Joy Casino Ап Икс Are Primary Elections Ruining Democracy? - Open to Debate
November 4, 2022
November 4, 2022

The U.S. Constitution has a lot to say about elections. But nowhere is there any mention of political primaries, the process by which candidates are winnowed down ahead of a general election. Though they may seem integral to the U.S. system, primaries in fact are a relatively new phenomenon, borne of the turn of the 20th century when reformers sought to wrangle power from political party bosses. Of course, quite a lot has changed since the days of Tammany Hall. Gerrymandering has greatly reduced competitive districts, while the urban-rural divide has grown exponentially. Divisions run deep, with social media capable of dramatically shifting the political landscape at unprecedented speed. Many see primary elections as a principal culprit of what they consider an undermined democracy, fueling extremism, hindering compromise, and lending too much power to partisans. Others argue that primaries are an important bulwark against political corruption and a hedge against elitism. In this context, we ask: Are Primary Elections Ruining Democracy?

12:00 PM Friday, November 4, 2022
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Background (4 RESOURCES)

Sunday, May 29, 2022
Source: Governing Magazine
By Clay S. Jenkinson
Sunday, December 1, 2019
Source: The Atlantic
By Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
Source: The Washington Post
By Lawrence R. Jacobs
Monday, October 1, 2012
Source: Vanderbilt
By Shigeo Hirano and James M. Snyder Jr.
  • 00:00:00

    John Donvan:

    Hi, everybody and welcome to Intelligence Squared. I am John Donvan. And something I heard multiple times during my career as a foreign correspondent living sometimes in other democracies, not always, but often, from people who lived in those democracies was, hey, you Americans, why do your election campaigns go on for so long? So, yeah, by comparison with Canada’s election campaigns, which usually start and finish in a couple of months, or Britain’s which only go on for about six weeks, or Israel’s, where candidates are actually barred from campaigning on TV until two weeks before Election Day, we are in a system where candidates are already declared and spending TV money and roaming the State Fair in Iowa, a full year out from election day when they still have all of those primaries yet to get through. So, yes, these primaries, while there are several reasons our campaigns run longer than I think anywhere else, one of the reasons is the primaries, which begin the winter before the summer before the election in the fall.

  • 00:01:02

    And then there are all of those primaries for seats in Congress. Now, the Constitution doesn’t say anything about primaries. So, why do they exist? And are they actually a net plus for our democracy? Well, smart people actually disagree about that, and therefore, we are going to debate right now this question, are primary elections ruining democracy? We have two guests to debate this question, each expert in how our elections work each haven’t given serious thought to this question. Elaine Kamarck who is at Brookings in the Harvard Kennedy School, and Jed Ober, former Director of Democracy International, currently serving as Chief of Staff to a member of Congress, both of our debaters have actually participated in primary elections themselves behind the scenes taking part in committees and campaigns alike. So, Elaine Kamarck and Jed Ober, thanks so much for joining us on Intelligence Squared.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Hey, thanks for having me.

    Jed Ober:

    Thanks so much, John. Appreciate it.

    John Donvan:

    So, to let people know who’s a yes and who’s a no on this question, let’s just make this official. I’ll let you go first, Elaine, on the question are primary elections ruining democracy? Are you a yes, or no?

  • 00:02:04

    Elaine Kamarck:

    I’m a yes.

    John Donvan:

    And Jed Ober, that makes you the [unintelligible]. Let’s make it official. Are you a yes, or no? Are primary elections ruining democracy?

    Jed Ober:

    I am definitely a no, John. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this.

    John Donvan:

    All right. Well, let’s get started. And we’ll go back to you, Elaine, because your yes is more challenging, I would say to the status quo. So, let’s have you go first, and tell us why you are arguing, yes, primary elections are ruining democracy.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Well, okay. This is a controversial position, I understand. And it is definitely not a mainstream position. The United States is the only country in the world that uses primaries exclusively to nominate their leaders. And the problem with using primaries, which in the United States, we’ve only used for presidents exclusively since 1972, so it’s relatively recent, is that we no longer have an element of peer review in our presidential nomination process.

  • 00:03:05

    And peer review is a concept that is quite critical to every other profession — medicine, electricians, lawyers, every other profession in the United States has some place where their peers say yes, this person is competent, no, this person is not. In European democracies, parliamentary democracies, mostly the leaders come from within a party conference, and from a — or some kind of closed system. And most of the people participated in that actually know something about the people that they are going to elect to lead their party. We have a completely different system. We have a system that has become a wide-open system, where anybody can run for president.

  • 00:04:03

    Now between — in the 23 years between 1945 and 1968, the only outsider that ran and he won was Dwight D. Eisenhower. And we call him an outsider because he hadn’t been in political office before. He’d never held a political office. He did, however, win the war in Europe and command the Allied troops in Europe, he was a pretty big deal. So, that’s an exception. Then in 1972, the United States underwent a quiet revolution. And we introduced what are binding primaries, which I’ll talk about a little bit later. But since then, we’ve had a televangelist run for president, a TV communicator, a wealthy businessman, the CEO of Godfather Pizza, a spiritual leader, a CEO of a test preparation company, not to mention tons of movie stars and other celebrities getting into the mix or being taught about.

