Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Inaugural post

As political scientists have reckoned over the past decade or so, the “invisible primary” is instrumental in determining the eventual nominee.  Shortly after election day, Jonathan Bernstein commented on the commencement of the nomination campaigns for both political parties.  He noted that “we can talk about it sensibly or not.”   This blog is an attempt at the former.  Moreover, as time wears on, we’ll probably not confine ourselves strictly to the invisible primary here, and consider other workings of our party system as the two are directly tied to one another.

I thought a good inaugural post would be one quick explanation as to why this invisible primary takes so bloody long.  If Bernstein is correct (and I certainly reckon that he is) the invisible primary for the 2016 Republican nomination began in September, as their 2012 prospects dimmed.  A European friend expressed a touch of haughty derision about our long presidential election seasons and asked why it takes this long to sort out party leadership and nominees as opposed to other nations with presidential systems.  My immediate reply was it is largely an artifact of our decentralized party structure, the lack of formal national leadership, and that in many respects the American system actually isn’t as different from his as it appears at first blush.

Shoring up the support of the rank-and-file in any party system is a full time pursuit.  Party leaders in European democracies are constantly attending to their membership and keeping their factions happy; they just have the advantage of clear party hierarchy and networks that gives order to the process outside of the electoral arena and an ever-present national leadership.

The Americans lack such formal hierarchical party structures, forcing potential nominees to delve into the informal networks of intense policy demanders (elected officials, state party officials, and opinion leaders) as these broadly defined party leaders attempt to arrive at a consensus in an extended electoral process.  It’s not that this consensus is any easier or harder to land upon in either system, it’s just that in Europe the consensus is usually clear at any given time between elections as the parties almost always have a clear standard bearer, and formal means to replace failed leadership should the need arise.  American parties have no such luck.  We don’t have or really need a national standard bearer outside of a sitting president.  Hence, both the party and presidential hopefuls are forced into the long conversation of the invisible primary as the party slowly decides whom the nominee will be.  Though it may certainly annoy some people that our campaigns are interminable, there are rational, structural reasons why this is so.

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