This seems like a rather odd argument to be running under the banner, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” no?
And yet, here we are. Today’s version of darkness comes from Marquette professor Julia Azari, who thinks democracy works when it produces the kind of candidates that appeals to her. When it doesn’t, it’s time to turn the process over to the elites — her word — who will then use their superior intellect to divine what voters truly desire.
There’s a word for that, but it’s not “democracy”:
The current process is clearly flawed, but what would be better? Finding an answer means thinking about the purpose of presidential nominations, and about how the existing system falls short. It will require swimming against the tide of how we’ve thought about nominations for decades — as a contest between everyday voters and elites, or as a smaller version of a general election. A better primary system would empower elites to bargain and make decisions, instructed by voters.
One lesson from the 2020 and 2016 election cycles is that a lot of candidates, many of whom are highly qualified and attract substantial followings, will inevitably enter the race. The system as it works now — with a long informal primary, lots of attention to early contests and sequential primary season that unfolds over several months — is great at testing candidates to see whether they have the skills to run for president. What it’s not great at is choosing among the many candidates who clear that bar, or bringing their different ideological factions together, or reconciling competing priorities. A process in which intermediate representatives — elected delegates who understand the priorities of their constituents — can bargain without being bound to specific candidates might actually produce nominees that better reflect what voters want.
That would better reflect what voters want than … what voters actually say they want? By voting for what they want? This argument is as paternalistic as it gets.
Just how would this work, anyway? Azari first explains that we need to embrace the value of the elites, and then give them a jumbled mess to manipulate. Voila — “democracy” is saved!
For decades, the conversation about nominations has been about the conflicts between party elites and everyone else. Today, that conversation is counterproductive. A better approach is to think about how voters and elites could best play their different roles: to make their political parties more representative while ultimately narrowing the nomination choice down to one person. And the best way to do that would be through preference primaries.
Preference primaries could allow voters to rank their choices among candidates, as well as to register opinions about their issue priorities — like an exit poll, but more formal and with all the voters. The results would be public but not binding; a way to inform elites about voter preferences.
This process could accompany a primary of the sort we’re used to — in which voters’ first choices instruct the delegates, and preferences come into play only if there’s no clear winner.
So let’s get this straight. Having primary voters choose their own preferred nominee by direct vote doesn’t give a clear indication of what they want. However, some three-dimensional ranked voting across fifty-plus contests (don’t forget the territories!) crunched into apps run by the same party that brought us the Iowa caucus disaster will somehow make the “preference” of this diverse electorate clear … to the elites. Riiiiiiiiiight.
Bear in mind the consequences of this approach beyond nominations. If voters stop having direct input on nominees, then they won’t have full direct impact on the eventual general-election winner, either. All they will actually elect are the people who will make those decisions for them, not any particular candidate. In essence, Azari wants to allow voters to staff the proverbial smoke-filled back room, not the Oval Office.
All this does is set up a system where primaries (and caucuses, although hopefully those are an endangered species at this point) don’t matter at all. The cloud of ambiguity that would hover over such a system would require the “elites” to make the decision every time. And in fact, it seems expressly designed for that exact outcome. Elites won’t just get a “bigger say,” they’ll get the whole say, every time.
That’s quite a proposal to stick under the “Democracy dies in darkness” banner.
Final thought: What does Azari think of the Electoral College, which theoretically (although not functionally) operates in the manner she theorizes above? It chooses delegates from the ranks of party elites who then (again, theoretically these days) decide what voters actually prefer. She’s surprisingly more fond of direct democracy in that case. Hmmm.
Update, 9 pm ET: The Washington Post changed the headline at some point without acknowledging the change. This is the new headline:
Same argument below it, though, right down to trusting the elites to make the decision. Perhaps democracy now dies in editorial darkness?