It was the Democratic convention of 1968 in Chicago that began a trend toward presidential primaries as the proving ground for major party nominations. Vice President Hubert Humphrey received the Democratic nomination for president that year despite having entered the campaign late and despite a strong showing by other candidates, notably Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy. The convention, which was marred by violence from youth groups protesting the Vietnam War and questioning the legitimacy of American traditions and practices, gave impetus to those arguing for a popular national primary or, failing that, state practices that relied more on binding delegates to the results of statewide primaries.
But as former PJP participant Bruce Ackerman, of Yale Law School, argues in an interesting interview done for Harper’s this month, the forty or so years since then have demonstrated primaries as a dangerous seedbed for “charismatic idealism.”
Ackerman says that under the previous system, “somebody like Sarah Palin could never have gained the support of party leaders who dominated the traditional party conventions. But today’s primary system—dominant only since 1972—permits right- or left-extremists to win a major party nomination. Palin’s a leading contender today only because her hard-right base will flock to the primaries, and may outvote Republican moderates.”
In a wide-ranging interview timed to the release of Ackerman’s new book, “The Decline and Fall of the American Republic,” Ackerman doesn’t say that the primary system is inherently bad. He notes, for instance, that “we’ve already had presidents who would never have made it under the pre-1972 Convention system—Carter, Clinton, and Obama would never have been picked by the party establishment. But we’ve been lucky so far—all three turned out to be moderates. As Palin suggests, our luck may be running out. And even if she loses, maybe the next threat will come from the hard-left, not the hard-right. My book isn’t about particular candidates, but long-term institutional trends. If and when a charismatic extremist makes it to the White House, she will not only have a massive staff of superloyalists at her disposal. She will also be in charge of a powerful media operation constantly projecting her ‘vision’ through scientifically tested sound-bites and imagery. This too is a novelty…Such a systematic deployment of a presidential ‘politics of unreason’ is just the thing our Enlightenment Founders sought to avoid.”