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Are Primaries What’s Wrong with American Politics?

Are Primaries What’s Wrong with American Politics?
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Primaries elections are good, right? It’s how we hold the party accountable and raise up progressives! It turns out there’s more to the story. This week on “How We Got Here,” Max and Erin explore how party primaries have led to the success of more extreme candidates, the passage of fewer polices, and an increase in American polarization. From the Tea Party and Ron Paul to decidedly not “tea” parties with Texas House Speakers, this week’s episode probes the dangers of primaries, and why the U.S. seems to be the last country in the world to catch on.

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TRANSCRIPT

 

Max Fisher: So, Erin, there’s a weird little result from Super Tuesday that I wanted to tell you about, because I think it says a lot about why our politics are the way they are these days. 

 

Erin Ryan: Is it that Marianne Williamson beat Dean Phillips in Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Vermont? Yes we, Williamson? 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] No, it’s the uh race for a state House seat in Texas. It’s in the suburbs of San Antonio held by a guy named Dade Phelan, a Republican. He’s uh, he’s actually the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh, I know this guy. 

 

Max Fisher: Powerful guy. Even has support from some Democratic lawmakers, which he needed to get that speaker job. 

 

Erin Ryan: But also, you know, a Texas state lawmaker. Helped pass some of the country’s strictest abortion restrictions and loosest gun laws. A party official called him, quote, “The most conservative leader that we’ve ever had in the state of Texas.” That sounds like it has to be an exaggeration. 

 

Max Fisher: [laughter] Well, on Tuesday in the Republican primary, his own party voted against him 46 to 43 for not being conservative enough. He hasn’t lost his seat yet. It’ll go to a runoff. 

 

Erin Ryan: But it feels like a real sign of where we’re headed. The Republican Party is pulling so far to the right that if it were a car, it’d be doing donuts. [music break] I’m Erin Ryan. 

 

Max Fisher: And I’m Max Fisher. 

 

Erin Ryan: And this is how we got here, a new series where Max and I explore a big question behind the week’s headlines and tell a story that answers that question. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, at this point, you probably feel like, you know what we’re going to say. That Republicans are getting more extreme and more ideological, and that’s all there is to it. 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, you wouldn’t be wrong about the Republicans. 

 

Max Fisher: You wouldn’t. But there is a much bigger story here that we want to tell you about. It’s about why Republicans have been getting more extreme and why Congress is more dysfunctional and Americans are more polarized, and why there’s more money in politics. 

 

Erin Ryan: This sounds like it’s the origin story for a lot of what’s bad and weird about American politics today. So what is it? Did the rapture actually happen in 2001? Have the last 23 years been the leftovers. 

 

Max Fisher: You wish uh no the answer is uh it’s primaries. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay, so what, MAGA activists are gaming the primaries or something? 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, I mean, the very existence of primaries, the fact that a few months before every election, we all go to the polls and select who our party will run. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay, Max, let me stop you. I’ve spent the last week helpfully texting my friends in Super Tuesday states to make sure that they cast their ballots. Voting in primaries is democracy. It’s how we hold the party accountable. It’s how we raise up progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. How could that be bad? 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] It’s so it’s definitely all those things. But there is a growing school of thought that voter primaries have brought all of these other sweeping changes to our politics in ways that we’re really only now coming to understand. 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, if we want to tell the story of what primaries changed, we should talk about how things worked before the era of voter primaries. 

 

Max Fisher: Now there’s a classic phrase for how political parties used to select who they ran in elections, the smoke filled backroom. 

 

Erin Ryan: Aw of course, the party leaders all got together, and they just decided among themselves who to nominate for president or for the Illinois Senate race or for dogcatcher. We don’t really see a lot of dog catchers anymore. [laughter] I feel like in ’80s cartoons there were dog catchers driving around all the time. 

 

Max Fisher: I always hear about them on the ballots. Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, yeah exactly. Well, voters didn’t really have a say, dogcatcher or senator. 

 

Max Fisher: Well, that was how it worked for a really long time. Like here, for example, is a newsreel from 1956 announcing that the Democratic Party surprise had picked Adlai Stevenson as their presidential candidate. 

