Until women finally got the vote one hundred years ago, the political parties were essentially men’s clubs. Joining a political party was a demonstration of manhood. One of the first things male immigrants would do having attained citizenship, would be to join one of the parties. Even if they were working a physically punishing menial job that paid virtually nothing (say mining copper in the Upper Peninsula), joining meant to them that they belonged.

Party leaders chose candidates for office but those chosen knew that they would not serve long. At all levels, elected office holders were constantly rotated because of the Two Term Rule. The Two Term Rule wasn’t in the Constitution but it might well have been. What it meant was that except for a few in the leadership, no elected official at any level ran for more than two terms (The party gave men the office and the party could take it away.). It also meant that the leadership could groom really able young men for ever higher office. That grooming process meant that no one held higher office without having experience in a number of lower ones.

Then, after 1900, that system all fell apart. It fell apart because, in a period of progressive reform, it seemed more democratic to have the regular members of the parties, including those newly eligible immigrants, choose the parties’ candidates themselves by vote. It sounded democratic and power would be taken away from “party bosses”. The result was the primary (party election) system that we still have today.

Once the regular members of the parties began to determine the candidates, the Two Term Rule fell by the wayside. There was no way to prevent a person already in office from running in the party elections and becoming the candidate again and again. It allowed people once in office to simply hog the offices. The immigrant members who might have attained office earlier now rarely had a chance.

With that history in mind, think about how the system works now. At the every level of government almost all candidates are chosen by primary (by party election). Once in office the elected candidates have so many advantages that they were seldom defeated in subsequent primaries. That allows some office holders to build up tremendous seniority. It means that they may opt to stay until their late eighties. No one else has a chance.

In order to end the corruption that plagued those early primaries (parties would announce a time for primary and then hold one for insiders on a different day), the state governments have taken over. In most states voters arriving to vote in a primary will see the same people handing out the ballots that they will see in regular elections. Most states also froze their existing party organizations into law. Those organizations are different from state to state but within each state the organizations are nearly always the same.

The problem is that in most of the three thousand and six counties in the country, one party or the other is dominant. The dominant party may have a real organization that looks like the state mandated one (particularly in politicized cities, think Chicago or Atlanta). The minority party may have almost no functioning local organization at all. And almost no one will care because of what has happened to party membership.

In the eighteen hundreds men were eager to join the parties. Today, both major parties would love to have people join, pay dues, go to party meetings, have a membership card. The truth is that very few do. We have millions of people who claim that they are Democrats or that they are Republicans. Most of those people have no connection with “their party” at all. They are members because they think they are.

Those primaries are “party elections”. That means that in most states when you go to vote in a primary you are voting as a party member. You will have to ask for a Republican or a Democratic ballot (they won’t give you both). You may also be asked to register before a primary as a Democrat or as Republican (it is a party election).

Over the next few months you are going to hear a lot about people changing their party membership (the great invasion at the Capitol was hardly a great recruitment tool for Republicans). What that means is they have asked to be reregistered in their precinct in order to get a different party’s ballot for the next primary. They were never actually a member of any party at all.

So, our parties are strange organizations often with a legal organization that doesn’t actually function presiding over members who are not really members but who believe that they are. And, almost entirely separate, are the office holders. Remember that when primaries were created, political parties lost the power to choose their own candidates.

The candidates are actually chosen by the small number of motivated voters who come out and vote in the primaries. The party leaders have to wait to find out who their candidates will be. They often are people that party leaders would never have chosen (At the national level, does anybody think that Republican leaders would have chosen the inexperienced and controversial Donald Trump? Really?).

So, think about your federal Congressmen and Senators. They run as Democrats or as Republicans but they develop their own campaign organizations to run in the primary and then continue to use them to get elected. Once in office they stay in by appealing to that small group of people they think will vote in “their party’s” next primary.

The system has worked after a fashion because enough people believe that it works. But, because for the first time, a candidate, Donald Trump (and his authoritarian followers) has challenged the clear results of the last election, our whole political party system is in crisis. We will think about that next time.

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

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