Populism and Democratic Institutional Design: Methods of Selecting Candidates for Chief Executive in the United States and Other Democracies

As part of the critique I’ve been developing in recent years (e.g., here) over the excessively populist direction of a number of post-1960s political “reforms,” I have turned my attention to raising questions about changes we’ve made to the presidential nomination process.

I wrote briefly about these changes to the nomination process for a popular audience before the 2016 general election (here).  I’ve now turned to a more comprehensive academic study of the general subject of how democracies nominate candidates for party leader and/or chief executive.  With Professor Stephen Gardbaum, I’ve posted this article, with the title above, which both describes the changes made in the 1970s to the process in the United States and shows how much of an outlier among democracies the “purely populist” method is that we now use in the United States.  Here is the abstract:

Donald Trump would most likely not be President but for the institutional change made in the 1970s, and analyzed here, in the nature of the presidential nomination process.

In the 1970s, the United States shifted almost overnight from the methods that had been used for nearly 200 years to select party nominees, in which official representatives of the political parties played the major role in deciding the parties’ candidates for President, to a purely populist mode (primaries and caucuses) for selecting presidential nominees. This article explores the contrast between nomination processes that entail a central role for “peer review” – in which party leaders have a central voice in the selection of their parties’ nominees – and purely populist selection methods, such as currently used in the United States, in which ordinary voters completely control the selection of nominees and party figures have no special role.

The first half of the article is historical and focuses on the United States. The second half is comparative and explores how other major democracies structure the process of choosing party leaders and candidates for chief executive. In the historical sections, we seek to show both how radical the change was that was made in the 1970s and yet how accidental, contingent, and inadvertent this transformation was. The “framers” of these changes did not actually intend to create the system with which we ended up, in which the primaries and caucuses completely determine the parties’ nominees. The comparative sections show that the U.S. system is an extreme outlier among major democracies: in no other democracy is the selection completely controlled by the mass of ordinary voters. Most other democracies use systems of pure peer review to select candidates for chief executive; or use systems that mix elements of peer review with popular participation; and in other ways continue to give official representatives of the parties much greater say than in the United States over the selection of the parties’ nominees for Chief Executive.

The institutional design through which democracies choose nominees who compete to become a nation’s Chief Executive is among the most consequential features in the design of democratic elections. Yet there is surprisingly little scholarship that explores this issue in detail. This article also contributes to the general analysis of the rise of populist politics in many democracies today by showing how the institutional design for how party nominees are chosen can enable or constrain how easily and quickly populist political forces are able to capture control of government.


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