The trouble with the system is that it might work too wellby Sam Tanenhaus / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Observers of American politics—including Martin Walker, who for many years wrote a Washington column for this magazine—like to say we get the President we deserve. Our popularly elected, term-limited monarch is also a mirror, however clouded, of the nation’s soul—rather, of the roughly six in 10 eligible voters who bother to vote in Presidential elections while the rest stay home. The ratio is even worse in the pre-election marathon of primaries and caucuses. In 2016 the choosing will begin on 1st February, in Iowa, followed on 9th February, in New Hampshire. Both are small states, whose combined population, some 4.4m, is not quite one seventh of California’s. And with luck, some 900,000 of them will cast ballots.
A third state, South Carolina, will hold its crucial primary on 20th February. By then, front-runners could well be established in both parties, while others fall behind or even drop out—all on the basis of what less than 1 per cent of the population thinks in states that aren’t exactly roadmaps of 21st-century America. Iowa and New Hampshire are predominantly rural and more than 90 per cent white. South Carolina only removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse last summer after a mass shooting of African-Americans in a Charleston church.
The question inevitably arises: Is this any way to choose a President? Many think not. “A primary fight, at any level, is America’s most original contribution to the art of democracy,” Theodore H “Teddy” White, the journalist and author, wrote in The Making of the President, 1960, the first in his indispensable series of campaign narratives. It is also, he added, “that form of the art most profanely reviled and intensely hated by every professional who practices politics as a trade.” No exercise so divides each party against itself and supplies so much ammunition to the other side.