The current political fiasco unfolding in front of us is due in no small part to a deeply flawed primary system in which extremists get to select national candidates. It wasn’t always this way. During the first half of the 20th century, for example, candidates were chosen by party insiders in the proverbial “smoke-filled back rooms.” In some respects, this approach was far better than the current system because it allowed experienced politicians to select candidates who truly had a shot at winning as opposed to just being ideologically pure. However, it was also profoundly undemocratic, and it led to immense corruption as potential candidates tried to buy off party insiders. Clearly, then, we need a third option. While I don’t have a perfect solution, I think the best option is to create a system that borrows from both the pre-1968 model and the current primary model. Specifically, 1/3 of delegates should be like current Democratic “super-delegates.” In other words, they should be made up of people who are party insiders and experienced political operatives, and they shouldn’t be accountable to primary voters. The other 2/3 of delegates should be determined by primaries in all 50 states. For simplicity, I’ll refer to this as the “mixed system.” By combining both systems, we get the best of both worlds.
While a mixed system is certainly not ideal, it is a necessary correction to the flawed nomination process of the status quo. Currently, the selectorate is made up of primarily extremist party fanatics who select candidates unfit for national election. Instead of picking centrist candidates with the best chance of capturing moderate voters, extremists in both parties (though this seems to be more pronounced in the GOP) pick radical candidates who alienate large swaths of the voting public. In short, there is a fundamental disconnect between primary voters and general election voters: Party fanatics believe that a good candidate must be ideologically pure, centrist and independent voters prefer candidates who are more willing to compromise and less rigid in their worldviews. By granting party insiders greater control, professional politicians with actual experience in governing and winning elections would be able to exert a moderating influence on the primary process. Dedicated party voters would still get a say, but the most extreme elements would be blunted. Of course, this system would alienate radicals in both parties, but it would also reassure the moderate and independent voters who actually determine the election. Moreover, by ensuring that extremist loons never have a shot at high office, this process would create a more stable political system for the country.
Some might argue that this is less democratic than the status quo, and that observation is certainly accurate. We must remember, however, that parties are under no obligation to be democratic. Only elections for government office must be democratic; parties are private clubs, and ultimately it’s up to them to decide who they run. After all, nowhere in the Constitution does it mandate that parties use democratic means to determine their candidates. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t even mandate that parties exist at all. They are purely an emergent feature of our republican system of government, nothing more. Also, even though the mixed system is less democratic, it still grants voters a chance to impact the election. With control over 2/3 of the delegates, voters would still be able to override party insiders if there was broad popular support behind a candidate. Moreover, by winning heavily contested state primaries, weaker candidates could prove to party insiders that they are, in fact, capable politicians with a good chance of winning, thus sending a signal and potentially winning over large groups of party insiders.
I wish that primary voters were responsible enough to make mature, rational decisions. Sadly, the growing polarization and radicalization of the electorate and the utterly chaotic 2016 presidential race have left me with only one conclusion: party insiders must acquire more power over the selection of national candidates. A small group of radical, extremist voters should not have this much say over who runs the United States.