Strides in improving the Presidential Nominating Process
Thursday, August 11, 2016
by Javier Anderson
EDITOR's NOTE: The author of the following vox Populi is no relation to Richard E. Berg-Andersson
I wish to respond to Mr. Berg-Andersson's long soliloquy recently published on your wonderful site, and, as succinctly as I can, offer as measured a response to it as I can manage. Permit me in providing not only a simple reply to Mr. Berg-Andersson's oration, but also some critical perspective needed in his piece that I feel should be included.
Firstly, as I think one can surely appreciate, it is very clear that over the long arch of the history of the United States, we have made major (some might even say "Youj"!) strides in improving the presidential nominating process since President Woodrow Wilson made his initial proposal that December day back in 1913. Before the 19th Century, only Presidential Electors were truly accountable as to who would become the leader of the country; before the 20th Century, only a few party bosses had the ability to nominate party candidates for the highest office in the land. Before 1968, National Convention delegates (or bosses) did not have accountability to any rank-and-file party members, let alone the voting public as a whole; and, before 2008, few people could really say they conceptually understood the presidential nominating process as it stood (like me) and began asking the critical questions required to make reform a possibility, if not even a probability.
To me, asking these questions, and seriously "getting under the hood" (cap tip to Ross Perot) as to how it works (or doesn't as the case may be), is a big step for this nation to take, as well as the first. Questions such as (but certainly not limited to)...
These questions- and many more- have likely been asked countless times, by many interested people (such as Mr. Berg-Andersson himself). I feel it important to emphasize, however, that such people are now joined by many more concerned citizens, particularly of the younger persuasion (such as myself) who not only join Mr. Berg-Andersson in seeing the nonsense of the current system, but bring with them the ideas, the proposals, the reforms, and- most important of all- the willingness to see change- real, meaningful, and significant change- to the process as it now stands. This critical point, I believe, is worth reiterating- but I shall do so later.
Perhaps no single critique of Mr. Berg-Andersson's piece is worth addressing foremost as the one he seemed to return to again and again when it came to realistically assessing the chances of ultimate reform of the process today. His message, as best as I could tell, was one of resignation to the fact that significant reform would be unlikely due to (among other things). . .
While such observations as these are politically astute and real, I believe they fail to entertain the idea that, in certain moments of time, surprising events may remove these obstacles in ways we did not before think possible. For the reader's benefit, the episode surrounding the Democratic National Convention of 1968 stands out as just such a moment whose political reverberations we are still living under.
For people my age, 1968 stands as little more than a paragraph or two in our colorful American History textbooks (sorry!). Few of us can truly grasp the effect the enormous upheaval and violence of that year had upon those who lived through it. From the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to Vietnam and Apollo 8- from "Guns or Butter" to "Haight and Ashbury"- it was a year that defined a turbulent decade, a climactic century, as well as a momentous generation.
The Democratic National Convention of that year stands in line with the historic paradigm that was 1968. The relatively silly, petty and minor partisanship of prior Conventions was replaced with anti-war protests, vengeful police crackdowns, and nasty floor demonstrations that placed a pall over the proceedings. To further undermine what remaining goodwill (if any) was left from such a chaotic scene, the delegates from that party nominated a man whom no voter had had the privilege of voting for at their respective caucuses or primaries for President.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey had run for President before (while still Senator from Minnesota), and had competed in primaries for that office-- but 1968 was indeed different. Not only had he skipped all primaries that year, he had won the nomination by seeking the votes that counted, those of the National Convention delegates themselves. While candidates such as Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy busily campaigned much like they would had they become the nominee, Humphrey glad-handed with the party bosses and leaders giving him the nomination. It was a situation that few leaving Chicago that summer felt at ease with.
Considering how the Presidential Election the following November came right down to the wire, one could say it was one of the (but absolutely not the most) decisive reasons the Humphrey-Muskie ticket went down to defeat. But, from the ashes of that Convention and election season, came the seeds of some of the most dramatic reform of the presidential nominating process ever seen up until that point.
Through the painstaking efforts of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, the primary election process for both Major Parties began to unwittingly democratize. Gone would be the days of the infamous and notorious "smoke-filled rooms", and real accountability would finally be built into the presidential nominating process. From now on, a majority of all National Convention delegates would now be elected (or at least selected) based on the reflective will of the people and their respective states through their states' use of, for the most part, direct primaries as well as caucuses.
