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Closed Partisan Primaries Breed Extremism; It's Time for Change

by Nelson Easterling, published

Closed party primaries have shifted political power from mainstream Americans to the lunatic fringes of both major political parties. Each party has a large, though not necessarily majority, percentage of activists that demand extreme responses to public policy issues.

When closed primaries are held, even relatively small groups have dramatically enhanced influence over the outcomes. This is true even when gerrymandering is not an issue.

For example, when the electorate is evenly divided between the major parties, the candidates must pay attention to a relatively small number of activists. A candidate receiving less than 26% of the total electorate can win the nomination of each party.

In this example, both candidates would be expected to rush to the middle in the general election. But this, too, creates problems. The overt hypocrisy is not lost on any element of the electorate. Mainstream voters react with increased cynicism toward politics, and radicals from both sides become more radical and more aggressive.

The truth is, most elections are held in an area where the candidates only have to appeal to one side of the political divide. In that case, the winning candidate will have to garner more than 26% of the total electorate, but will not have to move to the middle for the general election. The results are about the same. Radicals are elected. Radicals become more radical. And mainstream voters are disenfranchised and excoriated.

The nationwide result is even more catastrophic. Large segments of the electorate withdraw, and the remaining voters become hyper-polarized. Instead of the centrist nation that has existed from the earliest days, we now have a bimodal electorate with a missing middle. That missing middle has been the source of America’s greatness for more than two centuries. Its loss is devastating to our political future.

The level of discourse envisioned by James Madison in Federalist Paper #10 is destroyed. The essence of democracy is eroded. Our collective future is placed in jeopardy.

Restoring the positive promise of American democracy demands that we end the travesty and the tragedy of closed partisan primaries.

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