Abolish presidential primaries

Both of our major parties in the US have nominated candidates with extraordinarily high unfavorable ratings. Lots of reasons have been put forward, but no one seems to be discussing the root cause, which is the presidential primary system itself. Primaries are not the only way to select party candidates, and they’re almost certainly not the best way.

In fact, while the idea of a primary is put forward as “democratic,” our country and our democracy would be better served if the “parties” — meaning, in practice, a fairly small leadership group within each party — selected presidential nominees.

“But wait a minute,” I can hear you objecting, “then the candidates will be nominated in smoky back rooms. We won’t get candidates chosen by ‘we the people,’ we’ll get candidates chosen by the élites.”

Here’s the thing though: party leaders have a strong incentive to select someone who will win the general election. Choosing an extremist fails if they can’t sell that extremist to the country.

Certainly some primary voters strategize in this way, selecting the candidate they think is more electable rather than the one they would rather see elected. But it’s a good bet that a group of leaders will act more strategically than the population at large.

Nominating strategically will tend to push the candidates closer to the middle. That’s got to be a good thing for the country as a whole. I realize we’re in an era of extreme polarization, and each side thinks it’s got the One and Only Truth; but hey, somebody’s going to lose, and their side is going to be very disappointed indeed. Would you rather whipsaw back and forth between extremes, as the country changes parties from one cycle to the next, or have smaller oscillations around the center such that you always have a little more or a little less than half of what you want?

The US presidential primary in its current form is about 50 years old, so most American voters don’t know anything else. But other democracies don’t work this way. In many countries it’s the party leadership that selects which candidates will run on the party’s ticket. Also, most democracies are parliamentary, meaning that people vote for a party and that party’s leader becomes Prime Minister; there may also be a directly-elected President, but the Prime Minister has most of the power.

The common property of these systems is that there’s some additional indirection. Which we have in the US for Speaker of the House, majority/minority leader, and equivalent roles in the states, but not for our chief executive.

Now the parliamentary thing wouldn’t work here, because separation of powers between executive and legislative is kind of a big deal. Still, we can do the indirection without the parliamentary bit, and indirection will get us more center-X nominees.

Right now our “leaders” are incapable of compromise. That’s not the only possible state of affairs. It’s one we brought on ourselves, and we should unbring it.