The Direct-Primary Experiment

BEFORE moving buoyantly on to the initiative, the referendum, and the recall both of judges and — this latest progression — of decisions, would it not be well to take stock of our directprimary experiment?

It has been a pretty thorough experiment. For a decade the direct primary has been increasingly used, until Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, and West Virginia are the only states in which it has not been tried. State officers are directly nominated in thirty-six states, congressmen in thirty-nine, and United States senators in thirty-four. More than three fourths of the congressmen last elected, and fifteen of the senators, had been directly nominated. In eight states, all delegates to the national conventions must under the law be selected in direct primaries.

The experiment is judged in two ways. There are those, and they are numerous, who, without caring much about the results, are content to assert that the direct primary is more democratic than the convention. And there are those who, without caring much whether it is more democratic, are interested in learning whether it has improved governmental conditions.

Shall the test be whether the direct primary is more democratic than the convention? Wherefore, then, is it said that one thing is more democratic than another? One thing is more democratic than another in so far as it. is more a manifestation of the will of all the people, and less a manifestation of the will of the boss or the high-born or the priests or the rich or some other portion of the people. The word democracy, that handiest and least understood of words, is to be classified with such words as autocracy, aristocracy, theocracy, plutocracy — words which define each a social condition, not a form of government. The word republic, on the other hand, is to be classified with such words as monarchy, aristarchy, thearchy, plutarchy — words which define each a form of government, not. a social condition. A monarchy no less than a republic may be democratic. A republic may be aristocratic, as in Athens; democratic, as, we like to believe, in the United States; plutocratic, as, some assert, in the United States. A monarchy may be pornocratic, as in Louis the Fourteenth’s France; or democratic, as in George the Fifth’s Britain.

Our forefathers of the constitutional period were interested in establishing a republican form of government, that is, a representative form of government. They were not interested in establishing a democracy. None of the states adopted manhood suffrage, even for the white man, until some twenty years after the adoption of our Federal Constitution.

Those, then, who would test the direct primary by inquiry whether it, better than the convention, fits into our ideal of governmental form, should ask, not whether the direct primary is more democratic than the convention, but whether the direct primary more than the convention is republican; that is, whether the direct primary more than the convention is representative. And, of course, the quest ion is answered in the asking. The direct primary is not a closer approach to, but a departure from, our ideal of governmental form.

However, the development here in the eighteenth century of an ideal of governmental form, that ideal being a republic, was followed by the development in the nineteenth century of an ideal of social condition, that ideal being a democracy. And granting that the direct primary is a departure from our ideal of governmental form, a second inquiry, also pertinent if only it be not confounded with the first, is whether the direct primary, notwithstanding such departure from our ideal of governmental form, does not, more than the convention, conduce to the attainment of our ideal of social condition, to the attainment of democracy. This second inquiry, the more important because involving the condition as distinguished from the form, the substance as distinguished from the theory, is, in other words, whether the direct primary does not, more than the convention, conduce to the manifestation of the will of all the people, as distinguished from the will of the boss or the highborn or the priests or the rich or some other portion of the people.

Now, the will of all the people, according to the assumption on which those of us who believe in democracy base our belief, is that we shall have that government which best serves all impartially, that we shall have government for the people. Accordingly, the case of the direct primary cannot be determined by declamation about democracy; and the method, though a departure from our ideal of governmental form, should not therefore be condemned but should be tested as an experiment by the practical question: Has it improved government, government for the people?

In an extensive investigation I have not found that the direct primary has anywhere in a permanent and substantial way improved government. Here and there conditions have been made better temporarily. Here and there conditions have been made notably worse. This conclusion is held the more confidently because of admissions of disappointment by Professor Ernest C. Meyer of the University of Wisconsin and Professor Merriam of the University of Chicago, who were among the reform’s most persuasive advocates, and have contributed more of worth than all others to the literature of the subject. The former, while still an advocate of nomination by direct vote, admits much disappointment as to certain features and a partial change of view. The latter, although not intending to express an adverse conclusion, says, ‘Some bosses are wondering why they feared the law; and some reformers why they favored it,’

The system seems to have failed in one or more of four ways.

First, everybody’s business is nobody’s business. Under the convention system it is the business of the party management to present good candidates for nomination. Under the direct-primary system it is nobody’s business to present good candidates. Tom, Dick, and Harry present themselves, and do it early. And when those who are eager to present themselves have done so, those whom others may be eager to present will not allow themselves to be presented. Willingness on the part of adequate men to serve the public in office is rare enough at best, and willingness on the part of adequate men to undergo a protracted and necessarily expensive campaign of personalities with Tom, Dick, and Harry for the right to undergo another protracted and expensive campaign for the right to serve the public in office, is more than can be expected normally except from those at once very rich and very patriotic. This view has confirmation in Boston’s experience. After the direct primary had been in operation there for some eight years the results were investigated by a commission of seven appointed by the Governor and the Mayor on the recommendation of various civic organizations. The commission was notable for the high character of its members. After a year and a half of work, it reported that the direct primary ‘operates to make the nomination and election of representative citizens to the elective offices of the city government more difficult than under the former system.'

A second reason for the failure of the direct primary to improve government is that, assuming the candidates before the primary and those before the convention to be equally desirable, the better results will come from the deliberation possible in the convention and impossible in the primary. Public, not less than private, affairs are conducted most efficiently by unified administration. A cohesive, unified ticket can be made in a convention. It will not happen in a direct primary. Notably, it did not happen last spring in the primaries of Illinois where the Democrats have been embarrassed by the fact that nearly all their nominees for state offices are Irish Chicagoans. The delegates in a convention can deliberate and construct. The people in a direct primary can only flock and choose.

And, further, as a third reason for the failure of the direct primary to improve government, the people, it is found, will not do that which they can do. They will not choose. The unpurchasable element of the electorate will not stand the strain of giving its discriminating attention to an additional election with all its wearisome campaign. To be sure, the educational effect of a political campaign is important, but the voter will not stand too much education; and, besides, a campaign of personality, such as the Taft-Roosevelt campaign, and such as generally precedes a direct primary, is not highly educational. We should not forget the exceedingly significant fact that a third of the American people entitled to vote are not interested enough to vote even in presidential elections. Outside of the politicians there is no disengaged political interest ready to be absorbed in direct primaries.

The fourth reason is the loss of party responsibility, and the loss of the efficiency of the party as an organization. By party responsibility is meant the responsibility of the party, regarded not as a mass of voters, but as an organized unit. And it was to be expected that party responsibility in this meaning would be greater in the case of a candidate presented by party workers, and nominated in a convention where the organization wrought its will deliberately by a majority vote, than in the case of a candidate presented by himself to the unorganized voters, and nominated perhaps by a minority vote in a direct primary.

It was to be expected also that party efficiency would deteriorate under the decentralizing influences of a direct primary.

And what was to be expected has in fact, generally happened. The Boston commission found that under the direct primary there was ‘no longer the partisanship of a great organization bound, theoretically at least, by party principles, and having some regard for its political responsibilities in the state at large.’

The alleged loss of party responsibility and party efficiency was investigated also by the Joint Committee of the Senate and Assembly of the State of New York on Primary and Election Laws. It conducted some sixteen public hearings in various parts of the country. This committee, in reporting adversely on the direct primary, stated that ‘no political movement in recent years had . . . split national parties into such bitterly opposing factions, as has the agitation and the operation of the direct-nomination system.’ . . .

About the existence of the facts there will hardly be any dispute. Loss of party responsibility and party efficiency does ensue. But some, while admitting the inevitableness, and indeed the desirability, of parties in national and state affairs, will say that, in so far as the direct primary weakens parties in municipal affairs, it is a good thing. Possibly — but, without going afield in the consideration here of that subject, it is a sufficient answer for the present purpose that the direct primary is not the only method of weakening party rule in municipalities. And, in any event, the loss through the direct primary of party responsibility and party efficiency must, with reference to national and state affairs, be regarded as important.

It was these four reasons for failure which led Governor Hughes to the development of his plan for a direct primary that was in fact not a direct primary in the popular meaning of the phrase. Indeed, the most, interesting and significant thing about the Hughes plan was that it included the essentials of the convention or representative system. Briefly, his plan was as follows: —

A party committee is chosen at a direct primary this year. Several weeks before next year’s primary this committee, in a meeting where every act and vote are open to the public and are recorded, presents one candidate for each office in its jurisdiction. Other candidates may be presented by the petition of members of the party not satisfied with the committee’s candidates. From the candidates so presented by the committee and from the candidates, if any, presented by petition, nominations are then made at a direct primary.

Here, then, is a plan under which, first, it is the business of somebody, namely the party committee, to present good candidates for nomination; under which, second, deliberation may be had in a representative body, the representative body being the convention of the party committeemen; under which, third, the electorate is not subjected to the strain of giving its discriminating attention to an additional election except when the party committee, by presenting unworthy candidates, has aroused the indignation of the electorate; and under which, fourth, the responsibility of the party management is direct and uneseapable.

Thus, the Hughes plan, while in its operation it might tend toward ‘legalized bossism,’ seems, on the other hand, less than the typical direct primary, to offer opportunity for the demagogue. And it is easy to agree with those who hold the demagogue a greater peril than the boss. The plan is one whereunder a club is put into the hands of the rank and file for use on the party organization, — a club which, however, merely because of the knowledge of its existence, the rank and file would not often have to use. The Hughes plan for a direct primary, in other words, accepts the party organization, the party machine. The typical direct-primary law of the West, on the other hand, is planned for the fundamental purpose, simply stated, of smashing the machine — of smashing the machine while trying to maintain party government. Now, smashing a particular machine which has become too bad for tolerance is fit work for Anglo-Saxons. But to go crusading against all machines because they are machines is a Don Quixote sort of undertaking. If we are to have party government we must leave to the politicians the making of the party nominations; and such virtue as the Hughes plan may have lies in the fact that it leaves the job to the politicians while giving to the rank and file a club and freedom of action when the job is badly done.

It is indeed to be regretted that the Hughes plan, instead of the emasculated substitute, was not enacted in New York where its operation could have been observed by the remainder of the country. Doubtless the plan will somewhere be put into practice, and it will not be surprising if its general adoption is the next phase in the development of our nominating methods. In the meantime, we are pretty well assured that there is little in our decade of experience with the direct primary, culminating in the recent presidential primaries, to justify those who, with the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, would go further in an effort to get good government by abandoning representative government.

And how we Americans are plagued by the obsession that everything, even good government, can be secured by legislation!