This is the United STATES of America: The Primaries are the Problem!

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential elections, the shock of Donald Trump’s surprising win has generated a flurry of initiatives to turn back the clock and rerun or overturn the election, such as Jill Stein’s failed attempt to recount the ballots in a number of key states. The most worrisome efforts – to me – have been calls to overturn the Electoral College. This worries me for two reasons. First, most critiques misunderstand the fundamental importance of the federal structure of the USA. Secondly, Electoral College reform is a red herring, since the focus should be on reforming the primaries for all political parties.

Regarding the Electoral College, the United States of America was not designed as a unitary direct democracy. We are not living in some People’s Republic of America. We have a federal structure that created institutions such as the structure of elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the Presidency that reinforced and maintained the significance of the States. It is the brilliance of these institutions that enabled the states to come together in a single united nation.

The Electoral College works to ensure that candidates for President are well advised to take into account all the states, and not only the most populous states, or for that matter, only the most populous urban areas and neglected rural and less populated areas of the country. It is true that candidates focus increasingly on the so-called ‘battle ground states’, where the vote count is expected to be closest, but all the states count at the end of the day. Direct elections, based only on the popular vote, could virtually disenfranchise many states. If you think many voters feel alienated by the results of the 2016 election, I would imagine many more alienated by direct popular votes that marginalize the voters in their states.

Take the 2016 election, for example, where Hillary Clinton won the nationwide popular vote by 2,833,220 votes. However, she won California alone by more – by 4,446, 281 votes. So if you called the election by popular vote alone, California would have disenfranchised all those red states on the map of the USA. But it is not the state totals, so much as the way in which popular votes would focus all candidates on the major urban areas, and to dismiss the rest of the country. So the Electoral College is not antiquated by the progress of democracy, but brilliant in reinforcing the USA as a federal system designed to keep all the states feeling included. The legitimacy of our institutions, such as elections, is more important than the outcome of any one election.

Even if you should want to reform the Electoral College, it would take a constitutional amendment and be ridiculously irrelevant to the 2016 Presidential election. Ergo, some otherwise reasonable people have argued that electors should exercise their right not to vote for the candidate chosen by their state electorates. I have followed debate over the Electoral College for decades and it has been discussed time and again with the one most concerning issue being that the electors in many states are not legally bound to vote for the candidate that their state sent them to elect. Books* have been written about the potential of these now called ‘faithless electors’  upsetting the results of the popular vote in states, but the possibility has been largely ignored by the realization that this would be inconceivable, tantamount to an elector determining that their judgment is better than the judgment of the voters in his or her state. Voters do not vote for a slate of electors to exercise their personal judgment as a trustee.

Yet highly respected public intellectuals, like Lawrence Lessig, are arguing that electors should do just that. I suspect it is an ends justifies the means argument. In my opinion, this would be a far greater blow to the democratic process of the USA than any election result imaginable. If you worry about the US being divided now, I cannot imagine what the reaction would be to set of Electors choosing to take the election in their own hands. Arguments that the interference of a ‘foreign power’ justifies such an action, citing allegations that that Russians hacked the members of the DNC and RNC,  is ludicrous, as it is no more than a conspiracy theory before any evidence is provided. It does not take state of the art state sponsored cyber warfare to hack into John Pedesta’s email, since he was not cautious about his passwords etc. It also reflects the degree that those harmed by leaks routinely demonise the messengers, such as WikiLeaks, to deflect attention from the message. Did claims about Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Clinton Foundation, or Russia throw the results? This is one of many debates flourishing in hindsight.

That said, the most important concern I have is that fishing for some constitutional fix to the 2016 election is a red herring. The real problem has been the dysfunctional primary elections orchestrated by all political parties. The most significant fact of this past election is that the major parties nominated candidates that had high unfavorablity ratings. Whichever candidate had won, many voters would have been upset. Could something be wrong with the ways in which the political parties choose their candidates for office? Yes, this is blindingly obvious.

