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SELECTING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES, REPRESENTATIVENESS, AND THE NEED TO BE “MORE DEMOCRATIC”

December 16, 2011

Neither Left nor Right but Catholic

    SELECTING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES, REPRESENTATIVENESS,

AND THE NEED TO BE “MORE DEMOCRATIC”

By Stephen M. Krason

     While the 2012 presidential primary and caucus season will begin within a couple of weeks, the Republican race is already almost a year old and still there is much grumbling about whether there is a good choice of candidates. So, it is worth considering whether the current means of selecting party presidential nominees is suitable. Much has been said about how the best, strongest nominees do not emerge and how ideologically driven party activists out of sync with the rank-and-file shape the nomination races. The result is party nominees who lack broad popular appeal.

     We should consider the historical background. The current presidential nomination arrangements date to 1972. After the rancorous Vietnam War-era 1968 nomination season, the Democrats (who were the predominant party) set up a commission to reassess the party’s practices. The McGovern-Fraser reforms aimed at “opening up” the party to groups of people who supposedly had previously been excluded. The result was a massive increase in presidential primaries and direct-participation caucuses, such as the forthcoming one in Iowa. Most convention delegates were now going to be bound to vote the party electorate’s preference. The reforms also signaled the decline of the influence of party organizations and party leaders. Since the Democrats then controlled most state legislatures, they were able to push through the needed election law changes to implement the reforms. The Republicans thus had no choice but to go along. Along with changes in Congressional rules to weaken the powers of committee chairmen, opening up to public scrutiny virtually all aspects of Congressional deliberations, and making it easier to stop a Senate filibuster, it was the final stage of the democratization of American politics that had begun in the Jacksonian Era.

     As usually is the case, much question can be raised about whether the new nomination procedures truly have been more democratic. True, the new arrangements have involved the public more—in big states, each rank-and-file party member was now guaranteed his one/one millionth role in candidate selection—but only especially well-heeled candidates could hope to compete, since broad public appeal with heavy media utilization was now crucial. Also, party “interest groups”—generally more ideologically extreme than a party’s mainstream—became more important and voters often found themselves less satisfied with the nominees chosen. Ironically, the new, more democratic procedures did not always broadly represent a party’s rank-and-file nor bring forth the most electable nominees. As Professor David Carlin has written, Catholics found themselves alienated from a new leftist dominated Democratic party that had long been their home.

     Perhaps the nomination procedures in place in the decades before 1972 were both more reasonable and more representative. For example, in 1960, when party leaders—whose primary concern then, as now, was winning elections—played a major role in presidential nominations, John F. Kennedy thought that the way he could convince them that he was strongest candidate was to enter as many of the small number of primaries as he could and show that he had substantial popular appeal. He entered seven, won them all, and then by strong efforts to woo Democratic convention delegates, was able to secure the nomination. It was a hybrid arrangement. The party’s leaders, officeholders, and activists selected the nominee to be sure, but they paid heed to the popular preference—without being required to do so, as the party rules often dictate today—and as a result produced an electable nominee whose views were not extreme.

     This old arrangement helped insure that the party interest groups did not exert a disproportionate role in candidate selection. Carlin argues that the interest group domination that followed the decline of the party organization was the major factor that moved the Democratic party in a rankly leftist, secularist direction. Also, the parties probably better vetted the candidates before the media went to work and dug up real or exaggerated scandals that could cause embarrassment and defeat. It may also have encouraged a whole range of qualifications to be considered in a presidential candidate other than just who performed best in debates—as we have seen this year—or who had more “charisma.”

     Procedures that are more democratic don’t necessarily result in a more representative outcome, to say nothing of one better for the country. Anyone who thinks that what is more democratic is more in line with American principles should keep in mind that our Founding Fathers established a republic, not an out-and-out democracy. The Father of our Constitution, James Madison, said in Federalist Paper #10 that democracies “have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” It is true that the Church seeks a “society of participation” and “democratic and participatory” forms of government instead of authoritarian ones (see Sollicitudo rei Socialis #44 and Centesimus Annus #35). She does not insist, however, that they be as procedurally democratic as possible and makes it clear that democracy—by which she really means a democratic republic or representative regime—cannot be insured by a mere recourse to procedures (see Centesimus Annus #46). Indeed, the current “procedural era” has been the one in which democratic regimes have countenanced the most direct assault on human life and the family. The Church’s concern is that people have the opportunity to shape their political destiny. The former hybrid method for selecting presidential nominees easily met that.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

 

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