With the passage of each and every quadrennial nominating process, both parties over and over again began to tinker and re-format their primary process. From delegate allocation, FDS scheduling, and ballot access- to proportionality, viability thresholds, and pushing primaries over caucuses, few could say that the presidential nominating process we have come to know and chide today bears any resemblance to the one that the nation faced in 1968. There have been however, episodes where we have taken more steps back than forward.
In 1984, based on the recommendations of the Hunt Commission, the Democratic Party implemented unpledged Party Leader/Elected Officials [PLEOs], today colloquially known as "Superdelegates". The outright undemocratic and dangerous aspects of this change became readily apparent in 2008, when the distinct possibility of a candidate being nominated despite having received fewer votes than the front-runner emerged. On the Republican side, most states still continue to have a winner-take-all method for allocating delegates, meaning that- while a nominee is decided earlier than the Democratic side- it also squelches candidates of lesser means. For the general public, the apparent randomness of these primaries and their relatively early dates does not seem to work well.
Clearly there is work to be done. But we should not be disheartened by this process as it stands. One need only look to the past (as we have but only glanced at it here) to see how changes have been made, and will continue to be made, over the course of time. Changes however will only come about if people are willing to join, participate, and persevere in the process. This is where I shall reiterate what I stated was key to my reasoning earlier. Today, the next generation of leaders and politicians are beginning to pay attention to the process. Before you know it, they will be leading the efforts of reform, opening the process up to more voters to participate, re-formatting the primary calendar, removing unaccounted delegates, and standardizing both voter eligibility, and ballot access for all candidates in all states.
As a delegate myself to one of this year's two major National Conventions, I saw the show of events, and could only imagine what they had once been. For me, I have two choices to make as to what I could take away from my experience. I could simply give up, go home, and take what I had seen as a process that was irreparable, and a sad spectacle for why our democracy is broken. Or I could take it as a challenge. This will not be easy, and will be impossible should I attempt to fix it on my own. The challenge is nothing short of reforming our country's electoral process to represent, reflect and embolden the will of the people. It is a challenge that countless others have taken up, under far less opportune chances than mine.
From poor men, to African-Americans, to Women, and to those under 21, the fight for voting rights was made with even less power or influence than I begin mine with. None of them had the ability to speak out, much less vote for their representation. Neither did they have the luxury of starting out with people sympathetic to them in power. Yet they persevered, and today, not only has the first African-American been elected President twice, but the first female been nominated by a major party for President. As a great American hero once said "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
When will the United States have an understandable, simple, and mercifully shorter and cheaper electoral method? No one can say for sure. One can be sure, however, that whatever system we do put in place, better than ours today, will soon be found lacking compared to another system published tomorrow. That's the very nature of our democracy: ever changing, ever evolving, never at rest, never static. No one can be perfectly happy or satisfied from whatever will emerge from this process, but no one should. Democracy is about compromise just as much as it is about involvement. And while we may never see the day when our system is truly perfect and flawless, that should not deter us from trying. As our wonderful constitutional Preamble itself says "to form a more perfect Union" It is altogether fitting and proper that we continue to follow that credo. What could be more American than that?
Mr. Berg-Andersson responds:
First of all, I want to thank Mr. Anderson for his kind word- "wonderful"- about our website.
Second, I very much like where Mr. Anderson noted how- especially up into the 2008 Presidential Election cycle- "few people could really say they conceptually understood the presidential nominating process as it stood": I'd very much like to think, however, that The Green Papers at least did some of its own share in the mitigating of this very lack of understanding (going back into the 2000 Presidential Election cycle)!
And now some comments related to specific aspects of that which Mr. Anderson has written in his vox Populi above.