There are many symptoms of this. The parties have been declining for at least the past two decades, while partisanship remains strong, such as in the degree people vote on the basis of their partisan identification. So a shrinking, less trusted, but increasingly powerful group of party members organize the primaries, and do so quite poorly. This is a problem, illustrated by the exposure of favoritism by the head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, having her ‘finger on the scales’ (to put it in the kindest way possible) from the earliest days for Hillary Clinton, and against Bernie Sanders. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know about this tilting of the playing field. th-1

This led to her resignation, but did not prevent her re-election to the House, and it does not correct the fundamental problem with how to hold a fair and successful primary that recruits the best talent to enter the primaries.

Another key problem with the primaries, tied to the decline in party membership, is the failure of many states to let independent voters participate in the primaries. The contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was clearly shaped by which states did or did not allow independents to vote in the Democratic Primary, with Senator Sanders doing far better among independents, who were not registered Democrats.

All parties seem to have failed to organize primaries that encouraged the most talented individuals to put their hat in the ring and compete on a level playing field. The fact that the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, received about 1% of the vote, but remains the head of the Green Party, is an illustration of these problems continuing even in the marginal parties. What are they thinking?

It does not take a Constitutional Amendment to reform the primaries across the USA. And meaningful reform could be done within the coming four years. Instead of fighting the last election, and focusing on red herrings, and impossible reforms, those upset by the election process should focus on the primaries. The party primaries need to be reformed, and they can be reformed.

Have elementary schools stopped teaching basic civics? The number of pundits that seem not to have a clue about the federal structure of our nation, and the rationale behind the Electoral College, is amazing. But you don’t need to be a political scientist to see the real problems of our primary systems within each of our major parties. This should be the focus of reform.

[Postscript: It happened. Faithless Electors emerged.  Two electors were faithless to Donald Trump, and 5 were faithless to Hillary Clinton. This made no difference to the outcome, defied expectations of defections benefitting Hillary Clinton (no ‘revolt’ against Trump), and raised questions about trusting Electors in the future, as this was the first time since 1948 that there has been more than one faithless elector.**]

*For example, Robert M. Hardaway (1994), The Electoral College and the Constitution: The Case for Preserving Federalism.


Stop Hounding Bernie: Stop Calling the Election

Hillary, her supporters, the Democratic Party, and the media continue to try to hound Bernie Sanders out of the race. They all use the same narratives, such as doing the arithmetic. While Hillary was assumed to be the presumptive candidate before the primaries even began, she is being seriously challenged and she, her campaign, including the leadership of the Democratic Party, don’t like it. If it is so inevitable, relax. Why the panic?

If the media were to call an election before the polls closed, they would be roundly criticized. But this is just what they are doing now. They are calling the election before millions of voters have even had an opportunity to vote. How damaging are these narratives to the Bernie Sanders campaign? Many believe the story that it is over, and all is lost for the Sanders campaign, yet the votes and states keep coming in for Bernie.

Bernie Sanders Rally MSU
Bernie Sanders Rally MSU

Bernie Sanders and his campaign is courageous to stay in the race. They have the big ideas, and the enthusiastic support of a growing number of voters. They have followed the rules, but they have also been right to question the fairness of some rules, such as the exclusion of the growing base of independents from voting in many Democratic Party primaries.

Moreover, the supporters of Bernie Sanders are not strategic voters. They are voting for a candidate that they feel good about supporting. They are not trying to elect or block another candidate, but support their candidate and his ideas. Arguments about the math dictating that supporters abandon their candidate are not compelling. In fact, they illustrate how divorced his critics are from the chemistry of the Sanders’ campaign, and its positive sense of an over-due political revolution.

A week is a long time in politics, and we have many weeks to go before the end of this Democratic Primary. Stay the course, Senator Sanders. Please don’t let the presumptive candidate hound you out of the election for the next President.

