You have to fight for the right. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
You have to fight for the right. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Parties need to be open. Primaries don’t.

Seth Masket noted recently that my argument about party democracy set me against classic party theorist E.E. Schattschneider:

who 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.

Yup. Seth also calls for more discussion about this, so here's my response.

If democracy only comes down to the “accountability” of throwing out (or keeping) the bums, then democracy isn’t much of a system of government even in the best of conditions. Granted, for many of us, that’s all the democracy we really engage in. And for political leaders, the basic electoral incentive of “when in office, try to produce good times” is certainly better than nothing.

But it’s not that much better than nothing. It’s nothing like the rule of the people, which to me is the core definition of democracy, let alone like Lincoln’s definition of government "of, by, and for the people."

I think Schattschneider and those who agree with him take a wrong turn in thinking that intraparty democracy requires that voters, as mere voters, should make the key decisions. They should not and, really, cannot. Average voters just aren’t that interested in the kind of decisions that define intraparty competition (which is probably one reason why primary election turnout is typically abysmal). To the extent that typical voters make decisions by voting in primaries, the results are often heavily influenced by media or by random events such as the timing of gaffes, or a third candidate benefiting when two others attack each other.

If parties must be, in a sense, a conspiracy of some against all -- and Schattschneider and other theorists are correct about that -- then the conspiracy must be open to all. Parties must be permeable. It must be possible for citizens who want to be more than mere voters to enter into that special “conspiracy” and even to affect its most basic terms.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that any newcomer is entitled to take over the party on day one. Nor does it specify what kind of internal procedures parties must adopt in order to give those self-selected members of the “conspiracy” a meaningful voice. It’s perfectly compatible with a larger democracy for those who bring the most resources (including time, effort, influence or money) to have the most power. But it must be relatively easy for new people to join and to participate in party activities, and subsequently to earn a say in nominations, policy positions and the rest of the party's business.

Without such openness (which is at least a form of internal democracy) there is simply no way for ordinary citizens, or perhaps even non-elite groups, to do the routine work of democracy -- making policy commitments and calibrating the intensity of those commitments. Voting in either general or primary elections simply doesn't suffice.

The resulting parties might be “elite,” but in the U.S. right now those elites are made up of many thousands of Democratic and Republican party actors, including activists, members of party-aligned interest groups and campaign and governing professionals and politicians. The line separating the realm of party actors from that of mere voters is, fortunately, quite thin for those who want to pass through. To me, the key to preserving democracy involves keeping that line permeable, and not fiddling around with which voters are going to be involved in primary elections.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.