Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Dr. Addams’ prescription for democracy
More of the same
“The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy,” wrote Jane Addams in 1902. Addams was a stalwart of the progressive movement, and her formula was gospel among progressive reformers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Confronting a political system controlled at the state and local level by corrupt bosses and their cronies and at the federal level by a Congress beholden to powerful business interests, the progressives proposed to break through the barriers to popular self-rule and give the people a greater say in their own governance.
They did so with such measures as the Seventeenth Amendment, which shifted election of senators from state legislatures to the voters of the states; the initiative and referendum, by which voters in the states could vote directly on new laws; the recall, by which voters could remove elected officials before the officials’ terms ran out; and primary elections, which gave voters a voice in the nomination of candidates by the parties.
Some of the progressive reforms worked as advertised. The direct election of senators diminished the notoriety of the Senate as the “millionaires’ club,” a reference to the practice by which wealthy wannabes to the upper house bribed state legislators to win seats there. The voters of a state were harder to bribe than the much smaller group of state lawmakers.
The initiative and referendum gave voters a way to circumvent or chasten state legislatures. Over time, voters in the two dozen states that adopted these reforms weighed in on property taxes, school spending, affirmative action, legalization of marijuana and many other issues. State legislatures, initially averse to the loss of power the reforms entailed, came to see merit in a system that allowed them to deflect controversial issues to the people—which was exactly where those issues ought to be decided, the progressives said.
But the adoption of primary elections exchanged one imperfect nomination scheme for another. At first the primaries were simply advisory—indeed they were called “preference primaries,” for merely revealing voters’ preferences. The political bosses still had final say over who was nominated. This became clear in the Republican primaries ahead of the 1912 presidential election. Former president Theodore Roosevelt challenged incumbent president William Howard Taft, and in a series of Republican primaries Roosevelt proved more popular with Republican voters. But the bosses withheld the nomination from Roosevelt, selecting Taft instead. Roosevelt broke party ranks to head the Progressive ticket, which lost to the Democratic slate headed by Woodrow Wilson and dragged the Taft ticket down too.
Though party leadership continued to oppose primaries, their democratic appeal proved irresistible and they spread to more and more states until they effectively supplanted the national conventions as the mechanism for selecting the parties’ nominees. The high tide of primaries, for the Democrats, came in 1972, when George McGovern won the party’s nomination against the opposition of party veterans, who predicted a disastrous defeat in the general election. After the prediction proved true, the Democrats pulled back by setting aside a bloc of convention votes for “superdelegates”—elected officials and others thought to have the long-term interests of the party at heart. A candidate could still win the nomination by sweeping the primaries, but in a close race the superdelegates would hold the balance.
The power of Republican primary voters reached an apogee in 2016, when they made Donald Trump the nominee of the GOP. Republican pols almost uniformly distrusted Trump as an interloping self-promoter whose background showed little attachment to principles the Republican party had long held dear. But primary voters—including non-Republicans in the twenty-plus states that don’t check party membership in advance of primary votes—turned their backs on Republican leaders and gave the nomination to Trump.
Primary elections might have been an improvement over the smoke-filled rooms that produced nominations before the early 20th century, but their spread turned out to limit democracy in another way. With primary elections for thousands of offices around the country, they lost the appeal of novelty and in time attracted only the most zealous members of each party. The zealots tended to hold the most extreme views, and they nominated the most zealous candidates—or at least the ones most willing to tell the party zealots what they wanted to hear.
A principal complaint of the progressives about nominations in the days before primaries became decisive was that the bosses of the two parties wound up selecting nominees who were indistinguishable from each other. Progressive editor William Allen White declared in 1912 that the difference between Wilson and Roosevelt was like the difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee—that is, no difference at all.
The problem today is just the opposite. The primary system produces nominees who are so far apart that the ones who are elected can’t speak usefully to elected officials of the other party. And the candidates of neither party represent the broad middle of the political spectrum where most voters reside.
Consider two issues of particular concern today: abortion and guns. Eight-five percent of voters think abortion should be legal under some or all circumstances; 64 percent thought Roe v. Wade should remain the law of the land. Yet for decades Republican candidates felt obliged to denounce Roe and promise to back Supreme Court appointees who would overturn it. On June 24 they got their wish.
Regarding guns, more than 60 percent of Americans support bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, and more than 80 percent support background checks. Yet Republican primary voters have made it impossible for Republican elected officials to support meaningful restrictions on gun ownership, thereby keeping Congress from acting. (The law just approved is very narrowly circumscribed.) Meanwhile the same Republican-dominated Supreme Court that struck down Roe also invalidated a New York state law limiting the carrying of guns outside the home.
What would Jane Addams have said about this? Most likely that the cure for the ills of democracy was more democracy—perhaps meaning, in this case, that since primaries have evolved to frustrate the will of the people, they should be abandoned or dramatically revised. The problem is that the zealots have become the gatekeepers to general elections; the solution is either to remove the gates or to change the gatekeepers. In 2020 Democrats in four states employed ranked-choice voting in presidential primaries. This voting scheme lets voters choose more than one candidate, in their order of preference. If no candidate wins an outright majority of first-place preferences, the candidate with the fewest such votes is eliminated, and the ballots of voters who ranked that candidate first now give their votes to their second-ranked candidates, and the totals are recalculated. This process continues until a candidate rises to the top of the counting. It sounds complicated, but it’s done by computers, and the process produces nominees with broad appeal. A candidate who is no one’s first choice but everyone’s second choice can win; the incentive, therefore, is for candidates to appeal to the widest range of voters instead of aiming for the zealots.
An alternative, or a complement to reform of primary elections, would be an extension of the progressive idea of direct democracy through the initiative and referendum. In the former, voters generate ballot measures; in the latter, legislatures refer bills to voters. Either way, the people vote directly on laws. About half the states have adopted a form of this system; why not hold national referendums? Many other countries hold referendums, and these have resolved divisive issues like abortion and, in the case of the United Kingdom, Brexit.
For an American national referendum to be binding would require an amendment to the Constitution. But even a nonbinding referendum would have great power. The British referendum that produced Brexit had no standing in Britain’s constitutional order, but it was politically decisive nonetheless. Imagine a national referendum, even unofficial, on abortion or guns. If the voting reflected recent polling, it would give Congress enormous incentive—and welcome cover—to enact the middling legislation most Americans favor.
The zealots wouldn’t like it. But in a democracy they shouldn’t be the ones making the decisions.