  • 00:05:01

    Of these only one person one, Donald Trump. And so, you’ve got to go back and say, does it make sense to have a nomination system that allows people who have no government experience, run the most complicated and most consequential government in the world? That’s what our system does. And it is a problem, and I think it’s going to be more of a problem as the cost of communication decreases because of social media. And it’s more likely that we will get many other candidates with absolutely no government experience running for the most important and complicated job in government in the world.

    John Donvan:

    And I think you would say, proving that they can win while doing so.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Yes, proving that they can win.

    John Donvan:

    All right, thank you very much for your opening. And Jed Ober, why are you a no on the question, are primary elections ruining democracy?

  • 00:06:02

    Jed Ober:

    Well, thanks so much, John, I appreciate it and appreciate the opportunity to participate in this with Elaine, nobody knows the topic better than Elaine. So, I’m grateful to be able to share the podcast with you. So, I mean, I talk about this a lot, and I think, you know, one of the things that I try to have people picture is, you know, imagine a world where, you know, we didn’t have the presidential primary process in the United States of America. And you can do that very easily by bring yourself back in time to 2008. Imagine if Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama didn’t compete in 57 constituencies and Americans, in those 57 different constituencies didn’t get an opportunity to participate in that process. The way that I see it, you know, primaries aren’t ruining democracy, I think that they’re actually a fundamental building block to a healthy democracy, maybe the fundamental building block.

  • 00:07:03

    And I think a lot of the problems that people see with primaries are really symptomatic of other problems. You know, Elaine was talking mostly about the presidential level. And I would say that, you know, many of the things she said were about the Republican nominating process, the nominating — and as Elaine knows, the nominating process that we use within the Democratic Party, is fundamentally different than the one that they use in the Republican Party, in my view. And the results are different, you know, we’ve never nominated a Donald Trump. I view the presidential primary process, as you know, the ultimate opportunity for the people to have their say in choosing who the nominee for the Democratic Party should be. And the Democratic Party of the United States of America, in my experience, is the most inclusive, transparent, well-functioning political party in the world.

  • 00:07:56

    And I just — I’ve worked in democratic development in over 20 different countries, and I can tell you, without a doubt that the countries that have political parties where they actually include people in their primary processes, where they have granted people the opportunity to participate in their political primaries, those democracies are stronger than the ones that don’t. So, fundamentally, like I said, I think that primaries, you know, first, political parties in and of themselves are critical building blocks for democracies and that’s true in the United States of America, it’s true in every country in my view, and parties that operate with primary systems that actually allow the people to participate in them are stronger ones.

    John Donvan:

    All right, thank you, Jed. And thank you, Elaine. So, I want to pause the debate part for a moment and just do with your help a little history. As Elaine pointed out, primaries are a relatively new phenomenon, especially their full integration into the process.

  • 00:09:02

    She dates back to 1972 correctly. But they also didn’t exist really at all until the early 20th century. Elaine, why did we develop primaries in the first place? What was the goal?

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Okay, for most of the 20th century, until 1972, the way presidential candidates were nominated, was in a hybrid system. And it had the elements that Jed talked about as being good for the parties, as well as the elements that I talked about the element of peer review. So, here was the process, and let’s take 1960 as an example, that’s one of the last open presidential contests. In 1960, Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby and various lieutenants went around the country meeting with party officials, party bosses if you want, in various places all around the country.

  • 00:10:00

    In those discussions, he had to convince those party leaders of two things that he could govern and that he could win. Okay, equally important in that process. Primaries turned out to be very important for Jack Kennedy. Because, in fact, people wondered if a Catholic could win. So, Jack Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, could win, when back in those days. So, Jack Kennedy said, well, okay, I’m going to run in Wisconsin, and show that I could win. So, he ran to the Wisconsin primary, he won. But the party leaders looked at the — tea leaves there looked at the results and said, wait a minute, you won with the big Catholic vote. You didn’t win Protestants, we’re not convinced. So, then he had to go to West Virginia, which had very few Roman Catholics. And he did win West Virginia. And that was sufficient to get a lot of party leaders to, you know, come on and support Kennedy. And he obviously had a win at the Republican — at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

  • 00:11:01

    So, it was hybrid system. Primaries were used, they were used to test the viability of a candidate. But there were people that the party leaders simply wouldn’t even talk about, okay, because they were clearly not ready to be President of the United States. They weren’t ready to be a mayor, let alone president. I’ll put — I’ll look at my own party. And I disagree with Jed wholeheartedly. The democratic process is essentially the same as the Republican process, because in 1972, what happened was the beginning of binding primaries, and both parties now have binding primaries. That means that unlike in 1960, where you could use the primaries to sort of see who you thought was electable, but then you chose your delegates separately.

