Here’s Why Primaries Are Good for Democracy

Americans often lament their long presidential primary process — but it should be a source of great national pride.

TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30:  Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves on stage during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves on stage during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The presidential primary season in the United States is now in full swing, and it only promises to get more intense as the weeks go by. American voters will have their first real say in the February 2016 Iowa caucuses seven months from now — but that hasn’t stopped the major news networks from making the campaign a lead story today.

The Republicans already have more than a dozen candidates declared, with more assuredly to come. Even the Democratic field is growing, despite the presence of an overwhelming favorite. Many Americans are once again lamenting the long, drawn-out campaign season, which will last through July of next year, when both major parties will hold their national conventions and formally nominate their candidates. Over that time, billions of dollars will be raised and spent, a large of portion of it on behalf of candidates who will never come close to occupying the White House. That fact drives Americans to wonder justifiably whether the money could be better used to tackle the country’s problems instead of simply talking about them.

The reality is that Americans should see the primary process as a source of national pride. Party primaries are an enormous asset for American democracy. The competition strengthens our party system considerably, and the process is a model for a world that too often winnows political fields through more capricious or violent means.

Internally democratic parties are often the crucial missing links in developing and transitioning democracies. When expressing the importance of primaries to audiences in the U.S. and abroad, I often ask people to consider what the 2008 U.S. presidential election would have been like without the Obama-Clinton primary. That contest saw 57 American constituencies genuinely participate in choosing the Democratic Party’s nominee. More than 35 million citizens expressed a preference for a candidate, and as a result, it was an enormously healthy process for both the Democratic Party and American democracy.

In contrast, many developing democracies are engulfed by conflicts that arise because power is held by political party elites instead of the people. One of the world’s newest countries, South Sudan, is consumed by a conflict that is largely the result of a dispute within its dominant political party, the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The primary driving force in that conflict is the struggle for power between the president, Salva Kiir, and his former vice president, Riek Machar. In July of 2013, President Kiir dismissed Machar along with the entire cabinet. The move was likely precipitated by Kiir’s sense that Machar would challenge his leadership within the SPLM and perhaps his candidacy in the next presidential election. The party lacked the internal processes to head this off, and its leaders lacked the all-important accountability to a broader base of citizens which could only be achieved through an inclusive and democratic candidate selection process. The result is a conflict that has gripped the entire country and has helped turned a dire humanitarian situation into a catastrophic one.

Another striking example is Bangladesh. There, the two leading parties are dominated by long-entrenched elites who have never faced the prospect of internal competition. The ruling Awami League, led for more than thirty years by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (who inherited the post from her late father), and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led for more than twenty years by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (who inherited the position from her late husband), have often served only as vehicles through which their leaders pursued their personal animosities toward each other. There is a long and difficult history between the two families, but the lack of any genuine competition within either party has enabled these two leaders to feud with each other at the country’s expense. As a result, Bangladesh is in a state of sustained political stagnation. Real, internal elections with the participation of a broader base of citizens could help to change that reality and put the country on the path to genuinely competitive politics.

There are countless other examples around the world where political parties are simply vehicles for individual self-promotion or forums for elites to settle scores. Nascent democracies don’t just need political parties — they need political parties whose elites are accountable not only to themselves or other elites, but to broader groups of citizens. Only then are parties more likely to be catalysts for political stability and better governance. This is where the American primary system can serve as a beneficial model for the world.

Empowering voters to select a party’s candidates is a difficult choice for leaders to make. It strips elites of a key patronage tool and a great deal of influence in determining the intellectual trajectory of their party and — if they are successful — their country. In the long run, though, it strengthens the foundations and competitiveness of the party by expanding its constituent base to a more representative group of citizens. This broader base results in political parties shifting from being drivers of conflict to becoming an important means of preventing it.

The democratization of political parties is not something that takes place overnight. It took hundreds of years in the United States — and the process is still improving. The changes that resulted in today’s primaries didn’t emerge until after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated without having participated in any state primaries. The outrage from both delegates and rank and file Democrats led to the creation of a commission which eventually recommended the more widespread adoption of state primaries. This shifted the power of nominating presidential candidates from party elites to voters and was a critical step in strengthening American democracy.

Former U.S. representative Dick Gephardt often said that politics is a substitute for violence. Gephardt also served as Chairman for the National Endowment for Democracy and so is well acquainted with the challenges of international political development. His words are good inspiration for those in the U.S. who lament what often seems like a runaway train of political processes — and for those who struggle with introducing more democratic politics in their own countries.

What the U.S. primaries show is that truly democratic politics is a messy process that requires a great deal of patience from citizens. Creating more genuinely democratic political parties requires commitment from leaders who are willing to cede their autonomy over party affairs. In the United States, this was no small gesture and only became possible because party elites felt a sense of responsibility to the rank and file. These are the difficult decisions that leaders must make for the greater good. But it’s a means to a critically important end: a more peaceful society at home and a more peaceful world. For their contributions to this great experiment, Americans should be abundantly proud of their primary process.

In the photo, Mitt Romney waves to a crowd at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Photo credit:Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jed Ober is the Senior Director of Programs at Democracy International, where he oversees the implementation of elections and political transitions programming around the world.

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