American Democracy Comes to France

There’s a great piece in the Times today by Sasha Issenberg about how the American model of primaries is going worldwide.  The reason why it’s particularly interesting is why – it’s not so much an ideological reason or a wave of good-government stuff.  It’s because primaries are really useful at building parties.   Especially in European countries which have restrictive laws about using voter registration data, holding a primary turns out to be a fantastic method for getting the party faithful to self-ID.  It also gets them more engaged with the party, increases the salience of the party’s message to them, and provides a really useful training ground for political operatives.  It’s interesting to see the American experience transferred to other countries, because it is at least suggestive of its effect here.

The idea that primaries help consolidate parties suggests, for example, that open (non-partisan) primaries are unlikely to seriously impact partisanship and produce more moderate nominees over the long run.  At least anecdotally, the way that primaries are strengthening partisan identity and organization is through the exercise of actually having the primary rather than by electing more extreme representatives.  Having primary elections that are non-partisan will still put the party machinery through the paces, get voters more engaged with the party and cement party identification.

It’s also a reminder that ultimately, a lot of what matters about political systems isn’t written down in constitutions or even part of the state itself.  American parties are really important to American government, despite the fact that they’re totally “off the books” in terms of the formal system. The stuff that goes on within them is worthy of a lot of attention – both from academics and activists.  Because the same logic that applies to parties applies to activist movements – they can only build their movement and build their skills by getting real-world experience in mobilizing voters.  And by far the best way to do this is through party primaries.  Left-wing activists who turn up their noses at the Democrats (and right-wingers with the GOP) aren’t doing themselves any favors.


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