  • 00:11:58

    Now, whoever wins the primaries gets the delegates and the delegates go to a convention, and they are more or less bound by the results of that primary. That means there’s no place in the system right now —

    [music playing]

    — Where people who know something about government, look at presidential candidates and say, this person could be a president, this person could not be.

    John Donvan:

    More from Intelligence Squared U.S. when we return.

    [music playing]

    Welcome back to Intelligence Squared U.S., let’s get back to our debate.

    Jed Ober:

    I think our nominating process in the Democratic Party has a lot of good elements to it. I mean, you know, in terms of the idea of peer review, like I, you know — look, we were at a position in 2008, throughout that nominating process, it became, you know, almost toxic to even mention, you know, the term superdelegate, it became, you know, really a rallying cry of one of the campaign’s that, you know, this election was somehow going to be decided by, you know, at the time, I think was, you know, 500 or something, I can’t remember the exact number of people but.

  • 00:13:06

    And then when we call the super delegates, you know, they are what we know as — they’re automatically delegates, and they’re, you know, unpledged as they were. And, you know, I was not at all opposed to that, and that 2008 process, you know, they ultimately didn’t decide the election, you know, the candidate who, you know, won the most pledged delegates in that process ultimately became the nominee, which was a good thing. And a lot of those people who had pledged their support for a different candidate ended up supporting that nominee. But the check was there, which I think is, you know, part of Elaine’s point. But look, I would argue that — and we’ve since, you know, I believe, you know, kind of whittled that number down and changed entirely what their role is in the nominating process.

  • 00:14:00

    [talking simultaneously]

    Hold on, John. Let me make two more points. And look, I think that the peer review in the process, I do not think we have to — and I’m not opposed to unpledged you know, automatic delegates, I am not so I don’t want — and I do not think that our nominating process in the Democratic Party is bad. I really am not one of those people. And in fact, in 2016, when I was managing the Clinton campaigns engagement in the standing committees and in the broader convention process, I remember very vividly standing up in front of the group saying, you’re about to go into this Rules Committee — these are the Clinton delegates. You’re about to go into this Rules Committee meeting and you’re about to hear a lot of stuff about our nominating process being undemocratic. It’s not. Like we have one of the most democratic processes in the world. And I truly believe that. But there were two points I just wanted to make briefly, John, that Elaine had mentioned before, and I do — and I just disagree that the Republican nominating process is essentially the same as the Democratic one.

  • 00:15:04

    I think for two reasons, and you know, you can take them for what you want. One is, you know, a lot of those processes, you know, we distribute our delegates proportionally, and the Republicans didn’t when Donald Trump was elected, and that’s just a fact. And you know, so he could win states and take big hunks of delegates and become the nominee. And I would say that many, many of those Republican nominating processes in those states in different constituencies are less participatory than ours. And I think those are two really, really important distinctions.

    John Donvan:

    Okay, I understand. First of all, I want to make clear that both of you are Democrats, and both of you, I’m sure, we’re not happy with the election of Donald Trump. And I want to — I’m bringing that up because I want to talk a little bit about what the election of President Trump implies for the thing we’re discussing. And just for the sake of a lay audience, I understand the mechanics matter a lot, but I’d like to discuss this at the level of values, the value of an individual person having a vote.

  • 00:16:08

    So, Donald Trump, Elaine, in your view, there was no peer review. And there were we know, plenty of Republicans, certainly at the beginning, did not want Donald Trump to be nominated. But they didn’t get to override — they didn’t get to weigh in as peers. Trump came into a process and through the primary process actually eliminated the candidate that the Republican establishment preferred, who was Jeb Bush, and then everybody else in line after that, while millions of Republicans supported him, and people who were not Republicans, but in the primary millions of Republicans supported him. So, Jed, is that an argument for the way it should have been, that the people got to choose the guy that they really wanted over the person that the party machine, or the party establishment would have preferred?

  • 00:17:01

    Because there it is, the ultimate opportunity for people to have their say — they had their say.

    Jed Ober:

    Sure, yeah. Look, nope. You are absolutely right. You know, I was not happy with the election [laughs] of Donald Trump. And worked very hard to defeat him in the general election. Unfortunately, we didn’t.

    John Donvan:

    But a smoke-filled room would not have allowed that to happen.

    Jed Ober:

    That’s right. I think that’s accurate. Although now you look at the Republican Party, I’m not convinced that would happen. I think maybe he would be there. But you’re right —

    John Donvan:

    All right, I want you to take this on as a challenge.

    Jed Ober:

    Sure, sure. No, no, I totally understand. And I completely agree with you that, you know, the Republican Party at that point in time would not have selected Donald Trump. However, I think that if they had made — my argument, you know, within our party, and, you know, I haven’t advocated for changes to our nominating system, because I think, you know, they are the — they would be the greatest changes for small deed democracy.

  • 00:18:00

    I want to win elections. I think that we open up our nominating process, we allow more people to participate in it. It’s the ultimate vetting process for our candidate. The candidate that comes out of that process, I guarantee you will be more competitive in the general election, if they participate in a nationwide nominating process that includes more Americans than less. And —

    John Donvan:

    Why do you think that? Yeah, make that case, please.

