Why Political Reformers Should Be Careful What They Wish For

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Once seen as a way to ensure fair elections, closed primaries have become a main contributor to the polarization of American politics

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Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

There's a rare event on the opinion pages of the Washington Post, a veteran political operative admitting he's been wrong -- really wrong. Mark A. Siegel explains:

A significant factor in the polarization of American politics is the "closed primary" -- contests that restrict participation to registered party members. This is an unanticipated consequence of what was meant to be a positive reform of the Democratic Party nominating system, preventing strategically mischievous "crossover voting." As Democrats changed state statutes to close their primaries, the laws generally affected Republican primaries as well. By excluding independent voters, who generally are ideological moderates, the restrictions narrowed the internal debate within both parties and accelerated the radicalization of American politics.

I am not a bystander to this process. I have served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee and as a member of three Democratic delegate selection reform commissions that incrementally moved to restrict participation in our party nominating processes...

What began as an "honorable" antidote to episodes like Michigan Republicans voting for George Wallace in 1972 has bitten the Democrats back, damaging their cause far more, Mr. Siegel tacitly acknowledges, than the work of such isolated spoilers:

Closed primaries affect politics and public policy. They are empirically skewed to the parties' base constituencies, exaggerating their role and impact. They produce spectacles such as the one we saw during the recent debt-ceiling crisis, when the ideological rigidity among House Republican freshmen prevented Speaker John Boehner from negotiating a "grand deal" with President Obama that included a balance of revenue enhancers and entitlement reform -- an approach supported by two-thirds of Americans, according to an August Gallup survey... We have a Congress of ideologues representing a country of pragmatists who increasingly feel alienated by partisan rancor. Indeed, a Gallup poll found that on the debt-ceiling debate, 82 percent of Americans thought members of Congress were guided by partisan advantage while only 14 percent thought they were acting out of what was good for the country.

This isn't the first time Republicans have run with liberal ideas. Vietnam draft protestors helped give us the all-volunteer army, without which the politics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would probably have looked very different. Jimmy Carter's White House Conference on Families helped launch one of the most effective religious conservative organizations, the Family Research Council. As my friend the sociologist Gary Alan Fine has observed, it was liberals who encouraged the formation of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI during the New Deal, giving it authority to investigate subversion. Martin Dickstein, the New York Democratic representative who inspired the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) primarily to investigate Nazi sympathizers like those in Dickstein's Yorkville district, remains the only member of Congress known to have spied for the Soviet Union. Of course HUAC targeted almost exclusively the Left after World War Two.

Returning to primaries. I'd personally appreciate letting independents vote in either party's primary, but then wouldn't all would-be partisan spoilers then register as independents, as at least one comment on the Siegel op-ed observed? As the Connecticut political scientist Gary L. Rose observed only half jokingly of his own state last year, maybe it's time to "bring back the bosses."


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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