough removed from the recent election to consider the efficacy of the institutional mechanisms and processes involved in selecting a president.
The 2016 presidential election was a virtual case study in the flaws of the US constitutional democracy. The process started with the extra-constitutional nominating process of the main political parties. The Republicans began promisingly with a large field of candidates and an open primary process. The debates, primaries and campaigns immediately devolved into a spectacle that made pro wrestling look good and seemed to virtually preclude a real discussion of the issues facing the country. As in an unsupervised school yard, the meanest, most foul mouthed bully emerged triumphant.
The Democrats took the opposite approach blocking potential rivals to anoint the current member of the Clinton "royal family" just as a certain faction of the Republicans had hoped to continue the Bush dynasty with Jeb. Just as Jeb was derailed, Clinton also was nearly upset by an irascible 75 year old socialist who wasn't even a Democrat. The process resulted in the two most disliked candidates ever to run for the presidency. Ultimately the candidate receiving the most votes lost the election complements of the founders' Electoral College mechanism.
Of course as we despair at this spectacle it is useful to remember Churchill's famous remark about democracy as "the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." While that may be true it still begs the question is this the best we can do? Does the system need improvement and what would that be?
There are three essential elements of the process that deserve consideration: the selection of candidates; the process of voting ; and process by which a winner is determined. These elements will be considered in a series of 3 separate blog postings. The first one is presented here.
Part I -Candidate Selection
Key institutions in presidential elections are the political parties and their processes for selecting the candidates for the general election. They are critically important because for all practical purposes they provide the general population with only two viable choices for the presidency. From over 150 million natural born Americans over age thirty-five who are eligible to run for president voters are given a choice of just two. Despite this, political parties, primaries, nominating conventions, delegates and super-delegates do not appear in the constitution.
Not only is the entire process extra-constitutional the very idea was anathema to most of the founding fathers. John Adams put it this way: "There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."
Washigton warned repeatedly about the negative impact of political parties and factions including in his Farwell Address: "Let me … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party."
This was all to no avail because factions and the early incarnations of politcical parties actually started before the Constitution was ratified (the Federalist papers were basically the organ of a particular faction) and after the consensus in the selection of Washington as the first president future contests were racous affairs of competeing factions and parties.
It is easy to think that the way the parties select their candidates today is the way it has always been done but for both parties the current system is relatively recent and subject to change. While virtually every state held a primary election in 2016 as recently as 1968 Hubert Humphery secured the Democratic nomination without ever competing in a single primary. This was still the era of authoritarian machine politics as embodied in Chicago's Mayor Daley who controlled the city process and determined the candidates.
Should modifications be considered, such as a national primary, proportional allocation of delagates or rank order voting? Would any of these approaches significantly improve the selection process? Why would either of the major parties consider such changes?
Of course the elephant in the room not yet mentioned is money. Particularly since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision there has been renewed debate about the role of money in elections and campaign finance reform. But Citizens United and the financing mechanisms are only different from where we began in form, not substance. We like to think that the USA was created by revolution - that noble hard working Americans rose up to throw off tyranical British rule. But it wasn't really a revolution, rather it was the displacing of one set of elites with another. The American "revolutionaries" were wealthy, landed gentry who wanted to run things their way rather than the way the Britsh elites wanted it. The French had a real revoluntion when they beheaded the elites and the rabble were in control. That was not what the leaders of the American independence movement had in mind.
In fact the legal historian Michael Klarman argues that "the Constitution is undemocratic because it was designed to protect wealthy merchants and landowners from the redistributive tendencies of popular government." The title of Klarman's book says it all: Framers' Coup.
Should political parties operate outside the Constitution, often beyond any law or regulation? Should the parties decide on their own how presidential debates should be structured, who is allowed to participate and even what questions can be asked? Should political money be unlimited and often anonymous? If not, who should regulate the process and the parties? Remember when the League of Women Voters used to organize the debates? They quit because they thought the process had become too tainted. And while it may be bad now it was probably worse in the past and it is possible to make it worse again.
So give that some thought before we discuss the voting process in Part II in about a week.
One Small Voice
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