    Jed Ober:

    Because I truly believe that the more people you let participate in a primary process, the more likely you’re going to end up with a candidate that’s more palatable in a general election. And I think that’s true, up and down the ballot. And the reality is that the Republicans, you know, absolutely, they elected Donald Trump through the process that they have, but as I think I pointed out before, that I think their nominating process is imperfect, and I think they should make — it’s — I think it’s, you know, it’s very difficult for a political —

    John Donvan:

    So, Jed, I’m not the one here to debate you, but I just feel there’s an argument that is not — that you’re not addressing that as a challenge, that this was a case where the people got what they wanted.

  • 00:19:07

    Jed Ober:

    Well, yeah. And then in the general election, he won. So, the people ultimately did get what they wanted. And he won three states, by very narrow margins. But, you know, the reality is, is that, you know, the way that the system worked, you know, he became president, you know, if, you know, we, you know, I can’t I agree with you that, you know, if they had had a smoke filled room at that particular time, they would not have chosen Donald Trump, but that’s not the world we live in, like, we haven’t — we have a democracy where people get to participate in the primaries. So, you know, and that’s a fundamental, you know — like I said, I view that as a fundamental part of our democracy. Do I agree with the way the Republicans did it? No. Do I agree with the way that you know, who they nominated? No. I will say on the Democratic side, you know, we kind of almost had this — you know, Bernie Sanders is no Donald Trump, you know, that’s obviously very clear.

  • 00:20:04

    However, he is not a Democrat. And you know, he almost won a nominating process twice. You know, maybe that’s a little bit hyperbolic. But.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Let me jump in on this. Look, I agree that in this day and age, we are not going to get rid of presidential primaries. Okay, let’s put that out there. However, what I am looking for, and I’m open to suggestions, but I have some of my own ideas is a way to put some element of peer review back into the process. And that may mean a super delegate vote that happens early on before the primaries. So, that basically people who know something about government can say, we think these five people are best equipped to be President of the United States. We don’t think these four people are.

  • 00:21:00

    I mean, do you really think Marianne Williamson could be president — would be a good President of the United States? I don’t. Okay. Lots of Republicans did not think that Donald Trump could be a good President of the United States, and they were probably right. And I would say that even without a partisan hat on. So, you know, think about it this way, in the old system, in 1960, Jack Kennedy had to go to Governor Lawrence, who was the powerful governor of Pennsylvania, and sit down in a smoke-filled room, probably with some bourbon or whiskey and say, here’s why I should be president. Here’s what I can do. Here’s what I believe in. Here’s how I can win. Imagine if Donald Trump had had to go through that process with a similar powerful governor of a state, and he sat down and said, I’m going to build a wall on the southern border. The President would — the governor would have probably said, Okay, I can see that might be popular.

  • 00:21:59

    And then Donald Trump said, and I’m going to make Mexico pay for it. One of the stupidest statements ever made. How on earth would we make another sovereign company — country pay for it unless we invaded them? Okay. The governor would say, are you kidding us? Are you crazy? How would you do that? Okay. In other words, the peer review process is a process that gets us people who know what they are talking about. And Donald Trump clearly didn’t in that campaign. So, my suggestion in books that I’ve written et cetera, is not that we get rid of primaries, but that we do something that says to the primary voters, look, these are the people we think, are capable of being President and these are the people we don’t think are. And then the primary voters can pick. But right now, in both parties, and that’s a misnomer, Jed. In both parties, the primaries are binding upon delegates, that whether it’s proportional, or winner take all doesn’t matter for this argument.

  • 00:23:05

    They are binding on delegates, which means that when a person like Trump or a Marianne Williamson, or somebody else wins the most delegates, and even with people in the party saying, oh, my God, this is a disaster, they can’t do anything about it. That’s a dangerous process for democracy. And we have seen it play out in 2016 and in the four years between 2016 and 2020. And we are now looking at a situation where for the first time in our history, our very democracy and election system is being threatened by this man. And frankly, the Republican Party knew he was not a good guy. When it, back in 2016, I went to the Republican Convention there for my book to do research. And people said to me things like, oh, this is our McGovern year, they thought he was going to lose, and therefore they’d get a pass on having supported him.

  • 00:24:06

    Governors — Republican governors didn’t show up to that convention. Republican senators didn’t show up to that convention. They knew that they were walking into a disaster.

    John Donvan:

    Jed, you talked about other places where you’ve worked overseas, where the absence of a primary process was detrimental to democracy. Talk a little bit more about why you feel that’s the case, because it sounds like it’s the ultimate smoke-filled room situation in the places you’re talking about.

    Jed Ober:

    Yeah, and these are very different contexts, obviously, in my view, and you know, in mostly developing countries, so they’re to choose one problem above the rest is difficult in analyzing the kind of strength of their democracies and what’s needed to be done. But yeah, I mean, I mean, look, you know, and most of these systems are our parliamentary party list systems.

