Donald Trump’s unpopularity numbers hover around 60 percent. Hillary Clinton’s are between 50 and 55 percent. How did we get into a situation where most voters will be required to elect the least unpopular candidate this November? The answer lies in history and human nature.
For most of the 19th and 20 centuries, until the 1970s, party bosses selected the nominees in smoke-filled rooms during their respective conventions. While there were some poor presidents, we see candidates like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy who were extremely popular. How did these men get selected?
According to George Friedman in his “Global Futures” newsletter called “In Defense of Party Bosses,” professional politicians had a strong motivation to pick a popular person because it kept them in power. Strong, vulgar self-interest was their chief goal. Nominating popular people meant that party bosses kept their jobs.
Unfortunately, it also wasn’t very democratic and was often corrupt.
That approach began to change during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century when reformers tried to clean up the system. The primary was born as a way to wrest power from corrupt party bosses. The theory behind this was that if average people had the chance to vote, the public’s will, not the whims of party bosses, would decide who our presidents would be. More democracy would mean fairer, better choices. Unfortunately reality got in the way.
Because of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, reformers were able to push for greater public power gained through primaries.
That pattern has held ever since. The problem is that most Americans pay very little attention to primary races. The majority of Americans only begin to care a few weeks before the general elections in November. Few voters actually turn out to vote in the primaries. Those who do are deeply interested in politics and tend to exist on the edges of the political mainstream. That’s why candidates like Trump and Sanders have gained so much support.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, primary participation has risen from 9.8 percent in 2012 to 17.3 percent among Republicans today. Among Democrats, turnout has risen from 6.3 to 11.7 percent. These voters are passionate about politics and tend to vote according to their values rather than personalities, according to Friedman. The candidates may be extremely disliked, but that is not the concern of the primary junkies.
This election season, the primary system has created two very unpopular candidates. It’s an example of right intentions not taking into account human nature.
Friedman argues that we were better off with less democracy, rather than more, due to public political apathy. The founders of the Constitution understood the important role of political experts to choose the nominees. That’s why they created the Electoral College. The idea behind it was to protect the people from making bad decisions based upon emotions rather than reason and experience.
The reason we have two extremely unpopular presidential candidates today is because primaries were held and most people stayed at home, according to Friedman. Primaries are great in theory, but they don’t take human nature into account. Most of the American voting public is apathetic and reformers have created consequences that they never contemplated. We get what we deserve, but not what is good for our republic and our nation.