Primary candidate selection leans to far party extremes

Thanks to the Democratic Party, there is too much democracy today in our Republican form of government.

That is one of the key factors that led to our dysfunctional government.

The trend began with the Democratic Party reforms following the 1968 presidential election. Pundits were convinced that Robert F. Kennedy could not be beaten in the general election but could not possibly obtain the Democratic nomination.

After the RFK assassination, Hubert Humphrey received the nomination despite having not competed in a single primary.

The liberal wing of the party instituted reforms in the selection process, and the GOP soon followed suit.

In the 1960s, there were only 17 Democratic primaries and about 13 for the GOP. Very few delegates to either party’s national conventions were selected by a primary.

Today, all states have a primary or statewide caucus for candidate selection, and nearly all national delegates are selected by the primary process and therein lies the problem Judson James warned the American people in 1969 that “some of the most widely urged reforms would probably make parties less responsible, contrary to the reformers’ intentions.”

James realized that the primary electorate is relatively small and “narrow in its concerns.”

“The legislative party leadership in the primary is likely to be negligible” he wrote. As predicted, direct primaries have made state political parties all but worthless.

James believed, correctly, that ideologues would dominate the primaries. He was convinced that ideology “involves too few participants and defines too little in American political life to be adequate.”

The differences between the average Republican and average Democratic voter are nuanced. The same cannot be said for the ideologues of the two parties.

This difference between the average voter and the national delegates was drastically revealed in a survey taken in 2000.

Delegates to both parties were given the same questionnaire as was given to the voters identified as either Republican or Democrat. The results were astounding, revealing little similarity between the views of the delegates and those of voters identified with their specific party.

Democratic delegates were far left of the average Democratic voters, and Republican delegates far to the right of the GOP loyalists.

Despite the fact that national party delegates do a poor job representing the mainstream of their particular party, they are the ones who determine party platforms and, to a great extent, determine a party’s legislative agenda.

Candidate selection in state primaries leans heavily to the extremes of the respective parties, thus creating polar opposites in campaigns. Here, folks, are why there are fewer and fewer mainstream moderates (like Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana) representing the people in Congress in the 21st Century, and governmental gridlock and dysfunction is the result.

Trust in government has also suffered in the process. Fareed Zakaria, the gifted author and political analyst, noted that there is a reverse correlation between the increased democratization of our political process and America’s trust in its government.

Graphed, he showed that as democratization increased since the early 1970s through the early 21st century; trust in government declined in a proportional direction.

Zakaria takes the issue a step further, beyond just the selection process. Reforms have substantially increased the democratization of legislative committees. This has actually worked against legislative attempts to solve problems through compromise.

I know it sounds silly, but it was easier to find solutions when a legislator could walk out of a closed committee meeting and tell a lobbyist he fought like the dickens for the lobby’s position, but leadership stood in the way.

Today, the moment the legislator exits a committee meeting, she is bombarded by lobbyists thanking her for support or deriding him for his opposition.

While transparency in government is important, total transparency has made it more difficult to seek compromised solutions.

I wish I had a remedy for the situation, but I don’t. We need a balance between transparency and pragmatic solutions.

And for all the faults of political machines and “party bosses,” they served a vital function. To succeed, they had to find candidates with broad appeal to the mass of voters. Lacking that necessity, party candidates are selected now by a relative few ideologues.

Without party bosses, outside money is now too often the critical determinant to candidate selection.

There can be is no question why voters are more turned off by the process each year. While I don’t have a specific cure for the problem, I realize that without a dramatic increase in primary participation, we will be required to alter the party selection process.

I fear it may be too late.

Michael Adkins is the former chair of the Hancock County Democratic Party. He lives in Greenfield.