  • 00:24:59

    You know, interestingly, a lot of these countries have direct election of the President, you know, but the reality is, is in their legislative branches, which, you know, many times are unicameral, not having a party — not having a primary process essentially just, you know, eliminates the participation of anyone except for the elite. I mean, that’s just the reality of it. To get placed on a party list, in, you know, many, many countries, you know, by party leadership, you know, is essentially, you know, an act of corruption, [laughs] you know, and, you know, there’s layers of issues with that. But, you know, and many, many places that I’ve worked, you know, the idea of parties, you know, actually without a quota that requires them to, the idea of them actually nominating women on a list, you know, is extremely farfetched.

  • 00:26:01

    John Donvan:

    What does it say that we got George Washington without a primary system, and we got Abraham Lincoln without a primary system? I’m not sure which of you would want to take that question.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Oh, and we got Roosevelt without a primary system, we got Kennedy without a primary system, we did just fine without a primary system. Look, the problem with most of the time, our primary system has worked pretty well. The problem that we saw that came to light in 2016, is there is a great vulnerability to the primary system, which is that once the primary system moved to binding primaries, and that’s the critical change, once you had the delegates were bound to the presidential candidate they got elected for and really had very little wriggle room to change their minds, you were stuck with a candidate who could in fact, with a very small percentage of the vote —

  • 00:27:00

    — because remember, these were primaries have very low turnout traditionally, it favors — you can find a candidate getting nominated who has an intense fraction of the party vote and does not represent the party and doesn’t represent the entirety. Let me read you as a little quote from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, he said — this is writing in 2014 — “Primaries poison the health of that system and warp its natural balance. Because the vast majority of Americans don’t typically vote in primaries. Instead, it is the third of the third, most to the right or most to the left, who come out to vote, the 10 percent of each of the two extremes of the political spectrum. Making things worse, in most states, laws prohibit independents who are not registered with either party, and who make up a growing proportion of the electorate from voting in primaries at all.

  • 00:28:01

    In other words, primaries are not a perfect representation of the people. Right? Primaries represent the most passionate faction of one of the other political parties. And you can trace the polarization of American politics directly to presidential and congressional primaries. Because in congressional primaries, it’s even more extreme, you have a very, very small turnout, so, you have 13 percent to 19 percent of the voting age population voting in congressional primaries, and therefore, it is very easy for somebody who is on the far right, or, frankly, on the far left to win those primaries with very small amounts of votes.

    John Donvan:

    That don’t seem to be an accurate description of the present-day phenomenon, Jed. So, what is your response to that?

    Jed Ober:

    My position is not that primaries are perfect. I mean, I just think they’re essential.

  • 00:29:00

    You know, we absolutely should work to fix them and to try to make them better. I mean, and I don’t — I think a lot of the problems though, like I said at the beginning, I think, are not necessarily a product of the primary themselves, but are symptomatic of other issues that we have, like voter participation, which Elaine mentioned. Like, yeah, absolutely, you know, people should participate more, and I’ve heard, you know, I think Elaine and other people suggest in the past that maybe we should have a primary day where they’re all held on one particular day. I’m all for that, you know, anything that we can do to increase voter participation is a good thing, in my view, especially in primaries. And, you know, we’re talking about the presidential primary, like, I think — like Elaine had mentioned, you know, participation rates and congressional primaries are much, much lower, and they happen at all different times of the year and it’s very, very hard to get people out. But I would say that, you know, so I really do think that you know, it’s not necessarily the primary process in and of itself that results and you certainly find examples but the private process itself that results in extreme candidates, but I think that it’s low voter participation, and unfortunately, wildly gerrymandered districts.

  • 00:30:10

    John Donvan:

    I found it striking Elaine that Jed said the primaries are essential to democracy. And you have actually not addressed the — you said you don’t think they’re going away. And you said that the way that they function are problematic. But Jed is making the point that nevertheless, in a more ideal form performing more perfectly, they actually would be essential to democracy. What do you think about that?

    Elaine Kamarck:

    No, I think that’s not at all true. I think we had a very healthy democracy through much of the 20th century with no primaries at all. Okay, I think that the Western European countries, parliamentary democracies around the world have very healthy democracies, they change parties, they respect the change of parties, they don’t have primaries, they use party conferences, they nominate from the party list.

  • 00:31:00

    They don’t have primaries. I don’t think primaries are essential to democracy. I think open parties are essential to democracy, where people can easily participate in party structures, and where people can form new political parties when they want to. But I do not think primaries are essential to democracy.

    [music playing]

    John Donvan:

    More from Intelligence Squared U.S. when we return.

    [music playing]

    Welcome back to Intelligence Squared U.S. I’m John Donvan. Let’s get back to our debate.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    A lot of people believe that somehow primaries were in the Constitution. Right? No. Parties aren’t even in the Constitution. Parties and primaries are covered by law under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court. Lots and lots of cases saying parties can choose their nominees any way they want to.

