In his latest column, “Your Primaries Are Worth Trash” [Dec. 8], Jonah Goldberg calls for an end to party political primaries. Goldberg writes, “The real cost of primaries — all of them — is bad for democracy.” Goldberg is a conservative, I’m a liberal, but I agree with him on this.
Along with social media and cable news, partisan primaries are one of the biggest sources of unjustified political and cultural division in America. As Goldberg notes, they empower political and cultural extremes at the expense of the majority. I don’t believe the government has any more business helping political parties select candidates than it does helping Baptist churches select deacons.
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Partisan primaries created Donald Trump, made him president, and are his greatest source of power. This, as Goldberg also pointed out, has turned Donald Trump into a cowardly profile of the Republican Party. Every Republican politician is now worried that Trump is “mainstreaming” them.
As far as I can tell, America is the only country in the world that uses party primaries to select candidates for public office. We need to critically examine this practice, its origins and its impact on democracy.
In 1896, South Carolina created a “white primary” to exclude black voters. Over the next few years, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia followed suit. Until the 1960s, winning the Democratic primary in the South meant winning the general election.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by anti-Vietnam War protests. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated for the presidency unopposed in any of the previous Democratic primaries. A “room full of smoke” was seen as a problem.
The McGovern Commission was created to reform the nomination process. As a result, there was an explosion of presidential party primaries. Since then, presidential candidates have been chosen by the voting public instead of the respective political parties.
Reform of the nominating process allowed President Richard Nixon to use dirty tricks to sabotage the 1972 campaign of the leading Democrat, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. Nixon’s campaign effectively hand-picked his opponent, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. In that election, Nixon won every state except Massachusetts.
As if party primaries weren’t bad enough, the Republican Party continues to “rule as one.” This means that a candidate for president can win by getting a majority of all the state’s delegates. This rule allowed Donald Trump to win the nomination in 2016 with only 44 percent of the vote. This rule, which is also used in the Electoral College, won Trump’s 2016 election with only 46 percent of the vote (2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton).
Despite the ugly, anti-democratic nature and history of partisan primaries in America, there is a simple and easy way to solve it: Louisiana’s nonpartisan primary. All candidates of all parties participate in one primary election, each of which determines the political party. Regardless of the top two parties, it will go to the second round. Texas has used this type of special election for decades.
Since 1978, Louisiana has used nonpartisan primary elections to elect federal, state, and local officials. David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, ran unsuccessfully for U.S. senator and governor of Louisiana in the 1990s. The nonpartisan primary helped prevent Duke from taking over the Louisiana Republican Party.
As a result of good faith government initiatives in recent years, nonpartisan primary elections have expanded in one form or another to four more states: California, Washington, Maine, and Alaska. Maine voters adopted it in 2016, and Alaska in 2020. In each of these states, it is performing well.
Sarah Palin’s personally destructive, divisive politics backfired in Alaska’s new nonpartisan primary this year. Alaska’s primary also includes ranked-choice voting and instant runoffs. In Alaska, one of the republic’s strongest states, Palin came in a distant second in the first round with just 26 percent of the vote. In the Alaska primary, Palin lost to Democrat Mary Peltola by 10 percent.Partisan primaries foster the politics of hate, fear, greed, and lies. Establishing nonpartisan primaries in every state would be an important step for democracy in America. I don’t believe that anything can be done to stop the culture war.
We need a democratic reform movement in Texas and across America to adopt nonpartisan primaries and other necessary democratic reforms.
Charles Reed is a retired federal employee and former mayor of Waco.