W&L’s Connelly Writes About the Presidential Selection Process
“The presidential selection process has for decades been a grand, national accident waiting to happen.”
Bring back the party bosses: Media moguls
replaced smoke-filled rooms
By William F. Connelly, Jr., Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University
It finally happened.
Since the 1970s McGovern-Frazier presidential nominating process reforms, we have, every four years, “reformed the reforms” making the process progressively more “open and democratic” in hopes of finally slaying the dragon of “party bosses in the smoke-filled rooms.” At long last we have succeeded — with Donald Trump the result of this democratized nomination process. Congratulations. We are now reaping the whirlwind of majoritarian populist reforms.
Woodrow Wilson may be celebrating, while James Madison is disheartened.
The presidential selection process has for decades been a grand, national accident waiting to happen. Indeed, it almost happened in 1992 with Ross Perot. Recall the soft demagoguery of “I’m Ross. You’re the Boss.” While discussing complex policy conundrums, Perot frequently insisted “It’s just that simple,” promising to get under the hood to solve our nation’s problems with alacrity.
Perot, who ran as a largely self-funded third party candidate beholden to no one, effectively nominated himself on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” At one point during the general election, Perot led Republican President George H. W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. Yet Perot – dubbed “a paranoid little ferret” by humor columnist Dave Barry – ultimately incinerated his own candidacy with his quirky penchant for conspiracy theories. Easy come, easy go.
Perot owed his candidacy to the media bosses, rather than to any party bosses. “I was his New Hampshire,” Larry King boasted. Similarly, today Donald Trump’s outsider populist candidacy owes little to the Republican “establishment.” To the contrary, most GOP governors, senators, and House members did their best to stop Trump, as witness the dearth of elected officials at Trump’s Cleveland nominating convention.
Similarly, Republican donors and “#NeverTrump” conservative intellectuals did their darnedest to derail his candidacy; but to no avail. Trump’s outsider populism defeated more than just the other sixteen GOP candidates. Similarly, Bernie Sanders came close to Hillary Clinton, in spite of the best efforts of establishment figures like DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Democrats’ undemocratic “superdelegates” reform largely helped save Hillary in the end.
As political theorist Herbert Storing noted, “The few never sleep, while the many are rarely truly awake.” Our presidential selection process reforms traded one set of elites for another; media bosses replacing party bosses, with the new process seemingly more intent on entertaining than enlightening voters — all in the pursuit of ratings and viewership. Televised “presidential debates,” for example, place a premium on outrage, goading gladiatorial candidates into demeaning mud wrestling matches. The advantage goes to celebrity candidates.
In an age of celebrity candidates, we find ourselves with an “apprentice” president utterly lacking relevant experience. And it shows. Trump may be the ultimate “unintended consequence of reform.” What’s next, a “Saturday Night Live” comedian for president in 2020?
Our media-driven presidential primary process produced a disconnect between the qualities needed to run for president and the virtues needed to serve as president; disconnecting campaigning and governing yields tweeting taking the place of cabinet level deliberations. The Donald may be ideal for filling a voracious 24/7 cable news vacuum. Thank you, CNN, FOX and MSNBC!
Who needs a cabinet or a West Wing filled with serious policy mavens, when a president can watch cable TV talk shows, then emote into his twitter feed? Reality has been replaced by a media-created in-the-moment mediality. Is it any wonder that we find ourselves debating “fake news” today?
Ironically, if the current Progressive Wilsonian “direct democracy” process is purportedly so democratic, how did it result in nominating the two least popular major-party candidates in polling history? Party regulars, Madison might remind us, especially those who actually know the candidates and can exercise serious “peer review,” may ultimately be better judges of candidate character and competence, and less likely to fall prey to populist demagoguery.
Is a media-dominated outsider populist primary process an adequate substitute for a party-oriented republican process capable of exercising a deliberative judgment on whether a particular candidate is ill-suited by character and temperament to be President of the United States? Or, as political scientist Jim Ceaser has argued, perhaps we need a “mixed system” which requires candidates to appeal to popular sentiment and to pass peer review muster with party professionals, especially elected officials with whom presidents need to work. The media bosses have failed us with their faux populism.
We need to relearn the value of Madisonian republicanism. Let’s reform the reforms to make the process more deliberative and less democratic. Bring back the party bosses. The general election is sufficiently democratic to allow us to pass judgment on their nomination choices.
William F. Connelly, Jr. is the John K. Boardman Politics Professor at Washington and Lee University.