It’s our own damn fault. Everybody hates the interminable election season, which seems to last as long as the First World War, and is roughly as noisy. Bad enough that we get harangued and barraged during the election itself, now we have it extended into… forever by the primary season. Hate it? It’s our own damn fault.
Political life used to be simpler and shorter. Selecting a candidate was the job of the national convention, held a month or two before the campaign opened. The powers that be in any given state — a governor, the senators, powerful members of the Congressional delegation, but mostly local political bosses — chose all the delegates. In the Empire State Tammany leaders picked a lot of them, sharing the spoils with their upstate compatriots and with Wall Street moguls.
How the convention actually reached a decision was the stuff of back room deal-making, veiled in secrecy. To this day, we don’t know for sure what Franklin Roosevelt and James Farley actually did to cinch the 1932 nomination, FDR’s first and most crucial.
This was also the heyday of political reporting, when ink-stained wretches provided insightful and amusing commentary to give readers a feel of what this grand bazaar was like, decades before they could actually watch it on television. Take the disastrous 1924 Democratic convention, which went on almost literally forever in New York City. Prior to this the longest such event for the Dems withered party members in 1860 for fifty-seven ballots. The more efficient Republicans had only suffered through 36, in 1880. But the roaring twenties produced a stunner, one-hundred-three ballots; proceedings should have taken a few days and instead went more than two weeks, from June 24 to July 9. Will Rogers admonished them, “This thing has got to come to an end. New York invited you people here as guests, not to live.” Years later, children would ask, “Father, were you in the big war?” and he would reply, “No, son, but I went through the New York convention.”
But even with that excruciating record, the nomination process was astoundingly brief by modern standards. Also quite messy and very secret. The delegates reported to a few party honchos, and occasionally got carried away by emotion on the floor and cast a vote as they personally felt the situation required, with no one but maybe God or a few equally drunk buddies influencing them. It was not for nothing that H. L. Mencken, another of the era’s masters, wrote that, “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.”
After the convention, for a good part of the twentieth century campaigns started late and ran quickly. As recently as the nineteen-twenties, national political parties only came into existence during the presidential event every four years, and then disbanded and sold the furniture. After Alfred E. Smith lost in 1928 his campaign manager, John Raskob — a man of considerable means — took over as chair of the DNC; to improve the party’s fortunes, he kept the office going full time during the four-year off season. This was paid for easily out of his own pocket, an early example of money changing how politics works in this country. One of the most important things he did was hire the first full time publicist in history for either political party, Charlie Michelson. After the Stock Market Crash and the Depression, Michelson boosted the party’s chances by sending out endless press releases on Herbert Hoover’s shortcomings, long before the next election. Quite an innovation, and a remarkably timely one to boot, but politics had become a long run thing.
The biggest extension, however, came in the nineteen-seventies. Responding to the mess that was the 1968 Democratic convention, party leaders opened the door to all those protesting groups by letting them actually choose the candidate. Their method was as American as apple pie: they created a national system of primaries, where the people in every state would now select the delegates for a national convention. Republicans soon followed suit.
In a flash, election season became infinitely longer. And a lot more expensive, with the gates opened wide by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 with the Citizens United decision.
While the flagrant role of money in American politics should be dealt with, no one is seriously proposing to dump the primaries and return to a brief and controlled nominating convention. Franklin Roosevelt grasped the essence of our improvements: “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
The current setup is long and messy, noisy and expensive. But it’s the system we all want, where everyone has a vote in who runs. As I mentioned, it’s our own damn fault.
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