By George Friedman
Donald Trump appears to have secured the Republican nomination. Hillary Clinton appears to have secured the Democratic nomination. Each has extremely high negative numbers, which means that they are each extraordinarily disliked by the public. That makes this an extraordinary campaign. Others may recall a prior presidential campaign where both candidates were so profoundly disliked, but I can’t. This will be a campaign based on who is least despised, not who is most admired.
There are many theories on social upheavals and the like. I have offered some. But the reason we are left with two despised candidates is simply this: our horrendous primary system and the caucuses. Primaries have existed for a long time, but they were marginal until the 1970s. States would have conventions to choose the delegates to go to the national convention. The party leaders of each state would select the delegates, who were then rubber stamped by the state convention. Therefore, the party bosses picked the delegates and the candidate. In the 20th century, this system gave us Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. It also produced some duds, but this is still a pretty impressive list for a system that was considered utterly corrupt.
In the 1970s, reformists created primaries or caucuses in almost every state. The party bosses were marginalized and the people put in charge. There was one enormous problem with this system. Most people didn’t bother to vote in the primaries. They didn’t bother for two reasons – one pedestrian and one profound.
The profound reason was that our founders did not see political life as the center of American life. The family, churches, local government and, above all, business ranked well above Washington. Those priorities diffused to the public, most of whom are fairly indifferent about the president until a few weeks before the election. The founders never anticipated the primary system, nor a campaign beginning almost two years before the presidential election. American society is shaped away from national politics, and it shows in the turnout at elections. The pedestrian reason is that most of the primaries take place in the winter on a Tuesday, with breakfast and dinner needing to be prepared, children taken to school and music lessons, and the workday extending into the evening. This is going to depress voter turnout without recourse to the founders.
So the people who vote in the primaries are those who care deeply about politics. From the beginning then, these were people who were not representative of most Americans, who didn’t care all that much. Indifference is not a lever you can pull. In addition, since those who go to the poll care deeply, most of them are heavily ideological, again unrepresentative of the public. They will tend to vote for people based on their values, not their personalities, and therefore people who are remarkably disliked (even before this election) can win. The bosses are still there, but now are called campaign managers and communications directors.
This was not what the advocates of primaries wanted. They expected the public to take control of the elections. But that’s because they couldn’t imagine that the public would not be excited about the opportunity. The advocates lived for this. Most voters were busy with other things, like their lives. The reformers’ inability to grasp this fact created a system in which a relatively small number of people, who are inherently unrepresentative of the public, select the candidate based on ideology and effective organization. It is not obvious that the people elected since 1972 have been worse than those before, but at the very least I can assert with confidence that they haven’t been better.
The reformers marginalized the old bosses, and they created a new problem, which has always been there, but has now become obvious. The primary system has made it possible to nominate people who are disliked by more people than like them. This could not have happened with the party bosses. Being pros, their only interest was in holding onto their positions, and for that they needed to win elections. And to win elections, for starters, you don’t nominate candidates who most people dislike.
The result of this year’s primaries will be the nomination of two candidates with extraordinarily high negative ratings. Neither would have won if the electorate as a whole voted. But the fact is that the electorate as a whole doesn’t vote. Those who do are passionate about matters, and particularly about their own candidates. Those who don’t vote tend to have less passion. The strange outcome this year is due to the primary system’s basic fallacy: that it represents the public. Perhaps it should, but in fact it doesn’t. This primary was driven by those who care about this matter. Few cared about the Republican field, which meant they tended not to vote. Similarly, Bernie Sanders’ support was close behind Clinton’s, which likely would not have been the case if a broader representation of Democrats had voted. And certainly, the oddity of two deeply disliked candidates winning could not have happened except for the primary system. This is a classic case of reforms meant to do good having unintended consequences.
I would argue that judged by this outcome, and by the quality of pre-1972 presidents, the selection of the nomination by professional politicians was a better method than the selection by a small minority of the voting public. The founders understood that democracy has its limits, and that much of the political system ought to be managed by mediating systems – like the Electoral College. They understood that pure democracy needs to be mediated through expertise. Yes, they confused expertise with property, but the basic principle was not wrong.
The state conventions were run by people who were painfully aware that they needed public support to hold their jobs and power. They believed in democracy out of the strongest motive – vulgar self-interest. As a result, they managed the convention, having very carefully determined what the public wanted, and more times than not produced a candidate vetted by the party boss to be supported by the public. This is how FDR got his job and how Eisenhower beat Senator Robert Taft. The bosses wanted a winner. Or to put it in the reformer’s language, the people controlled their actions. The idea of the bosses being simply dictatorial is nonsense. They couldn’t survive that way.
The primary system produced this outcome because most people don’t vote in primaries. In some transcendental moral sense this may be wrong, but it is the reality, and the reformers had visions of banishing corruption from the system. Perhaps they did, but what they created was minority rule. It meant that candidates who are hated by the majority can get nominated. The problem with Trump and Clinton is that both are winning the nomination fair and square, yet the outcome is irrational. Two extremely unpopular people are competing for the presidency, because primaries were held, and most people stayed home. You might say that they deserved what they got, but that’s why the founders made things more complicated than mere democracy. We may deserve this, but the republic doesn’t.