O! Heavens! Bernie is consistent? He has a big idea, and that is revolutionary!

Jason Horowitz’s has an article in today’s NYTs about Senator Bernie Sanders, entitled ‘Over Decades, Sanders Has Stayed on Message’. Staying on message is generally perceived to be a virtue in political campaigns, but somehow, in this election; Senator Sanders is frequently criticized for sticking to his message for too long, and across too many issues. Consistency has become a liability, to his critics, as if conservatives would be criticized for being too consistent about the risks of big government.

From my perspective, the virtue of the Sander’s message is that it emanates from, clarifies, and extends one big idea. He has a really big idea about the unfair and highly skewed distribution of wealth in the top one percent and this problem infects politics and issues across the board, most notably around campaign financing and influence. Our progressive tax system has failed to deal with the very top rung. Yes, he has spoken about this idea for decades, but it has been only in recent years, in the aftermath of economic problems, particularly the housing crisis, international trade issues, and failures of American foreign policy that his message has begun to reach, and resonate with, a growing number of American voters.

Bernie Sanders sits in his office at City Hall in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. (AP Photo/Donna Light)
Bernie Sanders sits in his office at City Hall in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. (AP Photo/Donna Light)

A colleague once complimented me (yes, this doesn’t happen often), who said a book of mine was anchored in one idea. He went on to explain that he thought a book either had one idea, or none. Maybe this was faint praise, but I have thought about this often and I think it not only applies to books, but also to our presidential primary campaigns.

In my opinion, Bernie Sanders does have one big idea – one that enables him to address many different issue areas in a coherent and consistent way. Most other candidates have strategies, such as following the party’s mainstream, or keeping a finger in the wind of their primary constituencies, to ensure that they have the right position on each issue, nuanced for the moment. However articulate, and however informed, on the legislative and administrative histories of these issues, most candidates reflect a proverbial ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy on an issue-by-issue basis. They have focus groups, polls, and advisors on many issues, leading to many positions across the issues, not all that consistent. This is because they don’t have a big idea. For example, adhering to one of the major parties or administrations, whether President Obama’s or President Reagan’s, is not a big idea, since these histories are so packed with examples and counter-examples across the issues.

Horowitz was convincing in saying that this consistency is one explanation for the greater authenticity and trust attributed to Sanders, quoting Tad Devine, a Sander’s strategist, who defended sticking to the same message (I would say ‘idea’), by noting that this enhanced his credibility, “precisely because his speeches never seemed cooked up for the occasion”. Yes indeed, but I would add that it also reflects the fact that his messages are anchored in a big idea, and that is truly revolutionary at this time in American politics.


Jason Horowitz article:

Voting for Senator Bernie Sanders

There is nothing inevitable about Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Party nomination and the 2016 Presidential election. He is not an heir to a political dynasty. He was supported by no more than 2 percent of the American voting public as recently as ten months ago. As I write, he remains behind Secretary Clinton in delegate counts.

However, he has risen in the polls, has won in the primary in seven states and counting, and is leading a growing movement anchored in the support of younger voters. Bernie Sanders is drawing support, primarily because he has a big idea – a critical perspective on what is wrong with American democratic governance.

He has put his finger on the undue influence of wealth on the conduct and outcome of elections. In line with other sophisticated analysts of our political system, such as Lawrence Lessig, he focuses our attention on the need for campaign finance reform, as one major means for addressing this problem.

This idea is central as it explains many other problems and issues. Rather than forming ad hoc, ‘whack a mole’ policy responses to a litany of issues, he has put his focus on a coherent explanation for why so many other issues are emerging.

That is why he continually brings debate back to this root explanation for many problems, even though it opens him up to superficial but false allegations of him being a single issue candidate. Not so. He has clear and compelling positions on all of the issues.

