Whatever Bernie Sanders wants to be
All this talk about corruption in politics is led by none other than Bernie Sanders, who’s thwarted the political primary election system established a century ago. Sanders is an Independent, not a Democrat, unless he chooses to be so. He also calls himself a democratic socialist or progressive. Although he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, he is whatever he wants to be, no matter the purpose of the primary system. His effort on Tuesday to get his liberal candidate elected in the Michigan Democratic gubernatorial primary failed miserably — by some 20 points. Sanders is so far to the left of Democratic Party policies that he leads to division, paving the way for Republican victories.
When I wrote my high school American history textbook in 1992, I made an extra special effort to make certain that all my entries were absolutely correct. So with respect to the primary system, I wrote: It “gave
[all italics mine] a chance to choose their candidates for office. (Before the primary system came into use
leaders had chosen the candidates.)”
In short, reformers in the early 20th century rested their primary system reform on the foundation that there would always be a two-party system as the basis of American democracy and that voters, to cast a ballot in a primary, could do that only as an affiliated member of either of the two parties. The great fear of reformers in the 1890s was that a third party or parties would arise, threatening the stability of American politics.
The vision of reformers included not only the stability of presidential options in elections but, more importantly, of Congress. Note that through much of the history up to that time, Congress held substantial power. To provide for the stability of that institution in lawmaking was critical, and having numerous political parties represented therein would work against that historic bastion.
Not surprisingly, the presidential primary system, first adopted by Florida in 1901, languished in the 1920s, an era of one-party dominance. As Edward Conrad Smith pointed out in his Dictionary of American Politics (1924): “At the present time the presidential primary is of little importance in determining what candidate will be nominated.”
Subsequently, the record was the same, with some victorious nominees either not entering primaries or losing most of them, as with Republicans Herbert Hoover in 1932, Thomas Dewey in 1948 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Democrats Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 were nominated without running in any primaries.
To be sure, after 1968, both political parties undertook to make reforms that would make the system more inclusive. There were still criticisms: Small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire had a significant role in providing eventual winners, and political scientists came up with a slew of changes that were so complicated as to induce headaches, and with fancy names: the graduated random system, rotating regional plan, an interregional plan and even a national presidential primary.
But the more serious matters dealt not with small states versus large states but with the movement of many states from the traditional “closed” primary in which only party members could vote to the “open” primary permitting ballots to be cast regardless of party affiliation. And then there’s the “hybrid” option of states in which nonparty affiliation may or may not grant access to the ballot.
This openness mentality has affected Democrats in Congress to an extent that it may cost them the upcoming presidential election, no matter whoever is the presumptive nominee. For the long-touted maverick from Vermont, Sen. Bernie Sanders — the longest serving Independent in congressional history — has been permitted to caucus with Democrats in recent years because they needed his votes. Sanders has not only long bashed Democrats but now gained stature on their committee assignments.
Worse, in the Aug. 14 senatorial primary in Vermont, Sanders is running as a Democrat. When he wins, he’ll decline the nomination and run as an Independent — making it absolutely impossible for any Democratic candidate to run against him.
And this isn’t the first time Sanders used this offensive ploy. He did it in 2012 in his senatorial election as well as in 2006. To be sure, he’s so popular in Vermont he could have whipped any Democrat there, but his quest to cherry pick which sides of the political party spectrum he chooses to use at any one moment is deplorable.