It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To

Not satisfied with consuming our vigorous national political debate, the storm of “bipartisanship” has now begun striking in the West, aparently with the intention of spreading not just purple mountain majesties, but purple voting as well, all across the fruited plain. No doubt the idea of bipartisanship is attractive, but it assumes a definition of bipartisan which is synonymous with “consensus” and which is, in fact, the opposite of what the word ought to mean.

Open primaries are, especially given California‘s climate, ultimately nothing but the dreadful first step down a road to one-party rule. And we can be assured that the party in power will not represent the best of different moral visions. Rather, the level of deadening ideological conformity and unprincipled calculation will be so high that it will make Lewis Carroll’s Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum seem the very zenith of diversity. Open Primaries will do nothing to increase the diversity of the political process through mechanisms such as third parties; rather, it will swallow all attempts at political insurgency.

But of course, the most oft-cited objection to open primaries is that it undermines the ideological purity of both parties, and this is a weak objection, considering that both ideologues and party elders agree that the American party system is not meant to be a battle between two different ideological camps, but rather between two vehicles for election who use ideology for the purposes of campaign rhetoric. You can paint a pig red or blue, the argument goes, but like a politician, his change of color will not mask the fact that his pork is what sustains his career. Let’s grant this premise, and then ask a crucial question: do open primaries solve it?

The answer is no. Open primaries may ultimately expose the fact that the Emperor has no clothes, but they will only exacerbate the unprincipled nature of both parties. Suppose open primaries are allowed – is anyone seriously going to argue that people will cross over to vote in the other party’s primary because of ideas of public-spiritedness and democratic accountability? Even if this were true of some rare soul who has survived the vicissitudes of modern politics, it is an utterly unrealistic assumption. It is more likely that open primaries will encourage two kinds of crossover voting – what I will call “hedging” and “sabotage.” “Hedging” in this case refers to voting for a candidate whose platform is similar to the other party’s platform such that one’s bets are “hedged” in voting. “Sabotage” should be fairly obvious in its purpose – it means voting for the candidate who is least likely to win so as to ensure a victory of one’s own party. Those who are skeptical should look to Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” which tried to resurrect the Hillary Clinton candidacy despite its overwhelming likelihood of failure in a general election, and almost succeeded.

If the reader still doesn’t believe these things will happen, it may be instructive to look at the open primaries which existed in the Republican race this year. McCain in most cases lost the actual Republican vote, but carried the independents and crossover Democrats. The only reason McCain could have garnered this large a slice of non-party members is either because they were hedging their bets or because they were trying to make the GOP fail by nominating a broken old warhorse who was badly past his prime. Whichever motive these voters had, the success of their plan was incontestable.

Of course, the proponents of open primaries may point out that just because you have closed primaries, it doesn’t mean cynicism will go away. They would be correct to say that cynicism exists in the status quo. However, my point is not that cynicism will magically materialize if open primaries exist – my point is that what little public-spiritedness is left in the process will evaporate because of the perverse incentives.

Moreover, both parties have well-developed enough attack machines that the process of sabotage and counter-sabotage would ultimately monopolize the process and shut down discourse. Suppose, for instance that the Republicans have seven candidates, of which one is an insane man who believes that the communists are tapping all his phones, while the rest are relatively electable. Obviously, the Democrats would have an incentive to vote for such a person, meaning that Republicans would be thrown back on voting defensively for the candidate who they thought had the highest chance of winning, rather than voting for the one whose views most closely matched their own. This sort of Machiavellian calculus is well and good for party elders, but it defeats the ostensible purpose of voting, which is not supposed to be a politically calculated move, but a statement of one’s electoral preferences. As a result, voting becomes nothing but the meaningless, mechanized process of lever pulling and loses any rhetorical weight it might have had as a democratic mechanism.

William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote that the “purpose of an open mind is to close it to certain things.” Considering that the purpose of an open primary is to close it to genuine debate, it seems quite clear that open primaries are one such example of something which our minds ought to shut out completely.