Eliminate Primary Elections

The best way to greatly reduce the influence of big money in American politics is to eliminate the primary elections.

Choosing nominees in primary elections was invented as a reform to get away from those famous "smoke-filled backrooms." That was a reference to the old political machines, which were active in most large American cities. They often played a major role in choosing nominees.

As often happens with reforms, the reform has produced a greater problem than the one it was intended to solve. It’s true that money is the mother’s milk of politics, but it is also true that the great money-eater of political campaign funds is advertising in the mass media, primarily television.

If you wish to seek a party’s nomination in any large state, you will have to raise and spend millions of dollars. In states with large populations, there just isn’t any other way to communicate with voters. Even a congressional race these days can cost $250,000 to $500,000. One reason incumbents have such an advantage is that they can raise their campaign war chest in Washington from those 40,000-plus lobbyists and special interests who live there year-round and give money to buy access, not to further good government.

The truth is that politicians are answerable to people who get them elected, and in today’s political environment, that means the rich, the super-rich and the special interests, who provide most of the money in one way or another. The average American citizen is the odd man out.

You might have noticed that whether the White House is occupied by a Democrat or a Republican, the basic foreign and trade policies remain the same. That’s because big money decides the nominees for both parties. It’s true that there are rich Republicans and rich Democrats, but being rich, they have more in common than they have differences. Elections, as far as the rich are concerned, are about style and patronage — who gets invited to the White House, for example.

If all nominees for statewide offices and the presidency were chosen by state conventions of the respective parties, then the influence of big money would be greatly diminished. Nominees would still need big money for the general election, but at least the millions spent on primaries could be eliminated. Since the choice would be made by a finite number of elected delegates, general advertising would not be needed.

There are two fallacies about primaries. One is the assumption that the average voter gives a hoot. Surely we can by now admit that a majority of Americans are apathetic and ignorant of the issues. This "apathetic middle," as the professionals in the campaign business call it, can only be roused by demagoguery. It would be far better to leave the choice of nominees to those people who take a year-round active interest in politics — the party regulars, in other words.

The second fallacy is the belief that political machines were not grass-roots organizations. Thomas Jefferson observed that the best way to preserve the republic was to ensure that the people could always see tangible results from casting their ballots. Grass-roots organizations empower people, because the politicians are dependent on the organizations for re-election. A return to that type of system, I believe, would produce tangible results for people instead of results for millionaires.

We should think seriously and realistically about our political system. Politics is about winning elections and distributing patronage, not about philosophy. Today, with our system so corrupted by money, the patronage goes largely to the rich. We desperately need to find a way to get the people back into the equation, but not as a mindless mob following demagogues.

Choosing nominees at state conventions would be a good first step toward empowering the people.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.