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Democratic Heresies

By Sheila Kennedy on October 2, 2015 in Civic Blog
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My husband and I have had a long-running argument about primary elections. (Hey–you argue with your spouse about whatever is important in your house, and we nerds will argue about what preoccupies us…)

My husband insists that primaries have contributed mightily to political polarization. It’s unarguable that the people who turn out for primary elections are more partisan and ideological than other voters, and he’s nostalgic for the smoke-filled rooms where party elders chose candidates more likely to appeal to the moderate middle.

My rejoinder has been that more democracy is good, and smoke-filled rooms had their dark side. We just need more competitive primaries, and more people voting in them.

Now, a respected scholar at the Brookings Institution has weighed in…on my husband’s side.

Noting the recent resignation of the Speaker, she writes

John Boehner became Speaker at a point in time when four different reform ideas—all enacted with the best of intentions—interacted in ways that made his job impossible. These are structural and will impede the job of the next Speaker as well.

Primaries. The United States is one of the very few democracies in the world that uses primaries to nominate the members of the legislative branch. That means, for all practical purposes, anyone can become the nominee of a political party simply by declaring, running and winning. It also means that defying the party leader, in this case the Speaker, has very few consequences. While Boehner has been able to strip some of his problem members of committee assignments that has not proven to be a very powerful tool. Unlike leaders in parliamentary parties, Boehner cannot decide to keep someone off the list for bad behavior. And primaries are notoriously low turnout events in which a small group of ideologically motivated voters can control outcomes. Thus it is no wonder that Members of Congress have come to fear being “primaried” more than they fear displeasing the leadership.

She identifies three other “reforms” and their unintended consequences: parties (actually, their loss of power; they have less clout than billionaires with SuperPaks), privacy (which has diminished, taking with it the ability to negotiate in relative confidence), and pork (eliminating the goodies that everyone criticized also eliminated the ability to wheel and deal and actually get stuff done.)

I hate it when my husband turns out to be right….

 

Sheila HeadshotSheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is the Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis and former Director of the Center for Civic Literacy. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy.  This post was originally published on the blog, sheilakennedy.net and is republished here with the permission of the author.

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