Is This the New Threat to Democracy? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Is This the New Threat to Democracy?

Is This the New Threat to Democracy?

By James Watkins


Because if a political system is churning out the most disliked candidates in history, then maybe there’s something wrong with it.

By James Watkins

Whether it’s been Bernie Sanders supporters screaming about superdelegates, Never Trump-ers trying to unbind delegates from their democratic mandate, or residents outside of Iowa and New Hampshire questioning why those particular states have such disproportionate influence as the first states to vote, it’s been hard not to find critics of the presidential primary process this election season. 

Funny, then, that U.S. political parties are in fact among the most open and democratic in the developed world. And even though many Americans haven’t been pleased with the results, more than 57 million of them voted in the primaries this year — close to the record turnout set in 2008, the Pew Research Center reports. Meanwhile, most parties in other developed democracies limit leadership elections to “members” who must pay annual dues to the party — or, at worst, have no public input at all.

More recently, though, parties in other countries have also started to open up, following in the footsteps of the U.S. In France, after the Socialist Party held its first fully open primaries several years ago, its Republican Party more recently bowed to pressure and now plans to hold an open primary for the forthcoming presidential election in 2017. In the U.K., the Labour Party recently reformed its rules regarding leadership selection, which enabled members of the public to sign up to vote for the first time. Meanwhile, in the Canadian province of Alberta, the Liberal Party held the first fully open primary in the country’s history just five years ago. This trend toward greater openness within political parties could lead to a deeper, more representative democracy for all, advocates argue. But others warn open contests could instead devolve into a “tyranny of the extremes,” whereby political leaders get selected by a small slice of the most radical members of the electorate.  

Some countries are dealing with a similarly radical scene.

Indeed, there is a danger that increasingly open primaries give “crackpots an extraordinary say over the parties’ nominees for electoral office,” warns Herbert Kitschelt, a professor of international relations at Duke University. Especially in systems with two leading parties, such as in the U.S. and the U.K., but also in multiparty systems, there is a “threat of mainline political parties being taken over by radical” voters, Kitschelt says. The end result could mean more parties with leaders who are extreme, inexperienced, unwilling to compromise and unappealing to the vast majority of voters in the middle of the political spectrum. Sounds familiar, right? The Republicans in the U.S. are discovering this firsthand, says David Hine, an associate professor of politics at Oxford University, who notes both the Republicans and the Democrats have been “pretty lucky” not to have produced more candidates like Barry Goldwater, who ran in ’64, until now. And had the Democratic Party been without superdelegates this year, perhaps Sanders would have clinched the nomination, and we would now be looking at one of the most ideologically extreme presidential debates in U.S. history.

Already, some countries are dealing with a similarly radical scene. Jeremy Corbyn, who won the Labour Party’s historically open 2015 leadership election in the U.K. on a wave of support from newly eligible voters, is in the middle of another leadership contest, after three-quarters of his own members of Parliament passed a motion of no confidence against him, claiming that his extreme left-wing policies could never win a general election. “In the U.K., as in the U.S., populism has taken over … and it does go hand in hand with the openness of parties,” says Hine. 

Likewise, in the French Socialist Party’s first semi-open primary, back in 2006, Ségolène Royal defeated more mainstream and centrist candidates despite having “very little structured support” within the party establishment, says Florence Faucher, a political science prof at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Royal went on to lose a head-to-head general election by six percentage points. As political parties like these open the gates to the risk of internal populism, it seems that it might not be easy to put the genie back in the bottle: Once they’ve broadened the selectorate — meaning the people that select the leader in a particular party’s vote — “they cannot go back,” Faucher says, because this would seem like a backward, “undemocratic” step. Hine disagrees, arguing this trend might well be reversible. Party establishments tend to take a long, hard look at internal processes following any general election disaster — as many predict will happen to the U.K.’s Labour Party if Corbyn remains in charge.

To be sure, the “outsiders” who have a better chance in more open party contests are not always politically extreme. In Italy, a relatively open leadership contest in the Democratic Party in 2007 swept Matteo Renzi, notably more centrist than his predecessors, to power on a wave of popular support. And four years after France’s Royal lost a presidential election, she was defeated in an even more open primary contest by a more centrist candidate who later prevailed in the general election — current president François Hollande. There’s also still a long way to go before voter turnout comes close to what was seen in the U.S. primaries this year. Only 150,000 people — out of a nationwide electorate of over 45 million — were eligible to vote in the contest for the U.K.’s Conservative Party leadership, which chose David Cameron’s successor, Theresa May. In Australia, just 100 members of Parliament voted for a new Liberal Party leader last year, and in doing so, kicked the prime minister out of office. 

Those parties are still resisting the pressure to open up, which might be a wise move. According to Faucher, parties in France and the U.S., along with the U.K.’s Labour Party, are “trapping themselves.” The lesson from the rest of the world, then, as both the Democrats and Republicans face calls to make the U.S. primaries even more open might just be: “Are you mad?!”

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