One year after the tumultuous 2016 election it is clear that things are not going well. Even with Donald Trump in the White House and Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, very little positive has been accomplished. The White House and its staff are embroiled in constant turmoil. The President, faced with mounting evidence of Russian efforts to swing the presidential election on his behalf, is constantly on the defensive. And, had there been similar reports of marital misadventures published about Barack Obama, the Republican commentariat would be in a frenzy. In the meantime because of constant infighting by Republican members of both the House and the Senate, they managed to pass only one major bill, a “tax reform” that will give more than forty percent of its advantages to the top one percent of income earners.

So, how did things go so wrong? A good share of what went wrong has to do with the way our political parties choose candidates. The leadership of the political parties does not choose the candidates! As a reform back around 1900, progressive reformers wanted to take political power away from party bosses. And so the states, as a reform, began amending their election laws to say that candidates would be chosen by party members. That reform has spread so that now almost all candidates are chosen by state run party elections, what we call primaries. We have Spring primaries every four years to choose presidential nominees and August primaries every two years to choose most of the others; local, state and national.

Many primaries are closed. That means that only party members are supposed to participate (open primaries allow any one who shows up to vote). In practice, in those “closed primaries” anyone can vote who says they are a member. When the presidential primaries in 2016 began there were seventeen candidates. The Republican Party didn’t choose them. They chose themselves. Each had his own campaign organization. The Republican leadership and Republican voters across the country had to wait to see which of the seventeen would be “their nominee” (With so many running, the early primaries could be “won” with only a small percentage of the vote.). Like the primary voters, those candidates were Republicans because they said they were. Donald Trump became a Republican, never having held any political office and having most of his life been a Democrat, so that he could run. He had previously made contributions to the candidates of both parties because “it was good business”.

So, in this system, if somebody already famous wants to run (many people knew Donald Trump because of his television show), there is little that a political party can do to stop him. That is particularly true if there are a great many other candidates also in the running because it’s hard to come up with one big stopper. And, if that candidate manages to capture the interest of the media, he will get endless free publicity. Donald Trump certainly did appeal to the angry people at his rallies and he did win over many “cultural Republicans” anxious about a Hillary Clinton win. He chose to run as a Republican but the larger truth is that a celebrity candidate could have come out of nowhere and possibly have won with either party because of the way the primary system works. Both parties are vulnerable to the inexperienced but already famous.

The truth is that many of those people at Donald Trump’s rallies weren’t really Republicans at all. Nor were they interested in becoming Republicans. They were there because they finally had a famous candidate who spoke their language. The parties are also vulnerable to a surge election propelled by an outsider like Donald Trump because of the way they are structured. Both parties have official organizational structures in each state dictated by state law. Those structures are dictated down to the county level. The organizations are different in each state but within the each state they are the same. The flaw is that usually one party dominates. That party may have a real organization and the lesser party simply empty slots. There is nothing really there. In any case, most citizens who say they are “members” have no real connection with “their” party.

To illustrate, right now, over in Germany, long time Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s CDU Party did not gain a majority in last September’s election. She is, right now, trying to put together a coalition with another political party, the Social Democrats. For that to happen there has to be a vote by 440,000 Social Democratic Party members. If we were to have a national vote of Democratic or Republican Party members, how could it work?

To personalize it, let us say that you have been a life-long Republican. You tell people you are a Republican. Your family members are all Republicans. You nearly always vote for Republican candidates. If we held the kind of vote the Germans were holding how would the Republican Party know where to find you? Isn’t it really true that you are only a member of the Republican Party because you’ve always thought you were? When was the last time you went to a Party meeting? When was the last time you even talked to someone representing the Republican Party? Think of those millions of people across the country like you who claim to be Republicans, or who claim to be Democrats, and have no actual connection with the parties. So, what we really have is an often non-existent official party organization and millions of “members” who, in fact, have no connection with their party at all.

It is difficult for anyone to win the presidency, and particularly for an inexperienced outsider, but Donald Trump did win. He managed to win because of an almost perfect alignment of conditions and events. There was very substantial body of angry voters who could vote in the primaries for their new hero because of the way the primaries are structured. The more traditional Republican voters were willing to nervously vote for him because of their antipathy toward Hillary Clinton, who had been demonized for years by Republican actives, by right wing organizations, and most recently, by Russian bots. It also helped that as a personality she was unattractive to many and that she ran a flawed campaign. Even with all that Donald Trump did really lose by about three million votes. His victory was an artifact of the electoral system, a system, ironically, designed by the Founders to weaken the voice of the common man.

There are lessons to be learned here: When we vote for a presidential candidate we are hiring some one to do an almost impossibly demanding job. If we elect some one because he/she makes us feel good but has no experience and has obvious character flaws, then we should hardly be surprised when things go wrong. If we rely on political parties to choose our candidates and aid in their campaigns, then their selection system, in this era, needs to be reformed in a way which will weed out the clearly unprepared. Finally, the party actives in both parties need to recreate real local organizations which have real connections to the voters. To not do these things, in an era of celebrity, makes the system truly vulnerable. We can do better!

H.J. Rishel


Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all