I recently wrote a piece here about some recommendations for reforming primaries. Jonathan Bernstein used that as a jumping-off point for a really interesting discussion about the purpose of party primaries. I wanted to comment a bit on that discussion, because I think the whole idea of just what a primary is and what purpose it serves is vitally important but is often lost in our debates about reforms.
As Bernstein notes, party primaries are the main method by which American political parties officially select their nominees. They are not the only way to do this—parties sometimes use caucuses or conventions or other methods. But they remain the dominant method because both voters and party leaders generally prefer them.
The democracy genie does not strike me as one that can be coaxed back into its bottle in the case of primary elections. As more states experiment with primary reforms, we'll likely see further abuse to the original intent of primaries.
Voters like party primaries because they are much more open than the other methods of candidate nomination; voters actually have a say in the nomination of candidates when there's a primary. Party leaders like them because their authority is (almost always) unquestioned. The loser of a primary can't claim to be the true winner with any chance of actually appearing on the general election ballot as his party's nominee.
Of course, the idea of a primary as a tool for a party to pick its nominees gets a bit murky when we start considering open primaries (which allow people registered with other parties or no party at all to vote). Is it OK for, say, Democrats to be picking the Republican Party's nominee, as apparently happened in Mississippi recently? And the theory goes all to hell when we start talking about devices like California's top-two primary, which really redefines the purpose of a primary election to one that has little to do with party nominations.
Bernstein notes all this and then puts in a plea for parties to be internally democratic:
For democracy to really work, parties must themselves be democratic; most importantly, they must be permeable. In a sense, parties are conspiracies of groups seeking to control nations through democratic means. To have functioning democracy, that “conspiracy” must be open to all interested, including the possibility that newcomers can affect the terms of the conspiracy.
Bernstein is noticeably distinguishing himself here from political scientist E.E. Schattschneider, a minor deity among a lot of us parties scholars. Schattschneider famously said that "democracy is not found in the parties but between the parties." He argued that the whole idea that a party could be run democratically was a farce since a party would always contain a small elite who would do all the real maneuvering and a large group of weakly attached voters who bore no obligations to the party whatsoever and had little idea of how it should be run. We could call that an oligarchy, he said, or we could just dispense with our quaint notions of internal party democracy, let the parties pick who they're going to pick, and do our best to ensure fair and open competition between the parties in general elections, which is the essence of democratic accountability.
Schattschneider's arguments are obviously not particularly politically appealing. No voter likes to be told that they're irrelevant to the conversation and that the parties are better off just choosing candidates without their help. But he was, of course, quite right, and prescient, to note that the whole mythos of primary elections would get out of hand. There's a built-in contradiction: The state runs the primary election, with citizens' money, but regularly tells groups of citizens (non-party members, for example) that they may not participate. Yet over time, many citizens have grown to see participation in a primary as a right, akin to the right to vote in a general election.
The democracy genie does not strike me as one that can be coaxed back into its bottle in the case of primary elections. As more states experiment with primary reforms, we'll likely see further abuse to the original intent of primaries. Parties will thus resort to less formal means of picking their nominees and rallying support around them, as we've seen in California. But it might be worth our while to have a bit of discussion first about the purpose of primaries and to recognize that someone will be picking nominees for us whether we want that or not. We can decide how transparent we want that process to be.