Audrey and I were sitting in the back yard a few weeks ago talking about some political issue in the day’s news, and in the course of the conversation she asked what I would do to fix things. One of my suggestions wasn’t a popular one, but after explaining it a bit she said “you should write a journal entry about that”. I’ve presented thoughts for improving our government in journal entries in the past with varying amounts of seriousness, but here’s another entry that may or may not be worth the pixels that it’s printed on:
There is a lot of chatter these days about empowering the average citizen over party “elites” – getting rid of super delegates, doing away with caucuses, and otherwise increasing the power of the average Joe to choose the leaders of the country. My unpopular opinion is that this solution is exactly the opposite of what is needed, since the increase in direct democracy over the past several decades has correlated with an increase in government dysfunction. Hear me out…
People today lament that our government is incapable of getting things done or of making hard decisions, but the electoral process punishes candidates who address the country’s problems honestly. If Candidate A says that we need to address the deficit by raising taxes and/or cutting popular spending, while Candidate B repeats the well-worn fallacy that if only we trimmed “waste” from the budget then all of our problems would disappear, Candidate B will be elected. If Candidate A says she will make unpopular compromises in order to work with the other party, while Candidate B says that he will never compromise his principles, Candidate B will be elected. And for decades voters have reliably chosen Candidate B, only to discover that the debt continues to rise, and parties have no incentive to make the compromises that would lead to win-win solutions.
As a result, elections today are a contest of who can do the best job of telling the electorate what they want to hear, with candidates who say one thing in a primary and then “pivot” to a different position for the general election, and who voters expect will then “betray” them once in office. More direct democracy will only exacerbate that situation – if a candidate who honestly says that hard choices need to be made is generally going to lose to someone who says no hard choices are necessary, the only people who can win elections are going to be liars and/or incompetent. While I don’t think there is any foolproof solution to that issue, I would make the unpopular proposal that less direct democracy in nominating candidates for national elections (President, Senate, House) would at least keep out the worst charlatans, and thus the primary system should give more power to super delegates and other gatekeepers. The average voter would continue to choose among candidates in the general election, and could still have a say in primaries, but we need to find ways to reduce pandering and restore serious policy discussion to the electoral process. I’m not sure what form such a system might take – have the super delegate vote count for 50% of what is required to be nominated, or force candidates to have the backing of several super delegates before they are allowed to enter the race – but I think there would be significant value in providing more vetting than we have today.
Here are a small number of additional points in defense of why I think that this proposal is worth considering seriously:
- We should give more weight to the most informed people when choosing leaders. Today a voter who knows the candidates personally and spends their life as a part of the government has a vote that counts equally to someone who flips a coin, someone who is influenced by a smear campaign, or someone who simply votes for any name that they recognize; I want to know that the leaders of my government have been vetted by more than just a popularity contest.
- Money and fame would be less important as deciding factors in elections. Today politicians have to spend countless hours fundraising in order to afford TV commercials and other ways of achieving visibility in the electorate, with famous people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump gaining an undeserved advantage. Giving more power to political insiders would help to level the playing field, making political ability more of a deciding factor than mere name recognition.
- Empowering super delegates or similar actors would provide a check against populists or other unqualified individuals gaining power. It is in the interest of the party to put forward the best possible candidates, and giving the most knowledgeable party members an effective veto would provide a layer of protection against bad candidates.
Obviously this solution is imperfect – Bernie Sanders supporters who thought that the DNC “rigged” the primaries in favor of Clinton would be faced with an even steeper hill to climb. The 37% of citizens who currently give Donald Trump a favorable rating would almost certainly never have been given the opportunity to vote for him. Those who want to see more non-politicians on the ballot would be disappointed by a party system likely to support those within its own ranks. And those who fear a takeover of political parties by outside interests would have some reason to worry, since political parties are only as strong as those who choose to be active within that party. Finally, taking power away from individuals and giving it to “elites” sounds evil – it “feels” obviously correct that everyone in a democracy should have an equal voice in choosing candidates, even if those choosing are doing so with incomplete information and thus making bad choices.
Given the likely opposition to any proposal that would make the primary process less democratic it is unlikely that any such change could ever be made. However, since increased direct democracy over the recent decades has led to a system where elections often become popularity contests, and given the fact that it has left us with a government that seems more incapable of governing than ever before, I honestly believe that restoring the power of the parties as gatekeepers to the electoral process would be an effective way to ensure that we have stronger candidates on the ballot, thus leading to a more functional government.