I am currently (as I now type this) 60 years old and, of course, was therefore one of those who lived (however vicariously, via such media as network television) through "the enormous upheaval and violence of" 1968- albeit as a mere 12 year old boy at the time, one ensconced in one of New York City's more exurban commuter railroad suburbs. Indeed, I once wrote about my memories (interposed within more detailed historical data about same I only learned somewhat later in life) of the Democratic Party's presidential nomination campaign of that year for this very website- in a piece entitled Coming of Age During a Rather Stormy Spring, itself purposefully first posted here on The Green Papers on the 40th Anniversary of Robert Kennedy's passing (which happened to be 6 June 2008, just days after the last Primary votes in that same Party's presidential nomination contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama had themselves been cast)...
although I wrote within the explanation (in italics) at the head of that June 2008 piece that the 1968 Presidential Campaign is at the very roots of my enduring interest in the American presidential nominating process (and, indeed, a concomitant interest in the American constitutional and legal system- State, as well as Federal- as well as the constitutional and legal, political and electoral systems of all Nations around the globe) I, at the same time, had to admit (near the start of the main body of that same piece) that- while I would like to be able to tell the reader that the very roots of my participation on TheGreenPapers.com started with, say, my reading the newspapers over the few days following the [March 1968] New Hampshire Primary- in truth, I can't...
for, in the end, I was still that same 12 year old boy during most of what happened back in 1968- one who, for instance, was (as I briefly recounted in a much more recent piece of mine for this website), while at Boy Scout Camp, intently listening to [the 1968 Republican] Convention Roll Call on a transistor radio with the sound turned as low as possible as it could be while allowing [my tent mates and I] to still hear it (evidently, however, it was not low enough, for we were to be well reprimanded- nay, strongly upbraided- by our Troop's assistant scoutmaster for having so violated 'Lights Out'!).
Simply put: I did not- perhaps, could not- have had, back then, a fuller understanding of what each Major Party's presidential nominating process was all about (certainly not the understanding of it that allows me to do that which I do for The Green Papers now!)
Nonetheless, I did- in that June 2008 "Remembrance" of events then already four decades past for this website- try my utmost to share, and even explain, the effects those events once had (and, in at least many cases, continue to have) on me personally, despite my relative youth at the time. And, while I did not specifically state this particular purpose within that piece itself, an at least secondary motive within my having written it (and then making sure it was posted on The Green Papers on a date specific) was one in which- through my own rather insignificant gesture in this regard- 1968 would not be "little more than a paragraph or two in... colorful American History textbooks"; so that, perhaps, those much younger than myself (maybe, someday, even those as yet unborn as I now type this) might, indeed, at least begin to "truly grasp the effect the enormous upheaval and violence of that year had upon those who lived through it".
At the same time, however, I also wanted to be as historically accurate as I could be within my own (largely) retrospective account: thus, I made it most clear, in that same piece from June 2008, that- while Vice President Hubert Humphrey certainly benefited from being the presidential contender most supported by Democratic Party "regulars" in 1968 (this being the principal source of Humphrey's very ability to- that year, at least- so "glad-hand... with the party bosses and leaders giving him the nomination")- the fact was that the 1968 Democratic National Convention was still largely President Lyndon Baines Johnson's Convention, if only behind the scenes; thus- while, as it turned out, LBJ could not actually attend it (fears for the President's safety [given all that was going on both inside, and outside, the Convention Hall in Chicago] kept Air Force One sitting empty, all through what was LBJ's 60th Birthday, on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base [a singular historical irony, perhaps: as it was on that very tarmac that- less than five years before- LBJ had first addressed the American People as President, asking for their "help, and God's"])- LBJ loyalists still ran that Convention and Hubert Humphrey was, by the time of its so meeting in Chicago, "LBJ's boy" (rather sad, actually, when it comes to taking into account Humphrey's own political legacy: especially considering that Humphrey himself had once been 'Ted Kennedy'- a "liberal lion" so strongly defending the prerogatives of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party against those same "regulars"- before even Ted Kennedy himself was!).
Hubert Humphrey's nomination for President in 1968, therefore, should not be seen merely- and certainly not entirely- as a byproduct of the 'headline' "Party Bosses thwart the Will of the People": for only some one-third of the States held Presidential Primaries that year (a proportion that- up to that time- had been relatively consistent, historically: going all the way back to 1912!) and, as I myself point out in that same piece from June 2008, not all of these were Presidential Primaries as, particularly on the Democratic side, they are understood nowadays (that is: at least some of these 1968 Democratic Presidential Primaries were not, in fact, specifically geared to mathematically translate the will of the voters in same into a certain number of pledged delegates on the Convention floor)- thus, party bosses (those very "LBJ men") were able to take charge of that Convention only under the Party rules of the time. However undemocratic- where not even also underhanded- the steering of the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination towards Hubert Humphrey might well have been, this was largely made possible because most States used the Caucus/Convention system to choose (and even, in some cases, pledge) National Convention delegates, and the "regulars" (and not the "reform" forces, including those primarily anti-Vietnam War) within the Democratic Party of 1968 more easily predominated in such States.
