“Open” Primaries and the Illusion of Choice

by Susan McWilliams on June 9, 2010 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power

Choices

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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar GA Dean June 9, 2010 at 7:50 pm

This change in the election process, if it survives the inevitable court challenges, will be a very “interesting” experiment on a particularly large stage. As a Californian I ought to be worried, but the status quo in CA politics bad enough that any big shake-up sounds appealing. Even so, I’m not at all sure this will work out well.

However, let’s look at some of the scenarios you mention. All the parties will be weakened, a good thing, but the small parties will be effectively eliminated, except that they form alliance with the two majors. But these parties are effectively “out of the running” in the general election anyway. They will participate in the primary, but not the general, Today it is the other way around. Is the end result much different? And if the open primary encourages more “outsiders” to run within the parties and split votes, strong third-party candidates might get into the top 2 spots. The small parties are just as effectively crushed by powerful and closed major parties.

As for the “top-two” system…it concerns me too, but think of what happens today. In places with an overwhelming skew to one party, San Francisco for example, the eventual winner is effectively chosen by a small group in the primary (if there is any choice at all. How long since Nancy Pelosi had a credible challenger?) The general election is a formality. I wonder if the Republicans and Independents of SF will welcome the chance to choose between two viable Democrats rather than just one.

avatar sdf June 9, 2010 at 8:51 pm

“In places with an overwhelming skew to one party…the eventual winner is effectively chosen by a small group in the primary…. The general election is a formality. I wonder if the Republicans and Independents of SF [for example] will welcome the chance to choose between two viable Democrats rather than just one.”

That was how I justified my yes vote. GA Dean is underwhelming in his description of the problem, though. Virtually all of California’s state and US House districts are so strongly gerrymandered that 95+% of non-state-wide elections are decided by the primary. I don’t like being disenfranchised, of course, but my lack of personal choice wasn’t so much my concern as was the fact that the primary voters (i.e. the most strongly partisan/ideological) of a single party were deciding nearly all of our state’s elections and continually sending stupid, corrupt, ridiculous, and ideological incompetents as our representatives in both Sac and DC. I fear (expect, I suppose) that our election campaigns are going to come to look like the big money-driven media blitz of dishonest marketing that define the proposition process these days, but so be it. It will be the same process, more or less, as we have now just (hopefully) more visible as the big money will be going to candidates directly rather than being filtered through the central parties.

avatar John Gorentz June 9, 2010 at 10:54 pm

” So these kids are being trained to misunderstand choice from the get-go.”

This is one of the most disturbing pieces of news I’ve heard this year, and this is a year that has been chock-full of disturbing news.

I suggest that the people who use the word that way should be sent up for child abuse.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen June 10, 2010 at 6:28 am

Another excellent book that substantiates Susan’s basic point regarding our embrace of what is most often the _illusion_ of choice is Barry Lynn’s “Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.” Lynn chronicles with chilling detail how many of our consumer “choices” derive from one of only very few sources, most of which are produced or directed by a small coterie of powerful corporate operations. While we vaunt the “openness” and “competitiveness” of our “free- market” economic system, current arrangements are organized to eliminate as much competition as possible, an end most effectively pursued by providing the _illusion_ of choice to a pliant and complacent consumer class. From what Susan describes, the California primary “reform” may end up doing the same: we’ll get a “choice” of candidates, but they will likely be those candidates who can best manipulate mass media – via considerable personal or corporate wealth – as best to maintain that very system. My guess is that we’ll get choices between people who are “pro-government” and “pro-market,” diverting us from the inconvenient fact that what we now have effectively is a kind of State capitalism of rent-seeking corporations (it might also be appropriately called “Socialism for the Rich”). I’m reminded of my long-held view on automobiles: we have a thousand and one choices about which automobile to own, and a million and one choices about which options to select, but very few of us have a choice of whether or not to drive. We are all in need of some powerful smelling salts to rouse us from our hypo-narcotized delusion that we are awash in actual choices.

avatar Albert June 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm

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.”

I enjoyed imagining a rascally little John responding by punching Matt again, immediately declaring to the daycare worker “I didn’t have a choice! I didn’t have a choice!”

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 11, 2010 at 10:06 am

You may be right about the illusion of choice — Communists said for years that capitalism gives Americans a choice between tweedledum and tweedledee (Republicans and Democrats). But, when examining the specific of open primaries, a little history is very much in order. (Another delusion common in American political choices is that we only look a few inches ahead of our own noses, and don’t take a long view of the history that offered us our current problem as an improvement on a previous problem).

At the beginning of our republic, political parties were not contemplated as a part of our electoral system. The electoral college might still make sense, IF it had continued to be a matter of voters, far removed from familiarity with the likely candidates for President of the United States, selecting people closer to home whose judgement they trusted to make a wise choice. Now, its just individuals on slates serving as ciphers for a numbers count. Political parties developed, without anyone having planned for them constitutionally.

