Sunday, October 13, 2013

George McGovern, the Tea Party, and unintended consequences

George Friedman of does a good job of going back the the political roots of the current government shutdown.  He avoids taking sides as to the issues and focuses on the system that got us here.  His basic point is that our parties are more extreme today because we are now selecting presidential candidates via a primary voting system rather than having party bosses vet candidates and choose them at the conventions.  This is a very good point, to my mind.

A few years back I saw an interview with the retired CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite.  He said that it used to be that the party bosses would get together in the proverbial smoke filled rooms and talk about who should run for president.  Someone would mention a name and the rest would say, no way, that guy is a drunk, or that guy can't keep it in his pants, or that guy has a hair trigger temper and couldn't be trusted with the nuclear button, or that guy is a nut case fanatic who would alienate most of the country.  So, they went through a process where they ended up choosing some pretty well vetted candidates. 

Then, the Viet Nam war happened, the 1968 Democratic Party convention blew up in violence in Chicago and the party bosses (Mayor Daley and retiring president LBJ) rigged the convention to take away the nomination from the liberal anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, and gave the nomination to LBJ's Vice President, Hubert Humphrey.  So, George McGovern changed all of that.  He headed a commission that would undermine the ability of the bosses to work behind closed doors to manipulate the selection process, and to have the candidates chosen by the voters.  So, the primaries became how candidates were selected.  

Sounded wonderful.  Idealism at its finest.  No more corrupt bosses imposing candidates on the public.  Hoorah!

So, what ended up happening?  

As Friedman points out, the primary system ends up automatically choosing the most ideologically pure and extreme candidates because most people are NOT ideological, they are absorbed in their lives. So, the people who select the nominees for both parties are the ideologically committed - those whose lives are centered around politics and ideology.  They choose hard core ideologues for president, senate, representative, and state offices as well.  They are the ones who vote in the primaries, which have a low turnout, and which normal people don't feel well enough informed about to cast votes.

Look at the presidential candidates that showed up for the Democrats after McGovern's institution of the primary system: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis - pretty hard core liberals all.  Not until 1988, twenty years after the McGovern change, did a more centrist candidate, Bill Clinton win the primary nomination process.  Then they went back to pretty liberal candidates in Al Gore and John Kerry.  How liberal Obama is is a question of hot dispute.

This push toward extremism is even more pronounced in the House of Representatives and even the Senate.  Today's politicians aren't worried as much about their opponents on the other side of the isle and they are from more extremist primary challengers in their own party.  The Tea Party has become the natural consequence of the primaries system.  We can certainly expect a left wing version of the Tea Party to be right around the corner, I am afraid.

So, one of the big factors driving the polarization of today's politics is the primary system of choosing candidates and electing politicians.  Gerrymandering adds considerably to the problem, where the parties assign districts so as to make safe seats for their parties, but underneath even that force for extremism is the primary system itself.  

I share George Friedman's dismay at not being able to propose a solution.  We aren't going back to the party bosses, because today's politicians don't get their campaign money from them but through grass roots fundraisers and multibillionaire donors who are fervidly dedicated to single issues or other forms of extremist groupings of issues.

My hope is that today's dysfunctional government situation will wake up enough normal people that they will pay attention, and will influence the primaries away from the take-no-prisoner-and-never-compromise-or-negotiate extremists and vote for men and women who are more interested in becoming actual politicians, i.e. people with principles and ideals who understand that the nature of governance is politics, which involves making deals to get the best that you can for your side and moving on to the next issue.