  • 00:31:59

    Why? Because they are a voluntary association. But what’s happened and the reason I say that I don’t think it’s realistic to get rid of primaries is that we’ve now got two generations of — two or three generations, who all they’ve ever known is political primaries. So, they think that this is kind of a constitutional deal. It is not. And other democracies function quite well, nominate leaders without primaries.

    John Donvan:

    But they do very often, and so did in our system prior to the primaries, which particularly on the Democratic side, were developed, were enhanced to increase participation by minorities, by women through the 1970s and 1980s. Back in the days of the old, smoke-filled rooms, it was white men, and it was very easy to exclude those groups, the groups that did, Roosevelt and Lincoln. So, what’s better than a primary for bringing in participation by those often-marginalized groups of people, Elaine?

  • 00:33:04

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Well, okay, first of all, let’s just go back to Roosevelt, or Kennedy, or any of the nominees, do you really think that in New York State, they excluded the Harlem voting machines, the powerful Harlan machines, from their deliberations on who was the convention delegates? No, of course not. Back then it was if you had a big black vote, you took in the black — you took them in their leaders, you had the Italian vote, you had the Irish vote, you had the Jewish vote, I mean, come on. These were — parties are interested in winning, okay, their job in putting together a nominee is not to exclude people, their job is to figure out who needs to be in the tent in order to win. So, you know, this sort of notion that somehow the old system was exclusionary doesn’t really hold water, if you look back at the history of it.

    John Donvan:

    All right, let me let Jed just respond to that point, to that one point.

  • 00:34:00

    Jed Ober:

    Well, yeah, no, I mean, I think you make a very valid point. Look, I work in Congress, you don’t have to walk around Congress that long to realize there’s a lot of old white men.

    [laughter]

    And I have a hard — and that’s with the system that we have now. So, you know, I have a hard time believing that if we went back all of a sudden, you know, they would not be nominating more women and people of color, I have a real hard time believing that. I don’t disagree with you that, you know, good politics, you know, considers, you know, the dynamics of a constituency. Like you pointed Elaine, that’s very true. I also just want — if you don’t mind, John, I want to come back. I mean, I agree that, you know —

    John Donvan:

    Before — I do want to let you get to the point, I just want to understand you’re kind of conceding that point, you are conceding that point to Elaine, then.

    Jed Ober:

    No, I think what I said at the outset was I very much disagree that if we went back in time that they would be nominating, you know, women and people of color.

  • 00:35:02

    You know, look at look at the makeup of our legislature now. I mean, and we have primaries [laughs]. You know, we — and that has largely been because you know, we’ve increased, you know, representation of women in Congress, particularly in the house. But it’s largely been, I think, because the parties realized that, you know, female candidates were very electable at particular times, in 2018, and then I hid the Republican Party, to a large extent, came to that conclusion in 2020 in the house elections. But no, like I do not think with a more — less participatory process that we would have, you know, the same or more diversity. I don’t think that’s accurate at all.

    John Donvan:

    Okay, so there was a point you said you wanted to get to.

    Jed Ober:

    Yeah, no, I just wanted to come back to the point about other countries operating, you know, well, and having healthy democracies.

  • 00:35:59

    Look, I agree that a healthy democracy can look different. And there are many different electoral systems. And you know, every country that has an electoral system in place thinks that their electoral system needs to be replaced with a different one to be perfected or improved. That’s just the reality of it, and they all have their problems. But I’m just not convinced that like, in a parliamentary system with fewer primaries, that, you know, it’s a good thing that, and I don’t know if this is exactly right, but I think in Britain, you know, they’re going to have a new prime minister, their Prime Minister lasted a month. And they are, you know, that will be choose chosen, you know, and it may be quite literally smoke-filled room, I don’t know. But. And it’s been how long since the — you know, how many prime ministers ago did they actually have an opportunity to directly weigh into who should be their leader? And even then, it’s not direct. So, you know, and that happens, look at Israel as another example, right now, you know, they’re about to — you know, in a very precarious situation, based on, you know, the system that they have in place.

  • 00:37:06

    And, you know, I’m not sure, you know, maybe it’s okay for democracy, in a sense, to continue to cycle through leadership, but I’m definitely certain it’s not good for governance.

    John Donvan:

    I want to go, Jed, come back to you. So, Elaine, clearly said, when I took your point that primaries are essential to democracy, she said, no, that there are other ways, there have been other ways, open parties, for example, other systems, as you have talked about, but make the case for essential.

    Jed Ober:

    I mean, there have been other ways in this country and other countries that we’ve done other things.

    John Donvan:

    I know, but you said they’re essential.

    Jed Ober:

    And I believe that’s the case, you know, we live in a different — like, we there is no way that we could move away from the primary process now, absolutely no way. And they are essential, because people believe they’re a part of their democracy, whether or not it’s in the Constitution or not.

  • 00:38:00

    They are absolutely essential. And like I said, at the beginning —

    John Donvan:

    I’m sorry, what do you mean by essential? That our democracy would be less — could not survive without them would be less democratic?

