“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” – James Bovard

“You have to remember one thing about the will of the people; it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.” – Jon Stewart

“Ironically, the very fact that democracy has such a lengthy history has actually contributed to confusion and disagreement, for ‘democracy’ has meant different things to different people at different times and places.” – Robert Dahl

This is the third post in a series about politics within parties.

Back in October, one of Jonathan Bernstein’s readers asked whether the “invisible primary” is undemocratic. The invisible primary is a process that occurs before the primaries and caucuses start up, when party actors use endorsements, donations, and informal means to “pre-select” (to use Bernstein’s word) party nominees. In a similar vein, Bernstein had interesting exchange with our own Seth Masket about this a few months back, in which SM asked “how small d-democratic should the parties be?” In this exchange, as in the more recent post, JB stressed the importance of permeability for the parties – how open they are to new activists who want to influence the process.

This exchange hints at how “democratic” really means something specific, but we often use it as a stand-in for a range of characteristics that an organization or a polity can have – accountability, respect for rights, stable and fairly applied rules. When people talk about making parties “more democratic,” they usually mean one very specific and narrow definition of democracy. This common but incomplete definition is rooted in participation and usually goes something like “allows more people to participate in the process.” This dimension of democracy has brought us many great things, such as voting rights for (nearly) all adult citizens. This kind of thinking is also responsible for the 17th amendment, which allows for the direct election of Senators, the rise of direct primaries to nominate candidates, and ballot initiatives to determine public policy. These changes seem to be pretty popular too, but they certainly have their detractors.

Democracy has other aspects besides participation, however. What we typically think of as democracy also requires structures that allow us to hold elected officials accountable. Robert Dahl identified this in his 1971 classic Polyarchy as the “contestation” dimension, which exists separately from participation. Accountability and contestation require that elections have uncertain outcomes at least some of the time, and that the rules of the game are transparent and remain fixed throughout the process.

What makes American parties undemocratic isn’t limited input; rather, it’s that the process is susceptible to manipulation by those who have most stake in its outcome. As Bernstein and Masket point out, there are multiple dimensions of democracy – transparency in the process, and the capacity for new voices to be heard. But the actual manipulation of party processes to include more voices may actually undermine the two of the core principles of democracy: uncertainty of outcomes and stable, consistent rules. In response to the McGovern-Fraser reforms that were intended to include more voices in party decision-making, informal processes emerged that have actually made nominations, on balance, less uncertain than before. Although both are elite-driven, the invisible primary might actually be less democratic than the “smoke-filled rooms” model of yore. With the invisible primary, nominees are selected before the official process begins. The informal process of the invisible primary also lacks the benefit of formal rules about when a selection threshold has been met, or which voices must be represented. It’s possible that this doesn’t make much difference in the ultimate outcome. But allowing important decisions to be made informally, in the lead-up to what is ostensibly a formal democratic process, doesn’t seem like the highest quality democratic practice.

As we think about parties’ efforts to democratize – to expand decision-making to ordinary folks – this was only partially informed by romantic notions of popular rule. Both the earlier, Progressive-era wave, and the later wave that culminated in the McGovern-Fraser reforms, were driven by candidates who wanted to win the nomination. Progressives had a range of ideas about parties, but a great deal of their reform impulse was based on objection to corrupt party bosses, and creating direct primaries was a means to that end. As I’ve written before, Woodrow Wilson imagined a more parliamentary-style “responsible party” system, while Theodore Roosevelt saw a way to try to beat Taft. Decades later, nomination reforms were aimed at making the Democratic Party more accountable to its activists -who just happened to be more liberal than the “back room” elites. In further coincidences, George McGovern, after heading up the commission to reform the party’s nomination processes, was selected as its next nominee. In other words, the biggest reforms in making party nominations more small-d democratic weren’t really about principles and ideals. They were about changing the parties themselves – making them more ideologically distinct and “responsible” – and about enhancing the political careers of ambitious politicians.

When we assess whether a country is democratic, we look at more than just how many people participate in elections. How the rules are made and applied also matters. Parties are self-governing organizations, and so perhaps we can never really get around the problem of rules made by those who stand the most to benefit from them. But endless tinkering with the process in the name of making things more democratic might just be manipulation, not reform.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.