Is he too radical? Is he extreme in being a Democratic Socialist? No. Listen to him, and what he means by his philosophy. First, he wants free tuition for college students. Extreme? He argues that a college education today is equivalent to having a high school education in decades past. Public high school educations are tuition free in the United States, as they are funded by taxes, and he is simply extending this model to college – the new high school. This does not mean that high school education is not in need of greater support and reform. A quite funny refrain in England, is that you can get a good high school education in the US, but you have to go to college to get it. But that is another reason for extending public support to college, as is done in many countries across Europe, and not putting so many students in such great financial debt before they even begin their careers.

Is he too radical for calling for a greater redistribution of wealth? Nearly all taxes tend to be progressive and redistribute wealth. What he is saying is that the US has drifted into a period of sever income inequality, when the top one percent of households, about 1.4 million households, have benefitted far more in our economy than the bottom 99 percent. But its even worse. The top of the top one percent have benefitted dramatically more than the others among the one percent. Senator Sanders is arguing that the top one percent is not currently paying their fair share of taxes, and that they should. That is not extreme, or a radical idea. It is a progressive idea in the best sense of that word, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Is he inexperienced? No. Senator Sanders has held public offices for over thirty years. He is more experienced in holding an elected public office, as a Mayor, Representative, and then Senator, than any other candidate in either party that is running for president.

Finally, will he be fit as a Commander in Chief. As Senator Sanders argues, he has been on the right side of major decisions. He was opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when this was not a popular position in the US. Judgement is perhaps the most important quality of a prospective commander in chief.

I don’t agree with every position Senator Sanders has taken on every issue. For example, I am more supportive of reducing trade barriers, and not erecting greater barriers to international trade, but his discussion of trade initiatives in tonight’s CNN Debate is leading me to reconsider my position. Bernie Sanders is clear-headed, thoughtful, and focused on central issues for strengthening our democratic system, primarily through campaign finance reform.

There is no more important issue that the vitality of our democracy, and the extreme inequalities in wealth emerging and its impact on campaign financing, because these trends threaten to undermine the vitality of our democracy. Given the issues arising over infrastructure, immigration, jobs, and more, we certainly need a healthy, functional and stable democratic system for discussing these conflicts, and making decisions. This is where Senator Sanders – his ideas, demeanor and experience – will have real payoffs.

Bernie Sanders Rally MSU
Bernie Sanders Rally MSU

I attended his recent rally in East Lansing, Michigan, at Michigan State University. Two to three thousand were expected, but over ten thousand came to the rally. Being there and seeing the enthusiasm of such a diverse array of younger voters was one of the most encouraging political moments I’ve had in recent years. They see a promising vision for their future. They and we need a person with a vision of what needs to be done in the coming decades, not what can be done in the next few years. As others have found, you might well discover that Bernie is indeed the ‘real thing’.

Lining Up for Sander Rally at MSU
Lining Up for Sander Rally at MSU



Coders For Sanders: Wonderful Focus on the Issues

Nick Corasaniti has written a great piece in The New York Times on how the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders is attracting tech-savvy volunteers, like Daniela Perdomo. She has helped create

For me, the most exciting aspect of the article is the front landing page of – which provides a set of issues for users to click in order to see where Bernie Sanders stands on such issues as ‘civil rights’, ‘government regulation’, and a host of other controversies. My colleague and I have written about the first G.O.P. debate and about how and why the debate lacked a focus on the issues. Sites like FeeltheBern are a major step towards correcting that. The very fact that Bernie Sanders makes it easy for people to understand his views on what the issues are, and where he stands, speaks volumes for his credibility and promise as a candidate.

Now we need some tech-savvy volunteers to create sites that enable voters to compare the candidates on the issues of the 2016 Presidential campaign. Tracy Westen and I tried to sketch out some aspects of such a new approach to Presidential debates.

See: ‘Sanders Attacts Tech-Savvy Talent That Would Cost Anybody Else’:

Also Westen and Dutton: