“Open” Primaries and the Illusion of Choice

By Susan McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Claremont, CA. On Tuesday, the residents of this fair state voted to “open” the California primaries. From now on, every voter in the state will receive the same ballot in a primary election. In each race, voters can choose among all candidates, and the two candidates who garner the most votes – regardless of party affiliation – will appear on the general ballot.

As my calculated use of quotation marks suggests, I’m not sure “open” is the best way to describe this or similar electoral systems. Open to whom, and on what terms?

This is a system which is effectively going to bar third-party candidates from appearing on the general ballot, which often will force Republicans to choose between two Democrats in a general election (and sometimes vice versa), and which prohibits voters from writing in candidates on the general ballot.

And, as a report from the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies predicts, it is going to “significantly” increase the cost of running for office in California, since candidates will have to make appeals to a wider swath of voters. That means, of course, that it will be that much more difficult for non-moneyed candidates to have a shot at elected office.

To add to the fun, no candidate will be required to list a party affiliation on the ballot – thereby taking away one important piece of information from voters who make it to the polls.

I’m sure the citizens whose votes passed this measure, Proposition 14, were attracted to the language of “openness” and “choice” that proponents used to sell it. (Major proponents, for the record, included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and many of California’s biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals, who outspent the opposition by a 20-to-1 margin.)

But this strikes me as further evidence that the language of choice is the hypno-narcotic of contemporary American rhetoric: the disorienting drug that we cannot resist, that lures us in with the promise of a momentary high, that conceals its true nature until too late, that fries our brains.

It’s not news that Americans tend to think of having more choices as having a more fulfilling life, despite the great evidence to the contrary amassed by people like the psychologist Barry Schwartz (whose book The Paradox of Choice is one of the great reads of the last decade).

But more and more, it seems that in this country, where “choice” is a pseudo-sacred concept, Americans do not really see where our choices actually begin and end. Despite all our sanctification of the idea of choosing in the abstract, we don’t understand choices all that well.

Often, as in the case of Proposition 14, we latch ourselves to things because they claim to give us more choices – even when a moment’s reflection would suggest that they might do the opposite. In the case of this law, the vaunted “openness” it promises at the primary level is more than counterbalanced by great restrictions on choosing in the general election.

Marketers have long exploited us by encouraging us to misunderstand our choices in that way; the great fashion retailer George Davies once said that one of the “keys to success in retailing” is “to give the illusion of choice.”

Our choices are so often misrepresented in this culture that we are in effect trained to choose poorly. Having been bombarded by illusions of choice, and illusions about choice, it is not surprising that we often mistake the illusion for the reality. And over time, we pass on those illusions as truth.

I recently heard some hilarious stories from a friend who works at daycare facility in the Midwest where she is instructed not to discipline toddlers when they misbehave, but to talk to them about their “choices.”

This is what that looks like: say little John punches little Matt in the face. The daycare worker who spies this is trained to respond by saying, “Now, John, punching Matt in the face is not a choice right now.”

Of course, as long as you have arms and the ability to use them, punching another person in the face is always a choice. So these kids are being trained to misunderstand choice from the get-go. My friend reports that it is common to hear a child say something like the following: “Ms. So-and-so, Jane is playing with the blocks, but playing with the blocks is not a choice right now!” The sentiment is clear, but the language is muddling.

That muddling is a problem for us grown-ups, too, and a serious one. It’s been a few years since William Saletan showed in his book Bearing Right how the overuse of “choice” in our language eviscerates our ability to talk seriously about public matters, to talk in moral terms, and to talk about justice. It’s a problem that has become embedded in discrete policy issues – take abortion (framed as “choice” versus life) and education (with all those proponents of school “choice”) – but which more generally troubles our ability to talk to each other as citizens.

Americans often talk as if choice is what we are all about. If you search Google for the phrase “choice is what makes America great,” you will find thousands of people reciting that mantra. But that proposition has its grim shadow, in the truth that misunderstanding choice is what makes America weak – or at least weaker than we might truly choose to be.

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