What's Wrong With the Presidential Nominating Process, 1884 Edition

As the 2012 presidential contest heat up, we thought we'd take a look back through The Atlantic archives at some of our historic political coverage. From these stories emerge a portrait of the American character as it has struggled with troublesome dynamics that continue to shape our politics. Here's Oliver T. Morton in an 1884 issue of the magazine, quoting utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill on what's wrong with the presidential nominating process, then conducted at national conventions:

"In the United States, at the election of President, the strongest party never dares put forward any of its strongest men, because every one of these, from the mere fact that he has been long in the public eye, has made himself objectionable to some portion or other of the party, and is therefore not so sure a card for rallying all their votes as a person who has never been heard of by the public at all until he is produced as the candidate. Thus, the man who is chosen, even by the strongest party, represents, perhaps, the real wishes only of the narrow margin by which that party outnumbers the other. Any section whose support is necessary to success possesses a veto on the candidate. Any section which holds out more obstinately than the rest can compel all the others to adopt its nominee; and this superior pertinacity is, unhappily, more likely to be found among those who are holding out for their own interest than for that of the public. The choice of the majority is therefore very likely to be determined by that portion of the body who are the most timid, the most narrow-minded and prejudiced, or who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class interest; in which case the electoral rights of the minority, while useless for the purposes for which votes are given, serve only for compelling the majority to accept the candidate of the weakest or worst portion of themselves."

While the means by which American presidential nominees are chosen is far more democratic than in Mill's day, the power of obstinate minorities of superior pertinacity would seem to persist.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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