As free associations of individuals, political parties naturally chose their own candidates through their own internal party discussions. Nothing to complain about there. BUT, as two parties came to dominate electoral choices, the decisions of the two parties with a “real chance to win” narrowed down what voters could choose FROM. (The two parties might by Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, Democrats and Whigs, Republicans and Democrats, but except for short transition periods, there were basically two “major” parties.) Thus, the denigration of “party bosses,” and “ward heelers” and cronyism — all perfectly legitimate criticisms.

One way to break the monopoly on nominations of a handful of party big-wigs was the party primary. If a large portion of “the people” wanted a candidate, who was anathema to “the bosses,” we could vote for that candidate. Sometimes this worked. On the other hand, if only a well-organized or well-financed handful of highly motivated (bordering on fanatical) voters turn out — we know some of the recent results. A majority of citizens aren’t satisfied with THAT selection in the general election either.

Of late, both “major” parties have objected to state interference in “their” primary by asserting their standing as free and voluntary associations. That would be all right, except that they have used legislation, as well as precedent, to position themselves virtually as a part of the electoral machinery of government.

The open primary COULD break that logjam, and return political parties to their proper place AS voluntary advocacy groups, stripped of quasi-official status, and leave open opportunities for candidates to offer platforms now consigned to the wilderness of “minor party” platforms. Using the 2000 presidential election as analogy, voters could turn out in the primary for Buchanan or Nader, and in the general election, fall back on their second choice, if necessary. But it might have been Buchanan vs. Gore, or Bush vs. Nader, or even Nader v. Buchanan. Personally, I wasn’t impressed by any of the four. But if they had all been cast into a primary with a fifth and sixth candidate, maybe Bill Bradley would have ended up as president. In 1980, without the constraints of a “Republican” primary, John Anderson might have been one of the top two.

Presidential politics is more complex than state politics, but I would favor something of the sort even at the presidential level — probably leavened by a series of staggered state primaries so we have time to look them all over. But the open primary could restore some wholesome openness to our elections, and reduce the “baneful influence of party” vainly decried by George Washington. We’ll still join parties — but no party will be The Channel by which a candidate is annointed as “electable.”

avatar Robb June 13, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Those of us of a “greenish” hue opposed this measure from the get-go because we argued CA would get “a system which is effectively going to bar third-party candidates.” But the larger problem for some of us is that it will further the illusion of choice while actually taking away our ability to engage in meaningful dialogue around issues that could help us to choose wisely. Removing third party voices limits alternative (but, in many cases) important perspectives. This is an “experiment” for which the results are already known–and they are not good results.

avatar Roger S. June 14, 2010 at 8:55 am

Siarlys said “Communists said for years that capitalism gives Americans a choice between tweedledum and tweedledee (Republicans and Democrats).”

The “choice” between republicans and democrats hasn’t been real for quite awhile and the observation about two parties in power in a democratic society isnt one that has been made by communists. Chesterton, for one, noted it. I prefer Frick and Frack although I’m not sure how either word is spelled.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 14, 2010 at 10:41 am

I don’t follow the logic that open primaries will squeeze out third parties. Certainly it will close out the present option to have a third party name on the ballot, getting a tiny fraction of the vote, while most voters “realistically” case their ballots for the lesser of two evils among the “major” party candidates who “have a chance to win.”

However, an open primary may equalize the chances of a candidate who is a MEMBER of a “third party” actually making it into the run-off, or the general election, being one of the top two. Voters in an open primary can feel much more free to vote for any candidate whose platform and principles sound like what a voter wants. The voter doesn’t have to choose the Democratic or Republican primaries to influence who will be a “major party” candidate.

I’m no fan of Ron Paul, but in an open primary system, he wouldn’t have to choose between running as a Republican candidate or a Libertarian candidate. Those who applaud what he offers, Republican, Libertarian, Independent, Green, or whatever, can all vote for him in the primary. If he is among the top two, they can vote for him again. If he’s not, they can still choose the lesser of the top two evils.

avatar T. Chan June 15, 2010 at 1:40 am

“However, an open primary may equalize the chances of a candidate who is a MEMBER of a “third party” actually making it into the run-off, or the general election, being one of the top two.”

How is a candidate to get name recognition without a huge sum of money for the campaign leading up to the primary?

avatar polistra June 15, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Washington has been using the top-two system for a couple of years. It gives minor parties a lower vote total, but it could give them a better chance of winning an actual office.

Here’s my thinking:
http://polistrasmill.blogspot.com/2008/08/got-really-interesting.html

avatar David Alexander June 29, 2010 at 10:09 pm

You are an excellent writer. I choose your sterling prose
over a lot of other flab. I really thought you described
well a grave sickness in American psyche- the conversion
of freedom into nihilism. True freedom, true dialogues and
true self giving heroic sacrifice are in being bound…
but once having lost the glue can we be made salty again?

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