    Jed Ober:

    Oh, I think our democracy could probably survive without them. I definitely think it would be less democratic. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, people would not have the opportunity to participate to choose their nominees. If you went back in time, like I said, at the beginning, and you said, oh, sorry, you guys actually aren’t going to get to weigh in and choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, you know, you don’t get to participate in that process. We’re going to do that for you. Barack Obama wouldn’t have been president most likely. They would not have participated if we said, hey, you know, there’s going to be an election for the House of Representatives but we’re going to choose your nominee for you. I don’t think that’d sit well with the American public. And I don’t think it’d be a good thing.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Can I jump in here, John?

    John Donvan:

    You don’t have to ever ask that question, just go [laughs].

  • 00:39:00

    Elaine Kamarck:

    I mean, look, I take Jed’s point at this point in history, we cannot go back. We obviously — I mean, people would be so angry if we said we’re not going to have a primary anymore. I agree. What I’m trying to point out is the real dangers and the real contribution the primary system now makes to the extreme polarization of our political system. And so, what I’m looking at; are there systems? Are there things we can do that would in fact, decrease the tendency of the primary system to result in the nomination of extreme candidates? One of them by the way, you mentioned Jed, which is to have a national primary day. One of the reasons that we do tend to nominate extremes in the congressional primaries is that these primaries start in March, and they end in September. Nobody really knows where they are.

  • 00:40:00

    If we had a Democratic primary day and a Republican primary day, it would probably — I think we’d probably have a much higher turnout and probably much better candidates. But I also think, particularly for the President, that this tendency we’ve had for celebrities to run for president who have no business running for president who know nothing about governing at all, they don’t know how to run a county administrator’s office, let alone the Oval Office, there needs to be some way that people get to weigh in on this question. The voters may take it or leave it right. The voters may say, well, no, we like Donald Trump, regardless of the fact that he has no idea about most of the big issues that are going to face him as president, which was clear, by the way in the 2015 nominate and 2016.

  • 00:40:58

    So, I think that we need — all I’m asking here is a little bit of a hybrid system to correct what is the dangerous tendency in the parties, particularly at the presidential level, to have no check on the results of the primaries.

    John Donvan:

    What would you call — what’s the way to describe those people, party elders? The wise people? You didn’t like insiders, what would they be?

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Elected officials. In other words, the elected officials are legitimately — they are also elected by the people.

    John Donvan:

    And so, did they get a veto? And that’s not a very nice word in this process. But yes, they would get a veto?

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Well, in some, you know, you could create this any way you wanted to, you could create it so they had a veto, and they would not be allowed to — somebody wouldn’t be allowed to be on the Democratic ballot or Republican ballot, you could create it so that they would simply have a stamp of approval. Right? You can say, okay, the house caucus meets, they look at the candidates and they say, Yeah, you know, these five people are okay.

  • 00:42:04

    And you know, this person over here, who is who’s a TV star, guess what? He’s a great guy, he should stay in television. Okay.

    John Donvan:

    Well, again, that comes back to my question, are the people voting for the — I think you’re hinting somebody might be a charlatan? Or certainly unqualified, people are seduced into voting for them. Is that the fault of the voters who are being given that shot through the primaries?

    Elaine Kamarck:

    I don’t think it is because I don’t think it is, I think you — the way the old system used to work or the way the party conferences work in parliamentary democracies, is that the people ultimately do have the decision, right? But their choices are narrowed, right? And that’s what I’m really proposing here. Narrow the choices to people who are credible, Bernie Sanders was certainly a credible president in the United States, look at all he had done in his life.

  • 00:43:03

    He knew what he was talking about. Okay, so you’d have — I mean, Ted Cruz, perfectly credible candidate, he knew what he was talking about, had a lot of experience. What I’m trying to guard against is, and I think we are, I think the internet, by the way on social media makes us much more vulnerable than we ever have been. What I’m trying to guard against is charlatans’ fakes, people coming along with a really good line and a really charismatic attitude, or really charismatic presentation, who get a lot of people to vote for them. And guess what? We’re stuck with them as nominees, and then as happened in 2016, even though majority of people voted against Donald Trump, he became President of the United States.

    John Donvan:

    And Jed, where are you on my question about the wisdom of the voters?

    Jed Ober:

    I think, Elaine hit on the exact point. And it’s that the electorate is very vulnerable, particularly right now.

  • 00:44:00

    And they’re, I think, at the end, you know, if we had higher participation rate, I think the wisdom of the electorate would shine through, but we don’t have higher participation, [laughs] right. But we’re in a very dangerous time. I mean, that’s the reality. And we have a real responsibility to try to look at the issue that we have with misinformation and social media and the internet and try to understand how we can make sure that people get real information.

    John Donvan:

    But you don’t think — so you don’t think, though, that the primaries themselves as part of that process?

    Jed Ober:

    No, I mean, you could, you know, whether it’s a primary or general election, I mean, you know, the reality is, is that people are susceptible to — and that I mean, it’s always been the case, it’s just now we have this media that is really supercharged in a way that it wasn’t before and where people have access to, you know, type of information in ways that we really just never imagined would be a part of our society. So.

