Recently the State of California held their primary elections for State Legislature. It was a brand new system designed by “reformers” to make the system “better”. In short it was an overhaul of the traditional primary and general system to try and elect more “moderate” candidates, as the reformers thought more “moderates” would solve California’s problems. It was an attempt to get around the political impasses in the Golden State by getting rid of politics and replacing it with something else. What that something else is, “reformers” have never quite explained…
Alas it was not to be:
All incumbents who ran this year advanced to the fall campaign, and all but four finished in first place. Likewise, 101 of 113 non-incumbent candidates endorsed by the major parties advanced.
The primary elections showed how irrelevant the whole reform effort was as. What we are seeing here is the fool’s errand of trying to take politics out of politics. Political scientists have long documented, indeed since the 1790’s, that when faced with a new environment or system of elections political parties respond. They work around complex rules meant to limit their power and find new strategies to do what political parties do best: organize candidates, elected officials and voters, take positions on issues and win elections. In California the parties responded by borrowing a page from the Iowa playbook, both the Republicans and Democrats held endorsing conventions to choose a candidate for offices and then worked hard to get the word out to activists and party loyalists on whom the “right” candidate to vote on was. As you can see from the results, it worked quite well.
This is not unique. After Watergate liberal Democrats in Washington were at the height of their power, they won a landslide in 1974 and won the presidency in 1976. Many of these liberals were products of the fierce ideological battles of the 60’s and they sought to try and fundamentally reform our politics systems and make them “better” and more “democratic”. Indeed, they largely shied away from the nitty gritty of passing regular legislation to deal with common problems. No, they wanted to change the entire political process instead. They passed strict campaign finance laws to try and limit the role of money in elections, the passed the War Powers Act to try and limit the presidency in foreign policy and prevent future Vietnams and got rid of the old boss dominated system by introducing a national system of primaries and caucuses to pick presidential nominees.
Alas it also didn’t work. Parties and special interests invented new ways to raise cash, so called “soft money” that we heard oh so much about in the 1990’s. Every President has simply ignored the War Powers Act since its passage and it has never been enforced by Congress or the Courts. And old big city and Dixie courthouse bosses were replaced by county party chairs and state legislators in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s an old rule in politics, being right is never enough.