America’s Primary System Is Doomed

If the primaries fail to produce candidates who can win and govern, parties will eventually change them.

Scene at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida
Scene at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida (Chicago History Museum/Declan Haun)

For Americans, the presidential election is interminable. Most serious candidates begin to explore their options a year before the first primaries. One by one, they declare their candidacy through the summer. The fall is spent pandering, pleading and pointlessly debating. Then, finally, come the primaries that winter.

With a rather small and economically marginal state Iowa leading the pack, followed by yet another rather small and economically marginal state, New Hampshire. Both set the tone for victory or defeat: both are often responsible for who leads the United States next.

To outsiders, this can all seem nonsensical; hell, it can seem irrational even to Americans with big city dwellers wondering why they and their millions must perk up and pay attention to little Iowa and New Hampshire.

But as so often, there is a geopolitical answer to the madness.

First, it’s important to understand the function of the primaries: to democratize a very large, very diverse republican nation state

The American is very clear: America is not, and never has been, a full democracy. It’s a federal republic and that was long-term strategic choice made by the elites of 1789.

While democracies often feel more genuine, they are not great systems for large nation states. In a true democracy, a majority rules. But if a nation state is diverse, such a majority must invariably trod rough shed over a minority. That could a political, ethic, religious or even generational minority, but it’s inevitable on a long enough timeline. If that minority is numerous enough, and trodden enough, they have the power to destabilize and even break up nation states.

Case in point? Belgium. You’d think the headquarters of NATO and the de facto capital of the EU would be a bastion of geopolitical stability. But Belgium is just one election from wiping itself off the map. That’s because its Dutch-speaking majority invariably has trampled over its French-speaking minority. This isn’t the kind of oppression you’d normally think would kill a nation state; mostly it’s minor annoyances, chips on cultural shoulders and minor grievances that have escalated to the point where Belgium goes long periods without a government.

From the standpoint of power, this is a terrible position to be in. Belgium’s highly democratic nature actually undermines its power. Were Belgium more federal or more republican, the Flemish might not feel quite the need to bolt.

This is a huge reason why America functions much better as a republic. People tend to forget the sheer size of the United States — it’s the fourth largest by land (third largest when including ocean territory) and third largest by population. America is right behind China by land and population.

Which means that the United States must develop elaborate systems to protect its many invariable minorities so it can be freer to project power elsewhere.

The first system they came up with? Rich white men

The first established rich white men as the bastions of the republic: only they could vote and hold office. This made a great deal of sense in an age of limited literacy and simple technology. The federal government didn’t have the people or the tech to project power into every aspect of America; rather, the major decisions involved a handful of major cities and ports like New York, Washington DC, Boston and Charleston. Everyone else went about their lives as though the federal government didn’t exist.

This meant national decisions really only affected the handful of locations most important to the central government. The Founding Fathers really hoped to avoid political parties for this reason: they understood factionalism would divide up these power centers into intractable forces, much as the late Roman Republic was divided between the inflexible optimates and the erratic populares. Invariably, such factionalism invites someone like a Caesar, something the Founding Fathers hoped to avoid.

But over time, it became necessary to bring parties into the political fabric of the United States in order to accommodate the disparate voices of its vast size. The parties were strictly hierarchical: lower-level officials passed on requests to higher-level ones, reaching the top officials who would make decisions on behalf of the whole party in the smoky backrooms of legend. These would become the national platforms for the elections.

And that worked well enough until technology and population changed so much as to overwhelm that system

Following the changes of World War II and the 1950s, the United States was no longer a simple enough place to allow a trickle up system to work. But because of its size, reform took a while. Only when crisis erupted did the political parties realize they had to incorporate a new method of gathering information from their voters.

This crisis was Watergate. Had Richard Nixon spied on his foes in 1872 rather than 1972, he’d probably have gotten away with it: limited technology and a lower population would have meant such news would have taken a long while to spread while a lower literacy rate would kept many from caring. But shifts in education and technology meant the Watergate scandal took down Nixon and both parties realized their system of backroom deals no longer suited the modern age.

Thus the primaries. Originally, the primaries did not mean to mobilize large groups of voters but only the most committed and informed. This was the backroom elites writ large: avid newspaper readers, educated partisans, etc. would vet candidates to make them less scandal prone. In order to balance the vast gulf between the urban coasts and the rural rest, small states like Iowa and New Hampshire were allowed to begin the process of selection; this sop to the rural provides balance and protection to these economic and social minorities without threatening the interests of the coasts.

This worked well enough for decades. Relatively small groups of partisans made rational choices for decades. No further presidents were undone by scandal.

But as society has grown more complicated, the primary system is also less capable of of responding to its many demands

Remember the primary system is meant to solve the inherent problem of the United States: how to mollify the vast population while balancing the huge geopolitical needs of the nation state. Americans cannot, as a whole, be trusted to carry out the long-term American grand strategy of keeping Europe divided under American domination: quite frankly, people have better things to do. But Americans must feel they have a voice in such distant, easily misunderstood affairs.

Part of society’s increasingly complication is the result of the Information Age. Americans are less able than ever of discerning fact from fiction: the static of the Information Age makes many a voter a low-information voter. To shortcut the whole process, Americans have resorted to political tribalism, refusing to believe the other side while embracing everything within their own echo chamber.

That has gone alongside an increased understanding of just how important the primaries are. Once the realm of relative elites, they are now the fodder of the rank and file: Democrats and Republicans understand that the primaries are the only place where they have a shot of getting their true views heard.

In a way, this might seem like a good thing. Instead, however, the increased democratization has destabilized the whole system.

Hence Trump, Cruz, Sanders, etc.

The primaries were meant to filter candidates, not empower tribal ones. But with more and more people voting in the primaries, tribalism has grown worse. The political tribes of the Republicans and Democrats don’t have much of an eye to the election in November, let alone proper governance. They seek the victory of purity. That the word “revolution: is bandied about with much abandon should worry everyone: revolutions are rarely nice affairs.

This is the primary system breaking down. The primaries were meant to empower the committed and rational partisans who could screen candidates better than the backroom dealers. That worked for a while, but now the primaries are drowned in a sea of voters who are not bringing that attitude to the table. Voters are interested in selecting one of their own, not someone electable.

But the primary system is not law and could be done away with readily

For party elites, 2016 is the first unequivocal proof that the primary system no longer serves their interests. The primaries seem quite likely to elect narrowly interested candidates whose mandate will be confrontation rather than compromise. That’s bad news for the superpower; it’s also intolerable and won’t last.

If the primary system selects such confrontational candidates, it will doom the primary system. The primary systems were created and designed by the parties themselves; they can be undone at will. If the parties see primaries creating candidates who can’t govern, the parties will ditch the primaries.

But what would replace it? Likely, a system would emerge that would limit the democratization of the candidate selection process — certain delegates, for example, could be selected by party elite. Elites, meanwhile, would need to adjust their platforms radically to adopt to the new electorate. Whoever wins 2016 could well force both parties to redefine themselves.

It’s been forty years; the time to redo the primaries is coming, but only when the geopolitical need of the United States demands it.

The primary system is increasingly erratic and inefficient; 2016 is just the more glaring example. It will likely take a full ineffective presidency for the primaries to undergo drastic reform. A bad presidency would threaten America’s geopolitical situation; elites would have no choice but to address it. That may be coming soon.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, February 3, 2016.