  • 00:45:00

    And that’s a reality and something that we’re going to have to not only in politics, but it’s something that we have to wrap our heads around. But I don’t know. I mean, like, the point I made, I was making earlier is that, you know, primaries and elections can surprise you. And you look at some examples of when you’ve had primaries and moderate candidates have prevailed. You know, and I even think back to our own city, in D.C., I mean, if you look back at when our mayor was elected, I think she ran in a six-way primary, you know, she became mayor of the free world [laughs], of the capital of the free world with 35,000 votes, I think it was. And you know, you could certainly criticize that primary process just for the amount of people it takes to become mayor. But the reality is, she’s a moderate, and maybe the constituency with the, you know, highest plurality of Democrats in the country, potentially.

  • 00:45:59

    John Donvan:

    I’m only breaking in because we’re hitting time, I just want to give you each a chance to just sort of make a closing statement based on the conversation that we’ve had. See if your thinking has evolved, see if you hold your grounds, or what it is you would want our listeners to be thinking and feeling about our question about whether primaries — primary elections are ruining American democracy. Elaine, why don’t you go first?

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Okay. I just say that primary elections make democracy vulnerable to the extremes in both parties, particularly binding presidential primaries. It opens up a system where a radical candidate of one persuasion or another could get a small plurality of votes in low turnout primaries, because that’s what we’ve seen, and get the nomination and then become President of the United States with either a bunch of very radical ideas that don’t work or with no experience, and no dedication to democratic norms and processes.

  • 00:47:04

    So, it’s dangerous. Now, there I’m not proposing that we get rid of all primaries, I think that’s unrealistic. But I do think that things like making a national primary day could help because that would increase turnout, and get rid of the problem of you know, 13 percent of the 30 percent deciding the outcome of a race. Or we could inject an element of peer review by other elected officials into the process, just to signal to the voters, look, people who know this business think that the following people could be president, and the following people really are not qualified to be president. And I think that that would help us protect our democracy. I think it’s protection against getting caught by a charlatan or some sort of extremist.

    John Donvan:

    And Jed, you get the last word to summarize your position.

  • 00:48:00

    Jed Ober:

    Well, thanks, John. Yeah, I think that, as I said at the beginning, that primaries are a really important part of American democracy. I think that they should be a really important part of other democracies around the world. I think they would make those democracies more stable, they make those political parties more responsive to the citizens in those countries, as I think they have made our political parties more responsive to citizens here. I think that the presidential primary, the congressional primaries that we have, the Senate statewide primaries, those are processes that you know, whether or not they’re constitutional or not, they are entwined in American democracy at this point. And I believe that those, they provide an essential opportunity for people to participate and choose those nominees. And as somebody who has worked in the Democratic Party for a long time, I strongly believe that those primaries are essential to us actually nominating whether it be as a presidential candidate or house candidate or Senate candidate nominating candidates who are ultimately more competitive than a general election.

  • 00:49:07

    And I do think that we need to —

    [music playing]

    — I fully agree with Elaine that we need to take steps to improve on our primary process. But that primary process is a really important part of American democracy, and it should remain that way.

    John Donvan:

    Okay, so some middle ground on reforming the primaries, at least. But Jed Ober and Elaine Kamarck, I want to thank you so much for joining us on Intelligence Squared.

    Elaine Kamarck:

    Thank you so much for having us.

    Jed Ober:

    Thank you, Elaine.

    John Donvan:

    And the conversation you just heard everyone perfectly captures why we do this. You know, the way that discourse happens these days, particularly around politics, it’s pretty broken. And that’s why it is so unusual, but also refreshing to hear two people who disagree actually be able to converse rationally and civilly and shed some light. And we know from many of you, that’s why you listen to us. So, I would like to remind you, as you turn to us for this, we turn to you for support because we’re a nonprofit, and its contributions and support from listeners like you that keep us going so please consider sending us a buck or two or 10 or 50.

  • 00:50:03

    Whatever works. It’ll give you a stick and what we’re doing here every week, this week, and beyond. For now, I’m John Donvan. Thank you so much for joining us at Intelligence Squared and we’ll see you next time. Thank you everybody for tuning into this episode of Intelligence Squared made possible by a generous grant from the Laura and Gary Lauder venture philanthropy foundation. As a nonprofit, our work to combat extreme polarization through civil and respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you, by the Rosenkranz Foundation, and friends of Intelligence Squared. Robert Rosenkranz is our chairman. Claire Conner is CEO. David Ariosto is head of editorial. Julia Melfi and Marlette Sandoval are our producers. Lis Matthow is our consulting producer. Damon Whitmore [spelled phonetically] And Kristen Miller [spelled phonetically] are our radio producers. Andrew Lipson is Director of Production. Raven Baker [spelled phonetically] is our Events Operations Manager. And I’m your host, John Donvan. We’ll see you next time.

    [end of transcript]

    This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please excuse any errors.

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