For the first time in 28 years, and only the fourth time ever, Minnesota will conduct a state-mandated presidential primary March 3, barely seven weeks from now. Early voting begins Jan. 17. And last week, the contest’s rules came under fire.
The state Supreme Court heard and rejected arguments Thursday over whether the state’s new primary law is unconstitutional because it allows political party leaders to limit which candidates will be listed on the primary ballots.
Controversy also continues over the state’s major parties having access to the names of primary voters and which party’s ballot they choose.
The primary itself, coming on a potentially decisive “Super Tuesday” along with contests in more than a dozen other states, will put Minnesota in the center ring of the national political spectacle in a way its long-standing precinct caucus system never did, what with its more ambiguous results and mysterious processes.
But it’s these debates over the primary’s own processes — and, at bottom, over the proper role of political parties — that shed light on a little-understood mistake behind much of what’s gone wrong in modern American politics.
Simply put, too much reform has deformed our democracy.
So, at least, insist a growing number of so-called “political realists,” who note that, for more than a century, idealistic American reformers have been passing laws and changing party rules to reduce the power of political professionals — the loathsome party “bosses” of old with their political machines and smoke-filled rooms — and boosting the influence of “the people” in choosing candidates and shaping party agendas.
The result of all these purifications, say the realists, has been mostly bad — at least if you regret the bitter polarization and inability to compromise that have plagued American political life ever since we started fixing everything.
The basic “realistic” idea is that our politics were healthier when political bosses’ pragmatic concern for the long-term vote-getting success of their parties provided a more moderating balance to the zealotry of idealists and the ambitions of political superstars.
This idea, which I’ve noted before — that there is such a thing as too much democracy — flies so startlingly in the face of contemporary, power-to-the-people dogma that political realists across the ideological spectrum struggle even to make their analysis understood. Some of the better attempts include Joseph Postell’s “The Rise and Fall of Political Parties in America,” a 2018 paper for the Heritage Foundation; a 2018 book, “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself,” by Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro; and a 2015 e-book from one of the leading voices in this chorus, Jonathan Rauch of Brookings, titled “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy.”
Rauch, with co-author Ray La Raja, also has produced a timely update on the eve of the 2020 primary season in an Atlantic article, “Too Much Democracy is Bad for Democracy.”
Primaries (and to a lesser extent caucuses) became all-powerful in the process of nominating presidential candidates only “as recently as the early 1970s,” Rauch and La Raja write. “Until then, primaries had been more like political beauty contests, which the parties’ grandees could choose to ignore. But after Hubert Humphrey became the Democrats’ 1968 nominee without entering a single primary, outrage in the ranks led the party to put primary voters in charge. Republicans soon followed suit.”
Campaign finance limits (and court rulings) that impoverished parties and strengthened independent fundraising groups, along with liberalized access to debates, have also combined to make crowded primaries the decisive path to nomination. National conventions, where once party insiders dramatically battled on behalf of their regional or ideological champions — only to compromise, in many cases, on moderate, broadly acceptable nominees — are now nothing but political infomercials for winners of the primary tournaments.
While the machinations of party bigwigs gave us such presidents as Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman and Eisenhower, the system we’ve reformed ourselves into gives “dangerously good odds to fringe candidates,” say Rauch and La Raja. They concede that until 2016, leaders in both major parties managed to fend off “insurgents, extremists, and demogogues.” But then came Donald Trump’s hijacking of the GOP nomination, and Bernie Sanders’ near-miss on the Democratic side.
Fifteen candidate names will appear on the Minnesota Democratic primary ballot March 3, potentially fragmenting the vote enough that the winner may not best represent Minnesota Democrats’ desires or best chance to oust Trump.
Too-much-democracy has arrived.
The remedy political realists recommend is not a full return to party bossism but some movement back toward a larger role for political professionals to “vet” and “filter” candidates in combination with grassroots voter input. It can’t happen without the public disavowing what Rauch and La Raja call “democratic fundamentalism” — the “insistence that the remedy for whatever ails democracy must always be more democracy.”
All of which brings us back to the Minnesota primary and its controversies. The lawsuit the state Supreme Court turned aside last week was brought by a little-known GOP presidential candidate and a Minnesota voter who favors his challenge to President Trump. They argued that constitutional rights are violated because the primary law allows leaders of each major party to name the candidates to be listed on their ballot — and state Republican leaders have chosen to list only Trump’s name.
The most revealing feature of this case is that both Secretary of State Steve Simon, a DFLer, and the DFL Party filed briefs with the court supporting the GOP’s right to choose its candidates — without, to be sure, approving the decision to exclude Trump’s challengers.
Simon urged the court to uphold the “major parties’ constitutional freedom of association [and their] First Amendment right to … limit membership … [and] to choose their party leaders without interference … .”
Similar reasoning would seem to support the parties’ right to know who has chosen to vote in their primaries — that is, to participate in their private association’s nomination process. (Whether the parties should be entirely free in how they use that information may be a different question.)
Without a doubt, this debate inspired a record turnout of ironies. Little besides their common interest in defending what remain of political party rights and privileges could unite Minnesota’s Republicans and Democrats in this way.
And Donald Trump — the most amazing result of democracy run amok of all time (as he might put it himself) — is the short-run beneficiary of this attempt to salvage some semblance of parties’ control over their nomination systems.
But turning away from “democratic fundamentalism” has to start somewhere.
D.J. Tice is at firstname.lastname@example.org.