 

[clip of newsreel from 1956] Attention [?] around Convention Hall in Chicago. As nomination time approaches and delegates stream in for the big session. Again, Adlai Stevenson is the man of the hour as banner headlines proclaim his imminent nomination as the Democratic standard bearer for 1956. 

 

Erin Ryan: So people could vote in primaries. But they didn’t count for anything. They were just for show to build party enthusiasm and I guess, waste people’s time?

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] Yeah, like beauty contests. Uh. The party picked who got on the ballot. It controlled fundraising. And if you were a politician, even a very powerful one, you had to do what the party said. 

 

Erin Ryan: Or they would just not run you for reelection in the next cycle. It’s their party, and you’ll cry if they want to. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] It all reflected a certain vision for the role that parties played in our democracy. They enforced discipline within their ranks so that everyone voted as they were told. 

 

Erin Ryan: So a lot more legislation actually gets passed. There was very little of this chasing down your Joe’s Manchin or Kyrsten’s Sinema. Less gridlock or obstructionism. 

 

Max Fisher: But maybe the party’s most important role back in the day was to act as gatekeepers. They set the bounds of acceptable politics in the country by determining who is allowed to participate and who wasn’t. 

 

Erin Ryan: There’s good and bad to that. The good is that they kept out demagogues and extremists like Father Coughlin, the super popular priest and radio broadcaster who argued for adopting German and Italian style fascism in America. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, not a great guy. And in his peak in the 1930s, 1 in 4 Americans were listening to Father Coughlin’s show every week. And he was trying really, really hard to influence politics directly. But he mostly failed because for all of his popularity, the parties just flat refused to put any of Coughlin’s people on the ballot. And like here’s a clip where you can hear his and his supporters frustration at that. 

 

[clip of Father Coughlin] He may be a Democrat or a Republican or whatnot, but we’re through with that sham battle of politicians, and now we’re on our own. 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, that sounds like a room of ham colored men. [laughter] There’s one big exception to this, but it’s kind of the exception that proves the rule. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Good point. Okay. Barry Goldwater, the far right senator who got the GOP presidential nomination in 1964. 

 

Erin Ryan: It’s sort of a convoluted story of how that happened, but the point is that he was obliterated in the general election a few months later. He only won six states. Republicans lost 38 seats in the House and over 200 seats in state legislatures. 

 

Max Fisher: So under that old way of doing things, even if some fringe activists could push forward a far right extremist like Goldwater. Every other part of the political system, like fundraising or media, was still controlled by these kind of establishment institutions who rejected him. 

 

Erin Ryan: We should say there’s also a bad side to this system. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: Because it wasn’t just demagogues who were kept out. The parties also systematically excluded racial minorities, women. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. 

 

Erin Ryan: Important parts of the population. 

 

Max Fisher: Right, important people. Yeah. This is a really important point. The parties cooperated to keep white men in power, even in, say, majority Black cities and districts. 

 

Erin Ryan: They also frequently blocked socialists from office. So their definition of who counted as an extremist could be pretty narrow and self-serving. 

 

Max Fisher: And that’s actually a big part of how that system got thrown out and replaced with the one that we have today. 

 

Erin Ryan: As the civil rights movement was growing in the 1960s. It’s not lost on people that the parties are sticking them with nearly all white and all male leaders who are fighting to block progress toward racial and gender equality. 

 

Max Fisher: That exploded very infamously at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The party picked Hubert Humphrey as its presidential nominee, but Humphrey was really unpopular with Democratic voters for his perceived support of the Vietnam War. Eugene McCarthy, the much more popular antiwar candidate got shut out. Protesters gathered at the convention, police attacked, and it really spiraled. 

 

[news clip from unspecified source about the 1968 Democratic National Convention] What are you trying to strong arm stuff? He’s an elected delegate. The Chicago Police are now in the aisles here with billy clubs clearing people out. 

 

Erin Ryan: Years later, a terrible sports stadium would be named after Hubert H. Humphrey. Which–

 

Max Fisher: Huh. 

 

Erin Ryan: Which is fitting. Yeah. The Metrodome. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh okay. 

