On the Primary Delusion, or, the Primary Election Takes Place on Election Day

A common rhetorical strategy employed by partisans of the Democratic and Republican Parties is to supplement specious arguments against third party and independent activism with calls to mount primary campaigns against undesirable incumbents or the candidates favored by the party establishment. In this, there is little difference between conservative Republican radio talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and progressive Democratic net-roots activists such as Markos Moulitsas. Third party and independent advocacy, they argue, is at best superfluous and at worst counter-productive, since anyone interested in challenging the political status quo can do so from within either of the duopoly parties.

The emphasis on the importance and alleged effectiveness of the primary challenge is nothing more than a means by which ideologues of the duopoly system of government seek to redirect popular impulses against the two-party political status quo into established channels that serve to reinforce the two-party political status quo. It is a mechanism of co-optation. The primary purpose of the primary challenge is to bring the independently-minded – those of us whose better judgment has determined that the machinations of the ruling Democratic-Republican political party apparatus is part of the problem and not its solution, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan – back into the fold of the Democratic-Republican Party. At best it is an argument in favor of infiltration, at worst a cynical attempt to expand membership beyond the dwindling number of duopolist dead-enders. It is not simply fortuitous that in many states one must be a member of a party to vote in its primary. Even in states where there is no registration by party, the primary process clearly aims to put independents into the service of the partisan charade characteristic of the duopoly system. At South Carolina's Post and Courier, Barbara Williams recently reflected on the minutia of that state's Democratic-Republican primary process:
Some already find the primary selection process confusing enough due to the fact that there is no party registration in this state. You can vote in the Democratic primary one year and in the Republican the next. But you can't vote in both on the same day. Rather than voting in either primary, some independents opt to wait until the parties select their nominees for the general election. There will be no primary ballot, for example, that includes all 10 gubernatorial candidates. Neither can primary voters pick both the Republican and Democrat they like best for governor. Some post-debate primary straw polls do allow partisans to weigh in on candidates in both parties, an obvious flaw. A primary ballot has only one party's slate of candidates, not both. There's little doubt that it won't be long before the savvy candidates are concentrating on appearances before groups most likely to vote in their primaries and to convince voters that they are the better choice than the four other candidates with whom they are actually competing.
Following Doug Hoffman's third party insurgent campaign in NY-23rd, Republican ideologues have been hard at work attempting to convince conservatives to accept the adequacy of the primary process. Democrats, of course, receive the secondary benefit of not having to make this case outright, while framing internecine Republican struggles as a "civil war" even as they prepare the ground for their own primary campaigns. None of this, however, changes the fact that the primary process is incapable of addressing the problem that is the two-party political charade and the duopoly system of government. A potential result of this constellation may well be a rise in bitter primary campaigns within the duopoly parties followed by general elections featuring competitive third party and independent challengers. Consider the Republican primary race taking shape in Virginia's 5th Congressional District, currently represented by Democrat Tom Perriello. Brian McNeill reports for Go Dan River:

The national Republican Party has gotten behind the primary candidacy of state Sen. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, pointing out that he has a proven ability to win elections that cover large portions of the district’s southern half.

Among the 5th District’s conservative rank-and-file, however, Hurt is not necessarily the favored candidate.

Bill Hay, chairman of the Jefferson Area Tea Party, announced Friday that he is endorsing Albemarle County real estate investor Laurence Verga in the GOP primary. Hay, a Greene County resident, said grassroots conservatives in the district dislike certain aspects of Hurt’s record, most notably his 2004 vote in favor of then-Gov. Mark R. Warner’s $1.4 billion package to increase the sales tax and lower certain other taxes. Hay said he is “disturbed” that the national GOP, as opposed to local conservative activists, seems to be trying to choose the 5th District nominee.

One primary hopeful, tea party activist Bradley Rees, has already withdrawn from the race and announced his intention to mount a third party campaign. In his statement, we read:
Right here in Virginia’s 5th District . . . Out of 7 declared candidates so far for the Republican nomination, only one has even drawn a comment from the National Republican Congressional Committee, and they sounded very pleased that this person had entered the race. With the track record they have in other races around the country, my question is this: why should we trust THEIR judgment here, in OUR nominating process? The answer is, quite clearly, we shouldn’t . . . I had hoped the GOP establishment would have learned a lesson in November of 2006. They didn’t . . .

Starting in January, I intend to begin laying the groundwork and getting my support structure in place to run on the Virginia Conservative Party platform. It may amount to only drawing enough votes from the Republican candidate to ensure Tom Perriello a second term. If so, so be it. Maybe then, the party will understand that we are trying to save the GOP from its worst enemy: not the Democrats, but themselves. I do not plan to do this on a whim, only to be a spoiler, but to give the people a chance to make their voices heard.
I am not certain, but Rees is likely referring to the Virginia affiliate of the American Conservative Party. As Lincoln's dictum indicates, the ideologues and partisans of the two-party state and the duopoly system of government cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Despite their Orwellian language games, the primary election remains that which takes place on election day.


Michael said...

Interesting post. The evolution of third party politics is entering into critical new dimensions. Remember, I ran as both an independent AND a Republican, after I won the Republican primary. But the Republican Party never got behind me, even after I knocked off their pick. After my decent showing in the election, it seems they wouldn't mind mending fences with me which I find particularly amusing. But I bear witness to the evolving sentiment of the major parties trying to usurp the independent movement...not only in my case, but in other local races too. The cohesiveness of independents to form a "true third party" is still an intangible but independent candidates need to beware of the 2 party attempt to absorb them.

d.eris said...

It's strange for a party to have to mend fences with its own candidate. Maybe you could tell them you'll call it even if they endorse your ballot line. ;-)

I agree that there's a new dimension to independent, third party advocacy and/or discontent with the two-party system. It could very well be defeated or undermined by interests vested in the status quo, once again. I think many of the latter were caught off guard this election. Hopefully the element of surprise will not have been completely lost.