The story of primary elections in America part three: The new party bosses

Changing the primary system will be difficult. But the parties should try it.

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This is part three of a three-part series. Part one, which explains how primaries and the permanent campaign became part of US political life, can be found here. Part two, which compares America’s primary system with that in other developed democracies like the UK, can be found here.

Something of the “behind the scenes” horse-trading of closed parties, like the Australian Labor or Liberal parties, sits uneasy with many Americans. You never quite know to whom your representative might owe their job. 

It’s an uneasiness stretching back to the 20th century progressive reform movement, which set-out to negate the influence of party bosses. As in the past, modern voters are rightly uncomfortable with the notion that a closed preselection might indebt an elected representative to factional warlords within the party – elected and unelected alike. 

To many, the concept of party powerbrokers conjures imagery of smoky backrooms. Outsiders, and some insiders, might argue the principles of party influencers fit best with TS Elliot’s The Hollow Men; “Shape without form, shade without colour.” What do these so-called ‘faceless men’ stand for and to whom are they accountable? 

But, for the most part, these characterisations are just a hangover of figures like Boss Tweed, the legendarily corrupt Democratic New York party grandee. Party powerbrokers in Australia and the United Kingdom are more likely to have characteristics which could better be ascribed to an outgoing neighbour or charismatic colleague.

Far from Boss Tweed, modern influence derived from locality and ideology can toss up some unlikely players: an elderly lady who, over decades, has signed up her family, friends and neighbours, to vote in party preselections; a long-time unionist whose members trust his judgement on the candidate who will best serve their interests; or a prominent party member who flies the flag for a particular ideology or strain of thought on policy or political strategy.

It is true that negotiated agreements within closed parties are opaque and party bosses can sometimes be prone to preoccupation with internal machinations, rather than the needs of the electorate. It is these tricky machinations which some credit with the centralisation of party power; centralisation which, for example, enabled Prime Minister Boris Johnson to recently expel 21 of his own MPs from the party without consulting their preselectors. 

At some level this is the nature of politics: power imbalance, alliances of convenience, and some apparatchiks who are too clever by half. And just like nature, it seems you cannot change the laws of politics: the introduction of primaries in the United States appear to have intensified the problem of ever-centralising power.

Primary elections are long and long elections are expensive. Campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets.org claims in total $6.5bn was spent on the 2016 election up and down the ballot. Some $2.4bn of that was spent on the presidential election alone. Reporting documents show Hillary Clinton spent $768m on the campaign to Donald Trump’s $398m.

According to Professor Larry J. Sabato of University of Virginia, the starting-gun for this financial arms race went off in the 1970s, when President Carter, the second candidate nominated by primary, spent $13.6m on his lengthy primary campaign. Adjusted for inflation, that is still eight times less than what President Obama spent on his 2008 primary. 

To complicate this further, the advent of murky Political Action Committees – so-called “dark money” groups – makes it difficult to tell where candidates’ spending-money really comes from. And so, counterintuitively, the creation of marathon campaigns has merely shifted the power away from party bosses, who at least share an ideology and an interest in party success, to other, extraneous but still unaccountable, monied entities.

In Australia and the United Kingdom, the primacy of the party machine ensures candidates have less direct interaction with their donors. Most parties also maintain their own revenue streams through ownership of a managed investment fund, established with the sole purpose of donating to the party. In closed preselections, running for a party’s nomination incurs no financial cost, making democracy more accessible to working class people, saving the party war chest for general elections, and assuring greater confidence in candidates’ independence.

Here to Stay

Despite being a more recent institution of American democracy, primary elections appear here to stay for the foreseeable future. The history of primary elections in the United States is a reflection of just how much the country has lost its appetite for institutional reform. The United States has a primary problem. Primary elections encourage firebrand candidates and party disunity while relying on donations from billionaires and businesses: modern-day party bosses. 

Despite this, declining party memberships in Australia and the UK make US-style primaries an enticing option to recommit voters to parties and halt the growing tendency towards swing voting. In eager haste to make their mark on the organisation, one of the first announcements newly minted party chairs and secretaries often give is a commitment to “democratising” party votes and trialling US–style primaries. 

But the case for opening-up parties deserves serious scrutiny. The ramifications for democracy writ-large are great but not good. Both major Australian parties have now joined both major British parties in giving all party members a say in who should become leader of the parliamentary caucus. A multitude of factors have driven the polarisation of British politics, and while not the cause, these institutional changers have enabled this fracture and encouraged firebrand politics.

For obvious reasons, serious democratic reform doesn’t quite fit with the unrestrained passions of firebrand politics. And for obvious reasons, we are unlikely to find a fix to party primaries any time soon. In the United States, agreement on institutional norms and rules is fleeting. Without a compact between the parties, change to the primary system would require one party to be the first to make the leap. The effect that this change, if done unilaterally, would have on a party’s electoral chances are unpredictable and uncharted. 

One also cannot deny how painful this change would be. Donors and other monied interests would rightly see any move as threat to their influence. Further, ultra-local delegates, enjoying the attention and authority that comes with nominating conventions every four years, are well–served by the status quo. They would be powerful opponents of rule changes. Yet, we know American democracy can work without primary elections, they have done so before and they can do so again. 

The house caucuses in the Democratic and Republican parties should exercise their power to rewrite the rules. Congressmen and women should view themselves as representative of their district and their local party members, and accordingly they should preselect the party’s presidential candidates. 

To parties considering the move to primaries: tread with caution. Democracies across the globe already show gradients of the “primary problem” and are proof that the US can and should turn back the clock on this institution. Democrats and Republicans demonstrate little desire to abolish open primaries, but let their experience be a warning to parties around the world: the cure for democracy can hardly be more democracy.

Corbin Duncan studies Government and History at Harvard University and formerly worked as a political advisor in Australia. He tweets @DuncanCorbin.