I published a longish essay with that title today in the Washington Post, at the excellent Monkey Cage blog. Here are a few excerpts:
Many Americans will be surprised to learn that few democracies give primary elections a dominant role in selecting their parties’ nominees for the country’s highest office. In most systems, elected party members take a major role in choosing or filtering potential candidates. . . .
But starting in the 1970s, the United States stumbled — and I do mean stumbled — into a system that eliminated any meaningful role for party figures. Instead, unmediated popular participation, through caucuses and primary elections, came to control the way we choose presidential nominees.
That uniquely populist system, which we now take for granted, has culminated in our current, stunning moment. Two essentially freelance, independent political figures — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — will either represent, or come surprisingly close to representing, the nation’s two major parties in the 2016 election.
The piece then explores the history of the presidential nomination process to explain how we got to our current moment, with the aim of exposing two conventional but false stories about that history.
First, the system that we used for most of the 20th century, until the 1970s, was not the party-boss controlled system with little popular input that it’s often portrayed as being. Instead, that system involved a mix of primary elections and institutional party input. As I put it:
In this mixed system, the popular primaries and the party leaders checked and balanced each other’s influence. No committee designed the system in a single moment to create the “perfect” mix of popular and party roles; as often happens with democratic institutions, the system emerged from competing pressures over time.
Nonetheless, primaries kept the system from being too closed. “Outsiders” could challenge existing party hierarchy and orthodoxy and force the parties to remain responsive, at least up to a point. Meanwhile, the institutional party figures had incentives to put their weight behind candidates likely to hold the party’s factions together, run a competitive election, govern effectively and reflect the party’s general ideology.
Second, while it is widely known that this system was transformed almost overnight in the 1970s to our current primary-election dominated system, what is much less well known is that the post-1968 reforms were not designed to create such a populist system. Instead, that system came about despite the effort of these reformers to preserve an important institutional role for the parties. The piece describes some of the causes that nonetheless radically transformed our nomination process into the most highly populist one among the major, established democracies. The piece concludes:
Despite its accidental birth, that’s the origin of the populist, primary-dominated system we have today — a system that has virtually eliminated any filtering or mediating role for the institutional party and made our current moment possible. As this “modern” system was taking shape, leading political scientists warned that it:
might lead to the appearance of extremist candidates and demagogues, who unrestrained by allegiance to any permanent party organization, would have little to lose by stirring up mass hatreds or making absurd promises.
As today’s New York Times story already notes, once the fall election is over — and depending on the outcome — there are likely to be major controversies between those who will seek to recapture more of a role for the institutional party in controlling who its nominees are and those who will seek to push the system along even more participatory and populist lines.