Democracy has a Darwinian heart

By Perry Chen and Sherry Turkle

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Democracy has a Darwinian heart. But in 2016 only the Republican nominating process reflected this fundamental truth. And it found them a candidate with unanticipated electoral strength.

Recall the stark differences between the Republican and Democratic nominations. For the Republicans, a candidate with immense resistance from party leadership defeated a large field. For the Democrats, a candidate with near universal party leadership support had a closer than expected victory in a limited field.

So 2016 was a tale of two systems for finding a candidate. But only one system functioned as a serious test of electoral strength: the one with a 12 candidate testing ground. The one that had greater immunity to party leader influence.

Like Al Gore in 2000, Hillary Clinton had the support of Democratic party leadership before a primary vote was cast. Yet even sitting vice president Al Gore had to compete with another party favorite, former Senator Bill Bradley. By the eve of the first primary in 2016, Congressman Bernie Sanders was the only other candidate in the Democratic pool; and few saw him as real competition. It wasn’t until Sanders gathered surprising support that it seemed to occur — and only to some — that perhaps the field was too small.

Why this blindness to the idea that primaries are a test of fitness through competition? The operating theory was that a candidate going into a general election should not be “bloodied,” should not be torn down by a long primary challenge from within their own ranks. The more united the party, the stronger the candidate. It’s time to retire this theory. Primary elections are opportunities to have conversations with voters; it’s not a good idea to cut them off. Donald Trump’s voters did not care how bloodied he was. (In 2008, neither did Obama’s.) What happens when you take off these blinders and simplify the prism: electoral strength in a competitive field.

To begin with, this election shows, remarkably, that anyone can run. Perhaps Democratic primaries should be a casting call of party leaders, rising stars and political outsiders. Put it to the people. Don’t let donors, early polls or party leader influence hinder the active creation of a competitive field. Ensure that the widest range of voters (Democrats and independents) have a chance to discover a candidate that reflects their hopes and concerns. Be open to the possible: an unanticipated movement may arise.

The nomination system must embrace the uncertain nature of voter sentiment. And party leaders should reject presumption and inevitability, and from the very start should actively encourage a larger field.

Any process that clears the field for the early anointment of a candidate serves to dissuade others from competing — in 2016 this included even the sitting vice president. The small field that results creates a limited test of electoral strength. In 2016, the Democratic nomination process — limited by party influence and the assumption that competition was bad for an ultimate candidacy — was a system poorly designed to find the most electable candidate for the general election.

Party nominations are only the feeder into our ultimate system of democracy — the election. A system designed for this must be designed to learn, reject presumption, and put collective intelligence over the assumptions of individuals. If you don’t build systems that truly listen — if you don’t want to allow that conversation — it will happen in the general election anyway.

We also need to ask how the scheduling of primaries and debates, the power of superdelegates, the mix of open and closed primaries, the use of caucuses — help or hinder the determination of most electable candidate for the general election. Superdelegates are designed to override “unrealistic” voters. Closed primaries ignore registered independents — who make up 43% of the voting population. Disregarding independent voters — the largest group of voters in the country is, in practical terms, a recipe to inhibit the determination of the most electable candidate.

Party leaders must face the costs of control. Democracy depends on conversation. It depends on systems of expression and systems of listening.

In 2016, it was Democratic leaders who exerted control. Republican leaders tried to control their nomination, but the disarray of their party resulted in a Darwinian stress test. It found them the most electable candidate. If Republicans leaders had been able to avoid their noisy conversations, they might have coronated Jeb Bush.

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Co-authored with Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and the author, most recently, of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.