Primary Scream, or Unrepresentative Democracy

Gershom Gorenberg

Tomorrow Kadima will pick someone to replace Ehud Olmert as party leader. Olmert will then quit, to the sound of 7 million people sighing in relief, and his replacement will get the chance to form a new government and become Israel’s prime minister. The method that Kadima will use to make this momentous decision is quaintly called a “primary” in our parts, and purports to be an election. If you believe that, we have a bridge to sell you in Alaska.

A total of 73,000 people are eligible to vote. That’s 2.3 of the total turnout in the 2006 national election, and about 10 percent of the number of people who voted for Kadima. But there’s no reason to think that people voting in the primary voted for Kadima in ’06, or have any thought of voting for the party in the next national election. A few might, who knows. If so, it’s by accident.

To vote, you have to be a dues-paying member of Kadima. But the members have mostly been signed up by so-called “vote contractors.” They want to do favors for the candidates so they can get favors back later. As party members, they want people with no particular opinions of their own, willing to vote as told. Some of people they’ve signed up are from Arab towns. Some may be ultra-Orthodox. Some, it’s said, are union members signed up by union officials. It’s not clear why union officials should care about the Kadima outcome, since the party has the same neoliberal, anti-labor economic policies as the Likud and half of Labor.

So while Tzipi Livni is far ahead in polls, the conventional wisdom is that Shaul Mofaz has been far more successful in signing up members who have the same relations to real grass roots that astroturf has to a living lawn. If Mofaz can get these movie extras to show up and if they perform as instructed, he wins. Those are big ifs. As a kid, I read a book that defined an honest politician as one who stays bought, but the Kadima voters have no reason to stay bought. Besides, Livni is getting help from Tzahi Hanegbi, who was handing out patronage long before Mofaz folded up his uniform. Forget the polls. Rolling dice will give you a better prediction of the outcome. Tossing darts blindfolded would be as effective a method of choosing a leader that represents the views of people who might actually vote Kadima, not to mention the views of the country, on who should be prime minister.

The so-called primary system was adopted in Israel in another one of the local fits of copying all things American, and copying them badly. The old system of smokefilled rooms was considered unrepresentative, so an even less representative system was designed. At least in Labor and the Likud, though, some voters in the primaries are actually party activists or supporters. Kadima, however, has no history. The party was invented before the last election as a vehicle for Ariel Sharon, who then had a stroke. It could quite literally be said that he bequeathed the party to Olmert in a fit of absent-mindedness.

The irony here is that a smokefilled room would actually yield a more democratic result. Knesset members and other prominent hacks, eager to maintain their power, would try to find the candidate that in their professional judgment would be most likely to please the national electorate. The random crowd that shows up tomorrow lacks even that measure of concern with satisfying the public.

In the meantime, South Jerusalem readers may enter their own random guesses at the outcome. The winner gets free access to this blog. Don’t be bashful. You have as much chance of being right as the pollsters. And take comfort in this: Even Shaul Mofaz is more qualified to be a national leader than Sarah Palin.

8 thoughts on “Primary Scream, or Unrepresentative Democracy”

  1. It’s not based on any facts but my entry into the South Jerusalem Kadima sweepstakes is Tzipi Livni, I can’t resist the prize of free blog access!

    I guess when you found a party in your own image, as Sharon did with Kadima, it’s no surprise that the party rules allow a certain manipulation of the outcome. The commitment is to a personality cult, not policies or representation.

  2. Exellent piece! You really put your finger on the problem. The only thing I can’t understand is why there is not national outcry against this “primary system” which is a travesty of democracy. We should also note that the quality of candidates running for President of the US has also deteriorated badly since they went from using the “smoke-filled room” system of choosing delegates and candidates to the “primary system” in the US in the 1970’s. Today, if you don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars, forget it.

  3. I don’t know if I agree about the quality of candidates running for President of the US or not. John F. Kennedy, though smoke-filled rooms played a part, would never have been nominated for president in the days before the Party Primaries. His charismatic showing against Hubert Humphrey in the Primaries led to his nomination, as opposed to a powerful and entrenched party leader like Humphrey or Lyndon Johnson. In contrast, the decision of the Democratic delegates in Chicago to nominate Humphrey over the head of primary winner Eugene McCarthy led to riots and Richard Nixon.

    While I admit that the Oprah factor probably helped him raise money, I think Barack Obama is a great candidate. In the old system, Hillary Clinton would have been handed the nomination regardless of the primary results and that would have been a commitment to more of the same economic policies we’ve seen under Clinton and Bush.