In truth, in another (earlier) year- at another (earlier) Democratic Convention- Humphrey himself (who, as Mayor of Minneapolis, almost single-handedly caused the so-called 'Dixiecrats' to bolt the 1948 Democratic National Convention through his own so strongly pushing a strong Civil Rights plank into that year's Democratic Party Platform) would hardly have been the first choice for President of the United States of such Party "regulars"! Perhaps, then, it would be much more charitable to suggest, instead, that Hubert Humphrey "took one for the Team" (after all, someone had to be nominated for President by the Democrats in 1968!): in the main, then, Humphrey was a compromise presidential candidate (LBJ's loyal VP who, nonetheless, retained liberal credentials LBJ himself, come 1968, did not have) of a Party in which compromise, by the end of that eventful summer, seemed the last thing on people's minds.
It also has to be fairly noted that it was a party boss- Joseph Crangle, then-Chair of the Democratic Party of Erie County, NY (the county including, as well as surrounding, the city of Buffalo) and a delegate to that Convention- who introduced, on the floor of the Convention, the very Resolution that- once (somehow, in the midst of 'meeting descending into melee') adopted by the Convention- created what became the McGovern-Fraser Commission. While the 1968 Democratic National Convention was, arguably, to be the last in that Party the more directly controlled by old-fashioned "ward-heeling" party bossism, the very relationships between "regular" and "reformer" within the Democratic Party of 1968 were at least somewhat more complex than a simpler (perhaps more graspable) narrative ["It was a situation that few leaving Chicago that summer felt at ease with"] would itself seem to suggest.
Nevertheless, I agree 'McGovern-Fraser' was, indeed, the proverbial "sea change" (no matter the actual source of that Commission's advances [and even aura, historically]: ordinary Democrats being pissed at Humphrey's less than democratic nomination, or party bosses themselves not wanting to go through a 'Chicago 1968' ever again [a mirror having been held up to their own power within the Party, with their own not much liking the reflection so beheld by them], or even- as is much more likely- some combination of both). To here repeat that which I wrote about this in my most recent Commentary: the Democrats[']... 'McGovern-Fraser reforms'... were themselves adopted [whether enthusiastically or reluctantly] by Republicans in several States or, in other States, foisted upon the Grand Old Party [once the Democrats had made significant electoral gains on the State level throughout most of the 1970s] through State electoral law- this, in turn, leading to the veritable "explosion" in the number of Presidential Primaries over the course of that same decade. The virtual doubling in the number of Presidential Primaries- in both Major Parties- between just the eight years from 1968 to 1976 alone changed the American presidential nominating process for all time...
and, yes, 'McGovern-Fraser' and its immediate aftermath does show what reformers can do when and where there is enough support for just such reform.
So, it appears that the tone of my latest piece "was one of resignation to the fact that significant reform would be unlikely", eh? To my own mind, however: 'Not really'...
for I am rather ever the optimist when it comes to the American political process: to me, rampant cynicism about it is, at best, a hallmark of abject Declinism (or, at least, the so-called 'American Jeremiad' calling us all back to a long ago, more halcyon time that never ever really existed in the first place) and, at worst, just so much whining from those who didn't get their way in the last election (the solution?-- win the next election!)...
I often quote- and have even done so on this very website- the words of the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan: My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. So it is with myself (if it weren't, why would I have even bothered contributing much of the data and information one has found on The Green Papers over the past now nearly 17 years [as the site first went online in late September 1999]?). Read what I wrote in my latest piece: that it is, after all, up to the People of the United States- both in their respective capacities as citizens of the United States, as well as of their respective States (or the District of Columbia [or, for that matter, the unincoporated Territories and freely associated Commonwealths of the United States currently permitted to send delegations to National Party Conventions]), to think upon such things and then work them out (or not) as they each might see fit, prevailing upon their elected representatives in either house of Congress (or not) as they might wish to, thereby, affect the changes in presidential nominating process they themselves might desire; also read the very end of that piece, where I wrote- despite my purposefully emphatic (and, perhaps, even rather flippant) Ain't happenin'!!!... immediately preceding this- that at least we Americans remain ever free to think, if not even talk amongst ourselves, about it anyway.
