In the current system in use by both parties, it is the primary voters who choose the presidential nominees. In 2016 the voters in both parties screwed up big time. The disastrous choice we faced in the last presidential election would never have occurred in the days when the "political elites" picked the candidates precisely because they were driven by winning- by political and professional self-preservation- rather than by ideology and- in many cases- by ill-informed judgements made by newspaper headlines and previous primary results.
I was one of those who agitated back in 1968 for precisely the system we have now. Back then, when the "political elites" did, in fact, choose the nominees, we had a far better class of candidate being chosen. Think about the choices we have had since then. Then think about the choices we had before the McGovern Commission turned the choice in 1972 over to uninformed people making their choices on the basis of emotion and precisely extremist ideological impulses rather than calculated political self-preservation. I grant that Barry Goldwater was a non-viable candidate nominated in 1964; although he was a far better man than most of us realized at the time, he was certainly out of the American mainstream. But the Republican nomination in 1964 was one of the few back then which in fact was decided by the relatively few popular primaries in use at the time. Of course, it didn't help that of his two viable opponents, one- New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, hemmed and hawed until it was too late anyway and finally decided not to run, and the other- diplomat and former Republican vice-presidential nominee Henry Cabot Lodge- after winning the New Hampshire primary due to a write-in campaign mounted by a movement to draft him, chose to be a draft dodger.
Perhaps the most profound virtue of our system is that we get the government we deserve. Pandering to the voters by blaming someone else for a state of affairs brought about by their own laziness, lack of information about candidates and issues, and general abdication of their responsibilities as citizens is very much in the demagogic spirit of 2016 and the way to achieve a popular hearing. But it's as much of a copout as our system for nominating presidential candidates- a system 2016 should have pretty well discredited precisely because it depends on impulsive choices by voters who largely have absolutely no idea what they are doing and can always blame "political elites" for their own mistakes.
It's one thing for the average citizen to choose between two qualified and well-vetted candidates selected by those in each party who know the potential choices, their records, their abilities and limitations, and even their personal quirks and who make the choice with a view of offering the voters a more attractive and qualified candidate than does the opposition. But to have the average American citizen make the choice on the basis of ideological passion among candidates about whom they know pretty much nothing at all is asking for trouble. Although the evidence is against it, I hope that Prof. Vavreck is correct about the majority of the voters favoring responsible, thoughtful, moderate positions. Certainly, that's the case on some issues, like abortion. But on most, we seem as a society to be clustered at the extremes. Issues are driven at this moment in our history by a partisan, ideologically univocal, strident, and extreme body of opinion makers on the far left. They control all communication and ensure that viewpoints and information which contradict their own preferences and opinions are drowned out. Those whose arguments are effectively silenced become resentful and in turn even more reactive and extreme. This is not an atmosphere apt to generate either thoughtful and intelligent deliberation or even substantial debate. How can we have a debate when on issue after issue only one side of the argument is heard by most of us?
And then, there are the obvious and common-sense limitations of democracy. How many voters know enough about incumbent state and county judges to cast an intelligent vote on their re-election or retention? And yet, hallowed by the mantle of democracy, probably most jurisdictions leave such decisions to the voters, who- if they're wise- follow the recommendations of bar associations and newspapers because they have no basis whatever for making a choice of their own. And in such circumstances, entirely too many voters make their choices on other grounds entirely.
The classic case may be the 1986 Democratic gubernatorial primary in my native state of Illinois. The race for governor that year promised to be a classic. It was to be a rematch of the 1982 race between Gov. James Thompson, an extremely popular and able centrist Republican with an impressive record who was being touted for the presidency in some circles, and former U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III, himself a wildly popular figure and an extremely capable man with a reputation for thoughtfulness, who was also the scion of a legendary Illinois political family. The first Thompson-Stevenson clash was a classic campaign which resulted in the closest gubernatorial election in Illinois history. It isn't often that voters have a difficult choice to make because both candidates are so good, but the folks in Illinois had that problem in two consecutive races for governor.
