A shrewd political observer once said that Americans rarely solve their most pressing political problems; instead, they amicably bid them goodbye.
Take the primary system by way of example. The primary system itself has been attended, especially during the current presidential election campaign, with glaring problems that pretty nearly everyone has studiously ignored. It is the primary system that has given us two of the most unpalatable presidential candidates in U.S. history. Nearly 50 percent of voters on either side of the political spectrum this year will be voting against the presidential candidates, according to a September Pew Research poll.
Primaries lengthen the political season, an unintended result of a “participatory democracy” that benefits news producers, editors and candidates but few others.
The current primary season began on the Republican side 18 months ago when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for the presidency. In due course, 16 other Republican hats were thrown into the ring. After the Republican Nominating Convention dispersed 16 months and millions of dollars later, Donald Trump, whose conservative bona fides and political affiliation still remain in question, emerged with the Republican nomination clenched in his teeth. Among the vanquished also-rans were three anti-establishment Republicans – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ron Paul – all Tea Party favorites and thorns in the side of the ancient Republican Party regime.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was almost defeated by Socialist Democratic senator from the People’s Republic of Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Votes tallied at the Democratic Nominating Convention showed Sanders winning a not inconsiderable 1,865 delegates before he put forward a motion to nominate by voice vote Hillary Clinton, who, hacked e-mails later disclosed, had turned her efforts to subverting Sanders’s presidential bid.
During his primary campaign, Sanders refused to dwell on Clinton’s e-mail scandal, remarking to a smugly smiling Hillary Clinton during one of their debates that America was “sick of hearing about your damn e-mails," in hindsight a fatal strategic mistake. Sanders did mention that his campaign had been subverted by the Democratic National Committee, a charge later confirmed by hacked e-mails that Sanders thought tedious and not worth mentioning.
Almost everyone, except true-believers on both sides of the current political barricades, will agree that both Republican and Democratic Party nominees are scarred with defects that would not have made it past the jeweler’s eyes of the party bosses of yore.
The last real Democratic Party boss in Connecticut, John Bailey, would not have failed to notice both Mrs. Clinton’s glaring defects, not the least of which was her husband, and Mr. Sanders’s leftist drift from what used to be called among Democrats the “Vital Center” of American politics.
Mr. Bailey would have allowed liberalism, but not libertinism, and he would have put the kibosh on Democratic candidates who favored an administrative repeal of any of the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Pragmatic to the bone, Mr. Bailey almost certainly would not have sanctioned a measure to force The Little Sisters of the Poor, first brought to the East Coast of the United States by Abraham Lincoln, to dispense condoms to fellow workers who were not nuns or priests. He also would have counseled against any polity that refused adamantly to make reasonable accommodations with Evangelicals and members of the Catholic Church.
America began to experiment with presidential primaries as early as 1901. From 1936 to 1968 only 20 states deployed primaries, which were useful, progressives realized, in wresting political power and influence from party bosses like Mr. Bailey – and vesting political power… in what?
We now know the answer to this question. Political power and money is now controlled by political party outliers. We have got rid of John Bailey, and replaced him with political PACs that furnish negative ads and dark money in the service of political actors who, petite parties themselves, are independent of either of the major two parties.
Because incumbent politicians are able to tap into money and power resources unavailable to their competitors, the political campaign table has been tilted in favor of incumbents favored by the county’s left of center media – which means that the correlation of forces pushes moderate Democratic candidates off center and, in some cases – c.f. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – very far left. These correlations of force have produced an ever widening, unbridgeable gap between the two major parties.
What Mark Twain said of the weather in New England – everybody talks about it, but no one wants to do anything about it – is also true of the modern primary system, which had been put in place long ago by progressives to mitigate what they felt were the defects of a strong two-party political system.
A party system that once depended upon sometimes corrupt party bosses for financing and direction now depends upon PACs that operate outside campaign-financing laws, provided they do not engage in promoting specific candidates. These party outliers are the wellspring of vicious ads that have only a nodding connection with the truth. The parties themselves are poor.
Primaries have reduced national conventions to rote political thought and action, breaking the indispensable live connection between state and national politics, which is now run by the whimsical nominal heads of parties. In November, the nation will reap what it has sown. This time around, the primary system has allowed access to the presidency of two of the most unloved candidates for the presidency in modern times. And dark politics has produced nation-wide cynicism, dark thoughts and dark deeds.
Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based essayist, mostly on political topics.