It is ever my hope (nay, my firm belief) that thinking, and talking amongst ourselves, about what we each might think is best is, in and of itself, the main path to consensus. For that is the way of a Free People: "That's Freedom and that's America".
However, as I also wrote in my latest piece: I am also not naive.
Fact is: there are powerful interests (as well as interested powerful) who have their own reasons (like them or not) to oppose all too much democratization of the presidential nomination process. This being beside the obvious: that whatever change you yourself might like to see in just about anything, there are always those many who will (and, indeed, have the right to) oppose that change. In addition, whatever changes you like which might thereafter be adopted are ever subject to potentially being "watered down"- where not even outright reversed (1984 and the emergence of the 'Superdelegate' in the Democratic Party is merely a case in point here).
This is why I so often play "Devil's Advocate"- why I present counterarguments to even my own arguments- within much of what I write for The Green Papers. Therefore, for instance, take that whole last section of my latest piece as something of a "warning": as in 'This is at least some of what you will be up against; these are many of the opposing forces with which you will have to contend, or even struggle against'...
indeed, and in the main, the earlier section of that same piece is- likewise- just such a "warning":
for the results of the 1912 Elections were, arguably, the "High Water Mark" of the early 20th Century Progressive movement: Progressivism (of its own time) was, seemingly (at that time), on the rise-- it had split the Republican Party of the era asunder and, meanwhile, a Progressive (again, in his own historical context) Democrat had been elected to the Presidency. President Wilson was, therefore, not being at all "pollyanna-ish" (or, for that matter, "messianic") when he stated, emphatically in his 1913 'State of the Union' Address, that I feel confident that I do not misinterpret the wishes or the expectations of the country when I urge the prompt enactment of legislation which will provide for primary elections throughout the country at which the voters of the several parties may choose their nominees for the Presidency without the intervention of nominating conventions: the apparent mandate of the voters, as expressed in 1912, itself seemed to indicate no less; a significant, where not also similar, reform- the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution (taking the choice of United States Senators out of the hands of legislators caucusing in cloakrooms in each State's capitol and putting it into the hands of the voters themselves come the 1914 Midterm Elections)- had just been ratified by the necessary 3/4 of the States (36 of 48 back then: no mean feat, politically).
But History itself teaches that electoral mandates all too often prove fleeting and, in such cases, tend to then break themselves upon the rocks and shoals of what is, in the end (as well as in the main), actually politically feasible (itself more usually less than the ideal originally presented to the approving electorate). Thus, as it turned out, Woodrow Wilson's stated "confidence" in his own 'read' of "the wishes or the expectations of the country" very much proved misplaced (as it would again be later in his Presidency as regarded, for example, his League of Nations).
Meanwhile, mass enthusiasm for change and reform all too often fades once the harder to overcome obstacles in its way become all too obvious and are then again and again encountered (and "hard core" reformers thereafter look around and can no longer find the larger number of cohorts they, indeed, once had). Dreams die hard but, often enough, die nonetheless: change and reform looks so much better (as well as the easier to attain) on paper (or, as in the case of my own proposed Constitutional Amendment on Presidential Nomination Regulation by Congress, as words visible on a computer screen)-- the devil, then, is not only in the details of a given proposal but also in its very means of implementation!
However, and despite "warnings" such as those I myself have so posited, I have never ever suggested giving up trying!
In the end, I the more concentrated- in my latest piece- on the potential adoption of a one single day (all across the country) National Presidential Preference Primary in each Party (including, by the way, so-called 'Third Parties'), not only because it was that which was the focus of earlier discussion (now nearly 13 years ago) on this website (principally in several vox Populi), but also because it seems the logical conclusion to all that one would be trying to work toward as regards any electoral reform intended to produce "an understandable, simple, and mercifully shorter and cheaper electoral method" (what could be more understandable, simpler, shorter [in time] and cheaper [in cost] overall than a single day National Primary?)...
but many of my caveats within the latter portion of my latest piece apply, nonetheless, to many other "better" electoral methods short of an outright National Presidential Primary. In addition, the question of just which institution(s) would be the very ones to implement and/or enforce such "better" electoral methods- the (Major) Parties? the States? Congress itself (again, not without a Constitutional Amendment granting Congress power it doesn't currently have)? two of the three? all of the above?- cannot at all be ignored.