    I will take a shot. My understanding of Israeli politics is extremely second hand, but I have a friend in Israel who consults for me. In her opinion, grass-roots cynicism would work against Livni in a general election. If enough people in Kadima agree, I think Mofaz wins out if it really comes down to one or the other.

  4. Eclectic, let me point out a telling historical anachronism of yours–in 1960, Humphrey was not the establishment candidate–he was the candidate of the radical left wing of the Democratic Party. In fact, in those days “radical” was not a dirty word and Humphrey used it freely. Far more than the other four major candidates for the nomination, he had staked out courageous and innovative positions on economics, civil rights, and labor. Kennedy was a centrist who had taken care not to rock the boat and as such was much more attractive to the party establishment. The bosses were hesitant about him because of his Catholicism, not because of his political positions. In his primary victories over Humphrey, he proved to the party leaders that his religion was not deterring voters, and as soon as they saw that they willingly gave him their support. Kennedy made little progress on civil rights and economic equality and got the U.S. involved in Vietnam; Humphrey or Johnson would almost certainly have pursued a more progressive agenda at home and a less overconfident one abroad.

  5. Correction — I meant that Humphrey unashamedly called himself a liberal and that that was not a dirty word. Humphrey was the classic anti-Communist liberal, who founded his political career in Minnesota by advocating liberal policies while forcing Communists and fellow-travelers out of the unions and the Farmer-Labor Party (which had merged with the Democrats).

  6. Kennedy ran on a platform of accusing the Eisenhower Administration of being weak on national security, allowing the US to fall behind the USSR as a result of the (non-existent) “missile gap”, allowing the US to fall behind the USSR in the space race and accused Eisenhower of being weak regarding Castro in Cuba.
    Kennedy won the election by distancing himself from the liberal Adlai Stevenson wing of the Democratic Party which had led to two devastating defeats by Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.

    Kennedy presided over what was then the biggest peace-time build-up of the US military in history. He was the best friend the “military-industrial complex” (a term Eisenhower first used) ever had, as a result of this and his committment to the Apollo Moon landing program.

    Eclectic Radical-
    Most delegates to the Democratic Convention in 1968 were not chosen in primaries, they were chosen in state conventions where Humphrey had a strong showing even before Robert Kennedy was assassinated. McCarthy did not win many primaries, the only one I can think of was in Oregon. He actually lost the New Hampshire primary to President Johnson, whereas people mistakenly think he won it. I recall reading some time ago that those who voted for McCarthy in New Hampshire were asked why they did so (a vote of no-confidence in the sitting President) and most answered because they felt the LBJ did not respond forcefully enough to the recent Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in other words, they were not supporting McCarthy’s position of rapid withdrawal. Robert Kennedy won most of the other primaries, including important California, but as I said, winning the primaries was not enough to get the nomination, so it is incorrect to say that McCarthy was the “rightful” nominee whom Humphrey had somehow “cheated” out of the nomination. In the end McCarthy endorsed Humphrey.

  7. Haim, Humphrey was nominated by the party establishment because he was the sitting vice president. The party conventions which YBD correctly cites as backing him did so because it was the ‘correct’ thing to do, support the administration’s candidate. Yes, Humphrey was unabashedly liberal. In fact, he was the leader of the liberal wing of the party prior to accepting the vice presidential spot on the Johnson ticket. All of this is true.

    It is also true, as YBD says, that Johnson won the New Hampshire primary. He dropped out of the race when McCarthy won in Oregon, a considerable upset at the time. At this point, the nomination process fell into chaos and Robert Kennedy entered the race on an even more aggressively modern liberal platform than McCarthy (who was considered weak on civil rights by younger Democrats who had supported JFK and Johnson, but was the popular candidate of economic populists and moderate democrats). However, McCarthy was leading RFK in the primaries. His win in the California primary was considered a huge upset, and he was still behind overall. This is the reason for his famous speech about going on to New York: he needed to win the New York primary to take the lead from McCarthy. He was shot before this happened, and McCarthy won New York campaigning as RFK’s kindred spirit on the peace platform.

    Coming into the Chicago convention in 1968, Humphrey did have an overall delegate lead for precisely the reason YBD states: the state conventions, where he won because of the party establishment’s decision to support the sitting vice president. However, McCarthy had won Oregon and had won more of the primaries in which none of the candidates had campaigned personally.

    Thus, when the state conventions nominated Humphrey over McCarthy, riots. Which still reenforces my argument against the old system being better than the new one. Humphrey was destroyed in the general election because he was tarred with the Vietnam War policies of the Johnson administration and the peace wing of the Democratic party did not support him, believing him to have betrayed his liberal rhetoric in order to be nominated.

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