 

Erin Ryan: No longer exists. This is one of those formative moments that was a big deal when it happened, but has since become just more and more important as the consequences have reverberated ever since. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. Humphrey lost, and the party launched this big internal investigation to figure out what had gone wrong. And investigation produced what is probably one of the most important documents in the last 50 some years of American politics. 

 

Erin Ryan: Even if you’ve never heard of it, it transformed how you as a voter participate in American politics. 

 

Max Fisher: That document is the 1971 McGovern-Fraser Commission, and it basically said we live in changing times. And if the Democratic Party is going to survive, it needs to devolve some of its power to rank and file party members. 

 

Erin Ryan: As the report puts it, quote, “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.” Ah. Hair of the dog. [laughter] And that means taking gradual steps toward binding voter primaries like the ones we have today. 

 

Max Fisher: That was, we should say, a really new idea to let kind of the masses pick your party’s nominee for you. 

 

Erin Ryan: It generates a lot of new voter registrations for the Democrats. People are excited to get to participate in this. So the Republicans, not wanting to lose out, say that they’ll start holding binding primaries too. 

 

Max Fisher: It’s very, very gradual, though. In 1972, the first year that either party allowed these binding presidential primaries, they were only held in 23 states. 

 

Erin Ryan: By 2000, Democrats held binding presidential primaries in 40 states and Republicans in 43 states. So it took a really long time to become the more or less dominant way of picking candidates. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, not until 2000. Which is kind of wild to think. And that that gradualness is part of why it took us a long time to recognize how primaries were going to change our politics. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah. You first start to see it in the ’90s with the rise of the longshot outsider campaigns that no one expects to win, but get just enough traction to act as spoilers. 

 

Max Fisher: Ah. Yes. Like our boy Ross Perot, the anti-tax billionaire who ran as a weirdo third party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996. 

 

Erin Ryan: Or Pat Buchanan, the right wing culture warrior who ran in the 1992 Republican primary against then President George H.W. Bush, then again in 1996 against establishment favorite Bob Dole. 

 

Max Fisher: Buchanan said he was running, and I think this is kind of illustrative of what he represents because, quote, “What I can’t stand are the backroom deals. They’re all in on it. The insider game, the establishment game. This is what we’re running against.” 

 

Erin Ryan: Wow, echoes of Barry Goldwater. 

 

Max Fisher: It sounds familiar. 

 

Erin Ryan: Seriously. 

 

Max Fisher: Right? Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: What which really shows how there is still in the ’90s, a lot of frustration among people on the ideological fringes that they’re locked out of politics. Even with the primaries opening up to voters, the party exerted its dominance in all these other ways. 

 

Max Fisher: So even with like Pat Buchanan, you could now put your name on the primary ballot to challenge an incumbent. You still needed to raise money. 

 

Erin Ryan: But the party establishment’s controlled fundraising, access to the big money guys, to the fundraising galas, to the donor networks. 

 

Max Fisher: You also needed a way to get your message out, which meant either going through the party, organizing networks. 

 

Erin Ryan: Controlled by those same backroom party insiders. 

 

Max Fisher: Or through the handful of establishment news outlets that could reach big audiences. 

 

Erin Ryan: And good luck getting endorsements from other members of the party who wouldn’t want to piss off the leadership and risk getting dropped in the next primary. 

 

Max Fisher: But that all gets changed by, you guessed it. 

 

Erin Ryan: The internet? 

 

Max Fisher: The internet, even though voter primaries had been around for a few decades. It’s really in the 2000s that running an outsider primary challenge actually becomes viable. 

 

Erin Ryan: Now, if you’re an outsider who wants to make a go of it in your local primary, you don’t need the party support to raise money or reach voters. You can do it all online. 

 

Max Fisher: This is huge. From 2000 to 2016, I was stunned by this number. The number of individual donations to political campaigns exploded from 55,000 in 2000 to by 2016, 566,000. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh my gosh, that’s that’s such an explosion. Some of those had to butt dials. [laughter] You know, everyone’s got a smartphone. Some of those are an accident, you butt dial. 

 

Max Fisher: Listen, butt dialing participation in politics still has an effect. 

