Does canceling primaries cancel democracy?

  • Johnnie Lotesta

    Johnnie Lotesta

By Johnnie Lotesta
Guest columnist
Updated 9/25/2019 8:54 AM

In the past month, Republican parties in five states -- Kansas, Nevada, South Carolina, Arizona, and Alaska -- have canceled their 2020 presidential primaries.

The announcements come even as three Republicans -- former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford -- have launched bids for the party's presidential nomination.


Critics argue the cancellations are part of the Trump campaign's broader effort to snuff out potential primary opponents in the states. Yet, the debate thus far has overlooked an alarming trend in American politics: the detachment of parties from the publics they purport to represent.

Republican state party chairs say the cancellations will save scarce financial resources that can be better deployed in general election races. One Nevada Republican told CBS News that the party would save roughly $150,000 by canceling caucuses for the 2020 cycle.

Republicans are also quick to point out that presidential primary cancellations are nothing new. Eight state GOPs canceled their primaries in 1992 when George H.W. Bush sought re-election, and 10 canceled during Bush junior's 2004 re-election bid. Democrats also canceled primaries during the re-election bids of presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, though neither faced credible primary challengers.

Yet, rather than a strategic power grab or a pragmatic cost-saving measure, we can also interpret primary cancellations as evidence of what sociologists have long described as political parties' tendency toward "oligarchy," or the rule of many by the few.

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This seems a counterintuitive claim to make about representative democracy's key institutions, but it is one that has informed generations of sociological research. First advanced by German sociologists Max Weber and Robert Michels in the early 1900s, this "oligarchical theory" of political parties emphasizes the ways in which political parties -- increasingly managed by paid professionals -- tend to detach themselves from the interests and demands of the people they are meant to represent.

This detachment, Weber and Michels argued, results from the necessary delegation of responsibilities and decision-making authority to a small subset of leaders and staff as party organizations grow in size. It was this separation of leaders from members that led Michels to state, now famously, "Who says organization says oligarchy."

Weber and Michels wrote specifically about the parties of early 20th-century Europe, but their description of the disjuncture between party leaders and bases certainly resonates with the contemporary American moment. Take, for example, a recent statement from South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick, in which he told Politico, "As a general rule, when either party has an incumbent president in the White House, there's no rationale to hold a primary."

This might be true, but only if the party's sole concern is to maintain power. If, by contrast, party leaders are concerned with the democratic ideal -- as one would hope they would be -- then there is every reason to hold a primary, especially in the case of multiple challengers.


The importance of primaries lies in the fact that elections remain the American public's principle means of holding elected officials accountable. Primary elections, in particular, are voters' opportunity to choose the types of candidates they wish to see on the ballot -- centrist, progressive, conservative or otherwise.

They are also the internal process by which parties determine their stances on important moral and policy issues. Primaries -- and the selection of party candidates more generally -- are thus key components to the functioning of our representative democracy. They determine who is able to run for office, the issues and policy proposals that dominate public debate, and the array of political options available to voters.

Canceling primaries may save time and money, but is it also canceling our democracy?

Dr. Johnnie Lotesta, a Wheaton native, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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