Morton Keller is the author of America’s Three Regimes: A New Political History, in which he argues that while most historians popularly categorize America’s history into short periods of time (most “eras” or “ages” lasting no longer than a decade) the truth is quite contrary. In the post below Keller, Spector Professor of History Emeritus at Brandeis University, puts the 2008 primary season in historical perspective.
As the 2008 election slowly proceeds, it gets curiouser and curiouser. Much of its infrastructure is without precedent in the (admittedly limited) memory of the political pundits and media apparatchiks who are so vigorously trying to spin the unfolding electoral story for our edification and their profit. No incumbent president or vice-president is in contention; the primaries started earlier than ever; money-raising flourishes through such benign new instruments as the Internet and 527s. And looming over the horizon, increasingly in the thoughts of the political chattering classes, is that clunky relic of the political past: one or even both party conventions with two or maybe even more competitors fighting it out for the nomination.
It’s time to try to get a historical fix on what all of this means. From the 1930s to the present a different political culture has arisen. I call it the populist-bureaucratic regime. In it, voices, organizations, and interests operating outside the traditional parties are an increasingly powerful presence in politics and government.
During the years of the party regime, primaries were at most a sop to reformers. Harry Truman called them “eyewash.” The conventions, dominated by machine bosses and state and Congressional leaders (often one and the same), were where the candidate was normally chosen.
But the candidate selection system began to change under the weight of the Great Depression, FDR and the New Deal, and the post-World War Two decline of the party machines. FDR was nominated for President four times, turning the Democratic convention into little more than a ratifying ceremony. In the Truman years the old nominating process staged a comeback. But it was ever more evident that voices outside the party-machine system were growing in volume.
This was evident in the GOP convention of 1940, where organized pro-Willkie advocates in the spectator galleries carried the day with their “We want Willkie!” chant. And it was even more evident in 1968, where the real excitement lay in the pitched battles between anti-war youths and the police outside the convention hall. The angry Left has continued in the tradition of 1968 by trying to raise hell on the streets outside the GOP convention. This was in keeping with the evolution of the convention into a three-day media replication of the Academy or Golden Globes awards ceremonies, giving the parties free publicity but driving much of the TV audience to seek feistier fare on other channels.
Meanwhile primaries, and with them the selection of the candidate, inexorably spread. Sixteen states had them by 1968, twenty-eight in 1972, thirty-two by 1980. In that year 75 percent of the Democratic and 54 percent of the Republican delegates were primary-chosen. This was heralded as a triumph of the democratic process. But in practice primaries attracted minute turnouts, which made them ideal instruments for moneyed and/or ideologically committed special interests.
Primaries appear to be at the peak of their game in 2008. The media, which has a large stake in an ongoing news story, have sought to make them into a sort of reality show, as they tried to with the presidential election debates. Meanwhile the candidates seek to use the media for their own interests. To the other much-commented-on conflicts in this race should be added the tensions between those two divergent interests, the media and the pols.
If one or both parties wind up with a truly competitive national convention, what is likely to be its character? It seems unlikely that power brokers–party bosses, super-delegates, and the like–will do the deciding in smoke-filled backrooms. For one thing, the old party bosses are gone. (And even if they were still around, many might be non-smokers.) One thing seems sure: the advocates of the candidates will turn both the convention halls and the outside surrounds into big-time political theater. And the media will do its best to spin its preferred analyses to the watching nation.
But beneath the hoopla, certain eternal verities of our political system are likely to reassert themselves. As the primary-committed delegates become uncommitted, they will make their choices in time-honored ways: at the behest of their original candidates; under the influence of “public opinion” as filtered through the media, advocacy groups, and partisans of candidates and causes on the ground; on the basis of how they or their leaders (many will be union members, or members of organized minority groups or churches) define their own, their party’s, or even the nation’s best interests. In short, for all the new bells and whistles shaping America’s ongoing political extravaganza, its basic rationale–eliciting, sorting out, and as best it can reflecting the wishes and the will of the American people–will get a new lease on life.