But in 1986, it all came unraveled in the Democratic primary, not on the gubernatorial line but in the nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. The regular Democratic party had chosen a distinguished and well-qualified state senator named George Sangmeister to run for the first office, lieutenant governor, and Aurelia Pucinski, the capable daughter of a well-known Chicago politician, to run for secretary of state. But these races got little publicity- and there were races. Not races that anybody even noticed. But there were races, and they ended up throwing the entire election right down the rabbit hole.
Sangmeister and Pucinski faced primary opposition from supporters of right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche whose names were Fairchild and Hart. The few who even noticed Fairchild and Hart laughed at them- until the votes were counted on primary night when to their shock the learned that the relatively uninformed Democratic voters had rejected the well-qualified candidates with the ethnic last names in favor of the two obscure fringe candidates with the Anglo-Saxon ones.
The race was tossed into chaos. LaRouche, Fairchild, and Hart were so extreme and so alien to the philosophy of the Democratic party- to any reasonable person's philosophy, really- that Stevenson and the rest of the Democratic ticket resigned the nomination and ran as the candidates of a third party! The race which had been decided four years earlier by fewer than 5,000 votes statewide wasn't nearly as close this time around. Voters somehow blamed the Democratic party for the mess which they themselves had created!
And so it goes. Nothing is ever the voters' fault. And let's face it: blaming the voters just isn't smart politics, for obvious reasons! And yet the voters are the critical link in the whole process. When the voters screw up, as they did in the Illinois primary in 1986 and in their presidential choices thirty years later, somebody else is always blamed. But that doesn't make it any the less the fault of the voters, and it helps nothing to scapegoat "political elites" for mistakes they not only didn't make but wouldn't have made if they had been the once choosing the candidates!
As it happens, Donald Trump got something like a third of the votes cast for the presidency in the Republican primaries. Usually, the candidate nominated by each party is the one receiving the most votes but rarely does he receive a majority of them. Especially because voters are routinely so badly-informed about the candidates for the most powerful and responsible office in the world, there is a strong tendency for voters in the late primaries to back the front-runner; we haven't had a "brokered convention" since I was a small boy. But it shouldn't be a surprise that the choices turn out to be somewhat random. And with all due respect to Prof. Vavreck, we live in an age in which even the voters tend, at least in general attitudes, to be clustered at the extremes.
There used to be a pattern in days of old whereby the leaders of popular uprisings would begin by criticizing, not the king (to whom they professed total loyalty), but to his insensitive or incompetent ministers. The king's head would roll eventually. But for the time being, it was useful to let the king off the hook. The ploy, of course, was dishonest. But it worked. It was a reasonably safe strategy early in a revolution precisely against the king.
And so it is in our system, which relies above all else on the voter. And voters are human beings. We are fallible. We do the best we can, and sometimes the best we can isn't very good.
We screw up.
And when we screw up- when the system requires us to make choices we can't possibly be well-informed enough to make intelligently- it shouldn't be surprising that we make dumb ones. We are set up to make dumb choices. But even then, it is we who make them.
Perhaps blaming the voters is never pragmatically smart, at least in the short term. But nothing is going to be fixed unless we recognize that the system gives the American voter an impossible task and that this- as well as the tendency of so many of us at this particular moment in our history to be driven by ill-informed emotion rather than by anything resembling reasoned deliberation- was responsible for the presidential debacle of 2016.
Yes, we definitely need to reform the system. But one of the most critical steps we have to take if we're going to avoid years like 2016 from happening over and over again is to let the American voter choose between qualified candidates vetted by the only people who, in the last analysis, know enough about the potential nominees to make an intelligent choice among them, and who are driven, not by passion or the sound of a candidate's name, but by calculated self-interest impelling them to make the best possible choice with the greatest possible chance of being elected.
"Political elites" were not responsible for the disastrous choice we faced in 2016. We were. Or at least a system was which forced us to do something which by its very nature we are not in a position to do very well. And if anything is going to change, we have to stop pandering to the voters and go back to the system which worked so well for so many years, in which those who knew what they were doing vetted the candidates, carefully and knowledgeably selecting the ones they thought would be most attractive to us. doing so out of their own self-interest which depended on their choosing the best possible nominees, and then letting us choose between them.
The alternatives would instantly improve, and so would the choices we would end up making. But let's stop pandering to the very people who keep making those bad choices because they aren't in a position to make better ones.