 

Erin Ryan: It still counts. Exactly. Even if you vote by butt, it still counts. The internet also gives rise to all sorts of alternative media outlets. So even if you can’t get airtime on NBC news, now you can recruit followers and volunteers online. 

 

Max Fisher: Erin, do you uh, do you remember Ron Paul? 

 

Erin Ryan: I love remembering Ron Paul, the Wackadoo former Texas congressman and conspiracy theorist and newsletter author. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh yes. 

 

Erin Ryan: Father of Rand Paul, friend of white nationalists and survivalists, obsessive proponent of abolishing the Federal Reserve. 

 

Max Fisher: He’s going to get that fed one of these days. So Ron Paul had been around forever, and he never really had much of a following. But then the internet appeared. Suddenly it’s 2004 and he’s the king of angry white 22 year old Redditors. His bumper stickers are proliferating in frat house parking lots and he is all over YouTube. 

 

[news clip about Ron Paul] This isn’t Ron Paul’s first run for president. He signed up in 1988 as the Libertarian Party candidate and got less than 1%. But this time’s different. 

 

[clip of Ron Paul campaign member] It’s this grassroots movement that almost precedes the campaign. Yeah. So we’re in a position where we’re having folks contact us for materials and signs. We’re not like the other campaigns trying to find people to put things out. 

 

Erin Ryan: Ugh. This season of Ron Paul’s Drag Race is real boring. [laughter] I want to see a lipsync contest. Uh. Max, aren’t you forgetting someone, a certain other political outsider who is a bit too outside his party’s moderate consensus and ran on challenging the party establishment. 

 

Max Fisher: Donald Trump? Oh, we’ll get to him. 

 

Erin Ryan: No. Barack Obama. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh, right. Obama. Sorry, his name does not come up much here at Crooked Media. So I had forgotten about him. 

 

Erin Ryan: [laugh] He is the party establishment now, obviously, but in 2008, he was the left wing outsider who was seen as a longshot against Hillary Clinton, who had the support of more of the party establishment. 

 

Max Fisher: And he eventually won. Of course. 

 

Erin Ryan: Spoiler alert. 

 

Max Fisher: [laugh] I know, I’m sorry if you haven’t caught up to that season of American politics, don’t watch any further past that. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay, I won’t. 

 

Max Fisher: So he did win, thanks in large part to online organizing and fundraising. To going around the party, which was seen as backing Clinton. But there was his big controversy at the time because of this weird rule that meant that even if Obama did win more primary votes, he might still lose the primary. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh God, you’re going to retraumatize me. We’re going to talk about superdelegates aren’t we?

 

Max Fisher: Superdelegates. So remember the way that primaries used to work way, way back in the day? Party leaders voted among themselves to pick the nominee. And as late as 2008, the Democratic Party had not totally given that up. Those old style party leaders still controlled 20% of the deciding vote in presidential nominations, and those party leaders were called superdelegates, and voters had the other 80%. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yes. And as Clinton was underperforming in primaries, her campaign was cultivating superdelegates to try to win at the convention. 

 

Max Fisher: That didn’t come together for various reasons not worth getting into. But the point is that this transition to voter primaries has been so gradual and so recent, that it was still ongoing just a few years ago, like the Democrats only finally abolished superdelegates in 2018. 

 

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Erin Ryan: Wow. So we should talk about what the rise of primaries changed about our politics, because you need to see the deeper consequences of primaries. The ways that it’s seeped into the political fabric of the country to understand not just how someone like Trump could win the GOP primary in 2016, but why the party rank and file coalesced around someone like him. 

 

Max Fisher: Erin, are you ready to get into some deep political science? 

 

Erin Ryan: Ah. Political science, the study of unintended consequences,, ignored warnings, and mistakes endlessly repeated. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK] 

 

Max Fisher: So as primaries become like truly, fully open in the 2000s, something starts to change. In one election after another, primary voters in both parties begin drifting towards more ideologically extreme candidates. 

 

Erin Ryan: Are they maybe just responding to the party putting more extreme candidates in front of them? 

 

Max Fisher: In just the opposite, actually, the parties consistently back more moderate candidates, and the candidates they support don’t become any more extreme or more moderate over time. It’s pretty consistent. So there’s this big study on this that tracked every Senate primary from 2004 to 2014, and it found that this effect held regardless of which candidate was the incumbent. It also found that every year that passed, primary voters gravitated toward more extreme candidates, and their gap with party backed candidates got wider and wider. 

 

Erin Ryan: It’s not hard to understand why the parties would prefer more moderate candidates. They are presumably easier to manage, less likely to buck leadership, less likely to cause down ballot problems like Goldwater did in ’64. But why would voters be pulling toward extremes? 

 

Max Fisher: I know what you want to say. 

 

Erin Ryan: I want to say lead poisoning. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay. I’m not ruling it out. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay. 

 

Max Fisher: But I would say that among the political scientists, there are two theories on this. Not mutually exclusive. The first is that primary voters are just by nature more ideological. They pay closer attention, they’re more engaged, so they are further left or right, depending on the party. 

 

Erin Ryan: The research on that one is, I know, kind of mixed. Some people think it bears out in surveys of attitudes among primary voters, others that it doesn’t. 

 

Max Fisher: And the other theory is that as primaries get more open, there is greater influence in them from donors and from activist groups, and that these people really are more ideological, and they kind of displace the party’s more moderating influence. 

 

Erin Ryan: So the idea is that donors and issue groups are gaining more influence with voters, but then they also gain more influence with the candidates who turn to them for money and organizing help. Like, for example, when a MAGA Republican in safe red districts like Matt Gaetz’s come into work in the morning, he’s not thinking about how we can help the GOP succeed nationally, or what sort of legislation might be popular with his district in the next election. He’s thinking about doing everything he can to win the next Republican primary in his district, which means pleasing activists and small donors who represent a small but super engaged slice of his district. You know, crazy people. 

 

Max Fisher: Crazy people. [laugh] There’s another study that I think really reveals how impactful this shift is on our politics. So the thing you have to know for this is that over the past couple of decades, a bunch of states have passed laws making it harder for political parties to raise money to use in campaigns. And what that means is that candidates have to instead turn to private donors and activist groups to do the things that parties used to do for them. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay. Keep going. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, now a few political scientists looked to see whether there was a consistent pattern in what happened in the states that made it harder for parties to raise money. 

 

Erin Ryan: Oh, I see, so because the laws are passed in different years in different states, this is a way to just isolate the effect of weakening political parties, separate from whatever else was happening in the country at any given moment. 

 

Max Fisher: Right. And what they found is that any time that some new law like this weakened political parties, suddenly moderate candidates became much likelier to lose their primary, and more extreme candidates became much likelier to win. The point of this study was to kind of separate out the difference between what the parties want versus what donors and issue groups want. And the latter want more extreme, more ideological primary winners. 

 

Erin Ryan: Two years ago, when Arizona held elections for governor, Republican primary voters passed over all the establishment or moderate candidates to nominate Kari Lake, an election denier with no political experience. But the things that made her a primary frontrunner also made her too toxic for the general, which she lost. 

 

Max Fisher: And as the primaries have gotten weaker with the rise of voter primaries and the internet and everything else, the two parties have gotten pulled by those forces to greater and greater extremes. 

 

Erin Ryan: But what makes this dangerous is that sometimes the wingnut wins, especially in states or districts that are overwhelmingly Republican, like Matt Bevin. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh is this the guy who tried to primary Mitch McConnell? 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, he’s he’s a lot. [laughter] Uh. In 2014, Matt Bevin, a tea party weirdo from Kentucky, tried to unseat McConnell as not conservative enough. 

 

Max Fisher: Wow. 

 

Erin Ryan: He lost. But a year later, he ran in Kentucky’s GOP primary for governor. He only got about a third of the vote, but it was a four way race. And so that was enough. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh. 

 

Erin Ryan: He became the GOP primary nominee and because Kentucky is overwhelmingly red, won.

 

Max Fisher: Oh, yeah. And that’s kind of how Trump wins in 2016. He got the most committed fringes to back him in a crowded primary that pushed him into first. And then in the general, all those Republicans who were maybe a little bit too worried about how extreme he was to vote for him in the primary, they’ll vote for him for president. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah. So I think we’re kind of underplaying the significance of all this by just saying that the issue is that the Dems are moving left and the GOP is moving, right. You were saying earlier that the way the parties used to work, the basic principle of day to day democratic functioning was that the parties were in charge. That’s how they rallied their lawmakers, governors, and city councilors to all coordinate and work together to get things done. That only worked because every politician needed the party’s help to win and hold office. But now we live in what is effectively an entirely new system, where the candidates don’t rely on the parties so much anymore. And that means the parties aren’t really in charge anymore. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, and for a bunch of reasons, not all caused by primaries. Political parties are seeing their power collapse. To understand why that matters, I talked to Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, and she said that parties are losing that old ability to keep demagogues and extremists out of power. But that’s just the start. 

 

[clip of Julia Azari] People don’t really see parties as having a kind of legitimate function, and they’re distrusted as organizations. That makes it hard for them to perform a kind of pluralistic function, like really figure out how they’re going to balance out interests and disagreements within their coalitions. And so I think it just makes them kind of institutionally weak. And I think that that is more important than the more obvious gatekeeping piece. 

 

Erin Ryan: In a lot of ways, as parties lose power, it’s their primary voters who are in charge, especially in states or districts dominated by one party. And primary voters are not representative. 

 

Max Fisher: They also just have very different priorities and preferences than, say, a bunch of party leaders who are looking to get some legislative wins on the board to tout in the next election. Primary voters are on average just less interested in securing policy wins and more interested in seeing ideological combat against the other party. 

 

Erin Ryan: Ah yes. Owning the lib. 

 

Max Fisher: Owning the libs. Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: I feel like I see now how we got the Tea Party, that big wave cresting in 2012 of angry, far right protests and even angrier and further right Republican primary challengers. 

 

Max Fisher: And they’ve been at a pretty consistent civil war ever since. Like, here’s John Boehner, who was of course, the speaker of the House, talking in 2013 about the Tea Party wing of the party, which was trying to force him to shut down the government and defund Obamacare. 

 

[clip of John Boehner] I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly, I just, think that, they’ve lost all credibility. 

 

Erin Ryan: That really highlights the split. Boehner’s allegiance is to the party. So he wants popular policies that will help it win nationally. The Tea Party lawmakers owe their power to Republican primary voters and party activists. So that’s who they are trying to please. 

 

Max Fisher: And that civil war is the context in which Donald Trump rises a few years later and overruns the old party establishment once and for all. 

 

Erin Ryan: Do you remember the Ted Cruz unity ticket? 

 

Max Fisher: Oh God. 

 

Erin Ryan: This last gasp in the 2016 primary by the Republican establishment to block Trump by rallying everyone around the least likable man in Washington? 

 

Max Fisher: So now it was one of the most pathetic things that I’ve ever seen. And I spent all weekend watching YouTube’s a Willy Wonka’s chocolate experience. 

 

Erin Ryan: I am obsessed with Willy Wonka’s chocolate experience. 

 

Max Fisher: The GOP unity ticket. 

 

Erin Ryan: It’s–

 

Max Fisher: Of YouTube deep dives. 

 

Erin Ryan: Exactly. And of course, it didn’t work because Trump was everything that a certain subset of Republican primary voters had always wanted, but felt the party wouldn’t give them. Outright white nationalism, extreme anti-immigration policies, though also a rejection of the neocons who led us into the Iraq war. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, I think this kind of speaks to why Republicans have been so much more susceptible to this internal divide and pull to extremes than Democrats have. Because there was this tension for a long time between what Republican primary voters wanted and what the party would give them. And, of course, the party had helped to cultivate those white nationalist and anti-immigrant attitudes in the first place. Republicans thought they could just juice those sentiments to win elections and then ignore them in office. But they were wrong. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, they had a tiger by the tail for quite a long time. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. 

 

Erin Ryan: And then the tiger was like, hey. Give–

 

Max Fisher: I can vote in primaries now.

 

Erin Ryan: –give yes, and give me some meat. Democrats aren’t quite as far from their median primary voter, but they for sure have a version of this. That’s part of why in the last few years, there have been more primary challenges against Democrats, too, and almost always from the left. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. I mean, someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the good version of this, right? She is also emblematic of the ways that primaries are pulling the parties away from the center. 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay, but isn’t all of this stuff also driven by bigger forces like outrage over rising inequality or white backlash on the right, or maybe by certain powerful donors or media orgs like Fox News, or just some longshot candidates straight up out campaigning their overconfident opponents. How do you know it’s really primaries? 

 

Max Fisher: I wondered that, too, until someone pointed out to me that globally, whenever another country adopts voter primaries like ours, pretty much the same thing happens. 

 

Erin Ryan: I’ve heard this theory, primaries caused Brexit. 

 

Max Fisher: I have to tell you, Erin, I think it did. American style voter primaries are really, really rare overseas. 

 

Erin Ryan: Ah. Like ranch dressing and Mountain Dew. That feels telling. 

 

Max Fisher: Britain’s Labor Party was actually one of the first. It adopted primaries in 1994, though just to select the party leader, and the Conservative Party followed in 2001, and then later extended primaries to a couple of Parliament elections too. 

 

Erin Ryan: This was David Cameron’s big thing, right? Help the party connect with more everyday voters? 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah. The problem was that the average Conservative Party primary voter is substantially older, more conservative, and more likely to be male than the average Briton. So three and four conservative primary voters want Brexit, but only about half of the normal rank and file actual conservative supporters want it. 

 

Erin Ryan: But what do you know? Holding the referendum helps normalize the idea of leaving the EU. A few opportunists like Boris Johnson try to whip up Brexit support for their own gain, and in 2016 it barely passes with 52%. 

 

Max Fisher: I think this is kind of instructive for Trump’s rise too. Like when he first ran he was actually pretty unpopular among even rank and file Republicans, but that hardcore segment of primary voters was enough to win the primary. 

 

Erin Ryan: And thanks to the way that polarization works, voters saw that his ideas now had the endorsement of a major political party, one that a lot of people identified with very closely and so came to embrace them. Now he and everything he stands for are gospel on the right. 

 

Max Fisher: Yeah, as kind of polarization does a lot of the work there and now every election cycle, we see more wingnut primary challengers on the right who get more and more extreme and more and more dangerous. 

 

Erin Ryan: Just last week in North Carolina’s gubernatorial race, the GOP primary went to literal Holocaust denier, Mark Robinson. Here’s part of a video that leaked of Robinson telling a Republican women’s group– 

 

Max Fisher: Quite a choice.

 

Erin Ryan: That he wants to go back to a time when women couldn’t vote. 

 

[clip of Mark Robinson] I absolutely want to go back to the America where women couldn’t vote. You know why? [someone clears throat in background] Because in those days, we had people who fought for real social change and they were called Republicans. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay. [laugh] Okay, Mark. 

 

Erin Ryan: [laugh] I’m gobsmacked. 

 

Max Fisher: So another quick example of a foreign country trying out voter primaries because I think it is so revealing. Did you know that the two big parties in France held presidential primaries exactly once, just a few years ago in 2017? 

 

Erin Ryan: Okay, that is truly a wild year to decide you want to make your political system more like America. 

 

Max Fisher: It was a disaster. The right wing party nominated a scandal plagued wing nut and the left wing candidate went on to win only 6% in the general. Both parties permanently collapsed and France has not really done primaries since. 

 

Erin Ryan: Ah. Sacrebleu.[?] I’m getting the sense this thing we in America take for granted as just a normal routine part of democracy is not really seen that way in the rest of the world. 

 

Max Fisher: Often when I talk about this, I find that people can be resistant to the idea that primary systems might be behind a lot of our problems. And I get that, like what it replaced was also bad. And I think also it’s just like it sounds like an argument for rolling back our right to vote in primaries, like for rolling back democracy. And people don’t like that. 

 

Erin Ryan: Yeah, but it doesn’t have to mean that. Because there’s got to be other ways to hold primaries that still let people vote but don’t lead to, you know, all this. Like I just voted in the California primary. My ballot was like a damn Cheesecake Factory menu. I ended up panicking and writing in firecracker shrimp for District Judge. 

 

Max Fisher: She’s she was a little conservative for me, actually. Uh. So we could talk for hours about alternate electoral systems. 

 

Erin Ryan: Let’s not. 

 

Max Fisher: Okay, okay. Well just to give you one, to show that ours is not the only way, it’s called ranked choice voting. 

 

Erin Ryan: And like everything cool, they’re already doing it in New York City. 

 

Max Fisher: And also in the cultural vanguards of Maine and Alaska. 

 

Erin Ryan: Instead of an election between just two candidates who are themselves picked by their respective primaries. In ranked choice voting, a bunch of candidates run simultaneously. And as a voter, you get a ballot with all of those names on it. You pick as many as you like, and you rank them by preference. 

 

Max Fisher: If your first ranked choice gets eliminated, your vote is redistributed to your second ranked choice, and so on. 

 

Erin Ryan: The idea is to not polarize elections between two choices, and to not limit your option to whatever those two primary fields have picked for you. Ranked choice winners tend to have broader, if sometimes less impassioned, support, and they tend to be more moderate. 

 

Max Fisher: Like, imagine if we’d rerun the 2016 presidential election as a ranked choice ballot, and it’s Trump and Clinton, but it’s also Bernie Sanders and Biden and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Probably like about a third of voters still put Trump first. But in the absence of a super polarizing race, the other two thirds might rank him very low or not at all. Hillary is probably first on some ballots with second or third on a lot more. Maybe same for Bernie. And so both probably outperform Trump under ranked choice. 

 

Erin Ryan: And that’s how we ended up with President Vermin Supreme. [laughter] Now I’m luxuriating in this thought experiment. But ranked choice isn’t the only alternative. 

 

Max Fisher: Firstly, I think we need to go way further. Full party list proportional representation, unicameral parliamentary, that’s the way. 

 

Erin Ryan: All right. This is America, Max. Door is that away. Okay, we should close out by going back to the guy we talked about at the start of the show, Dade Phelan.

 

Max Fisher: Right. The speaker of the House of Texas, who came in second in his own primary. 

 

Erin Ryan: So there are some highly specific Texas shenanigans, which you should absolutely Google if you’re not familiar with them, because they are shenanigantastic. Um. Having to do with Phelan taking on Ken Paxton, the far right Texas attorney general, and a petty, petty boy. We don’t have time to get into it, but it’s sort of a microcosm of what’s happening with the party nationally. With an activist fringe taking over the party and then purging it of heretics who dare compromise with Democrats. But it’s also a weird Texas thing that centered for a few days on a video that supposedly showed Phelan drunk on the Texas House floor. 

 

Max Fisher: Wait, drunk? Really? 

 

Erin Ryan: Well, maybe. Maybe not. I wasn’t there. Couldn’t smell his breath. Ken Paxton’s allies wanted us to believe Phelan was drunk when they started plastering this video all over social media. Conveniently just days before news broke that the Texas House was investigating Paxton for corruption. 

 

Max Fisher: Oh I see. 

 

Erin Ryan: And bribery. Either way, we’ll leave you all with Phelan’s slurs. Because, buddy, I get it. 

 

[clip of Dade Phelan] Mr. Campbell. [incoherent slurred speech] is [?] author. Is there objection to the opposite amendment. [indistinct] Amendment is adopted. [gavel slams]

 

Max Fisher: I’m really worried about him. [laughter] I’m not sure that’s just alcohol. [laughter] [music break] How We Got Here is written and hosted by me, Max Fisher, and Erin Ryan. 

 

Erin Ryan: Our producer is Austin Fisher. Emma Illick-Frank is our associate producer. 

 

Max Fisher: Evan Sutton mixes and masters the show. 

 

Erin Ryan: Jordan Cantor sound engineers the show. Audio support from Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes and Vasilis Fotopoulos. 

 

Max Fisher: Production support from Leo Duran, Raven Yamamoto, Natalie Bettendorf, and Adriene Hill. 

 

Erin Ryan: And a special thanks to What a Day’s wonderful hosts Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family. If you didn’t know, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter, check it out and subscribe at crooked.com/subscribe. Don’t forget to follow us at @CrookedMedia on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter for more original content, host takeovers, and other community events. And if you enjoyed this episode of What a Day, consider dropping us a review on your favorite podcast app. [music break]

 

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