Hillary Clinton declared that she is running for the Democratic Party nomination in a Tweet that was sent out Sunday, 12 April 2015. This ended pundit conjecture that she might not run, either because of poor health, lack of energy at her age, or maybe she was too tarnished with scandal. Yet, such speculation was just idle chatter used to fill media space. Now that Clinton has declared her candidacy, the media and political pundits have something real to discuss. Her tweet was followed by staged media events in her “listening” tour: the ever-fervid investigative press reported her entering a Mexican chain restaurant, and ordering a chicken dish with a side of guacamole. At least she was not confused between guacamole and mushy green peas, unlike a prominent British politician was a few years ago.
The US electoral system might confuse the British with a presidential campaign already underway well-before the election that will take place in November 2016. While Britain is in the throes of a current election (pitting Tories against Labour, with the Scottish National Party as a wild card) that will end today, American voters see Hillary Clinton, going unchallenged at this point, for the Democratic Party nomination. Meanwhile, the Republicans have some-odd twenty candidates are vying for their party’s presidential nomination.
The British and American electoral systems are quite different, but they share one thing in common -many voters on both sides of the Atlantic are disgusted with politics-as-usual. In America, only about fifty percent of eligible voters (those bothering to register) vote in presidential elections. Those declaring themselves independents, not aligned with either party, compose thirty percent of the electorate. Large numbers of British and American voters simply believe that the political classes do not represent their interests and campaign pledges by candidates just don’t mean much. It’s all theatre to get media coverage and play to their political bases in hopes that the growing independent vote will swing their way.
What’s striking about American politics is that the primary and party convention systems were developed to ensure voters’ voices were heard and to take control away from political bosses and insiders. The American Founders who wrote the US Constitution in 1787 feared above all else political parties and the excesses of majoritarian rule. They distrusted direct democracy, feared demagogues, and were terrified by centralized government that they believed could be corrupted by self-interested factions. By George Washington’s second term, however, political parties had emerged in loose coalitions around John Adams-Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson-James Madison.
The emergence of these new proto- political parties left the question as to how party presidential nominees were to be selected. The US Constitution did not provide a guide to this issue. Party nominees at first were chosen by caucuses held by members of Congress. In 1831, a short-lived Anti-Masonic Party held the first national convention with state delegates voting for the presidential nominee. The national convention system for selecting party nominees was taken up by the National Republican Party (a precursor to the Whig Party) a short time later, followed by the first Democratic national convention a short time later.
Still, the convention system had not taken firm root. In the presidential election of 1836, the recently formed Whig Party avoided a national convention and nominated regional candidates. By the next presidential election cycle in 1840, however, the Whigs held a national convention. With the emergence of the Republican Party in 1856, and the continuation of the Democratic Party, the two-party system was well-established in American politics, with an occasional challenge of third parties that did not go anywhere, even when they excited discontented voters.
National party conventions became the mainstay of American politics. Delegates from across the country came together for days of celebration, endless speeches, demonstrations, and roll calls. Votes were held back, deals made, and negotiations took place in smoke-filled rooms where political bosses negotiated final presidential nominees. It all made for exciting press, but local and state political bosses often had the final say in who was nominated.
As the late 19th century drew to a close, reformers called for an end of politics-as-usual. Reformers called for the primary elections that allowed for votes to select their candidates. Because state governments control election rules, the primary system was a kaleidoscope of different rules in different states.
Demands for full voter participation in primaries, easing of eligibility rules, and the selection of candidates continued to be heard. Following the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in 1968, new rules were implemented by reform Democrats headed by George McGovern that prodded most states to hold primaries and establish quotas for black, female, and community delegates.
The single impetus for the emergence of the American two-party system with its presidential primaries and national conventions was the call for democracy – let the voices of the people be heard. The age of mass media and television though meant any candidate wanting to win election needed big money to run a campaign. Hillary Clinton expects to spend more than $2 billion in her campaign, double what Barack Obama spent to win reelection in 2012.
The electorate has expanded in both Britain and the United States. Both systems today allow for greater voter participation. Yet, the irony is that more and more voters feel disconnected from politics, their elected representatives, and government itself. This discontentment challenges politics- as-usual, even when country expects the first women—Hillary Clinton—to be nominated by a major political party to run for the President of the United States.
Featured image credit: Statue of Liberty. Public domain via Pixabay.