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Another quadriennial choosing.

As I was slowly writing a long note on the process of our Parties choosing nominees for President, I came up with an analogy that is totally and utterly wrong and that I think influences a lot of our take on the thing anyway. And it’s this: we see the primary process as being something like the regular season for which the championship is in November. And that’s not what is going on at all.

To elaborate somewhat… in our imagination of sports leagues, particularly sports leagues that have divisions or conferences or whatnot, the regular season serves to identify the Best Team in each league, and then the Best Team from the one league plays against the Best Team from the other league for the championship, and the winner is the Best Team in the World. That’s the baseball set-up, with the American and National Leagues, and it’s something like the Super Bowl set-up with the AFC and NFC, and it’s something like the NBA’s and NHL’s Western and Eastern conferences, as well, I believe. Between all of those, that’s a pretty prevalent model. You can argue, in each of those leagues, whether one division is stronger than another, and so whether one group of semi-finalists is better than the other, but in the end, it’s their best against our best, and may the best team win.

I have problems with that idea in baseball, at least insofar as it is understood to find out which team is the Best, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I have problems with it in politics. But really, the issue is that it’s the wrong idea entirely. Our nomination process is not about finding the Best President, the person who is best at presidenting. In part that’s because nobody is really sure precisely what skills exactly go into good presidenting, and as far as I can tell, the closer people are to the job, the more cautious they are about predicting whether a particular person would be good at it or not. Another part is the Parties are also looking for someone who will win in November, which may not be the person who is best at presidenting in January and following. Another is that there are policy preferences to be taken into account, which interact with (sometimes unpredictably interact with) the skills at presidenting aforementioned.

It is also for another and more important reason, which I will rant about at too-great length before the end of this note, so you have that to look forward to.

So if the process isn’t about finding the Best President, what is it about? Well, Richard Hasen at CNN wrote a note called Is Trump right about ’rigged’ nomination? in which he says:

The bottom line is that the party nomination process serves two different functions: First, it winnows down the field for a final set of choices on Election Day in November. Second, it determines who should lead political parties made up of like-minded people who have come together for a key political purpose.

This is very nearly right, I think, and very, very wrong. So let me say it a different way that I think retains the right part: First, it usually does the necessary task of giving us two perfectly acceptable candidates; and second, it occasions active participation in a corrective exercise within Parties.

The second part first, and briefly: the quadriennial struggle to name a nominee serves to get people active in the Party organizations and the quasi-Party organizations (most of the Party isn’t technically part of the formal Party, but Emily’s List, f’r’ex, or the Sierra Club, or even the NRA are properly understood as part of the Party, having appropriate influence and wielding such veto power as it can maintain, being a path for people who want to participate to do so) and wrestle over what policy positions are supported and which are anathemized, which advisors and elders are respected and which are put out to pasture, and other important aspects of organization. Including, informally and chaotically, what constitutes legitimacy and what confers it. In the US, almost anyone can get involved, and almost nobody can make much individual difference, and that’s an amazing and beautiful thing.

The first part, at length: While I don’t believe that there is a single potential Best President, I do believe that there are lots of potential terrible presidents, and that the process is supposed to eliminate those people. People such as Your Humble Blogger, and Herman Cain, and Lyndon LaRouche and Warren Beatty and Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton. And Donald Trump. And by terrible, I suppose I don’t mean objectively terrible, but viewed with prospective terror by a big share of the people. We don’t want to have someone like that in office. We do want to have in office someone who is seen as qualified and legitimate by a wide portion of the population. And further, we want the election in the end to be between two such people, so that whoever becomes President will have the active support of a majority of voters (or nearly) and the widest possible presupposition of legitimacy in office. Does it always work? Obviously not. But on the whole, we generally have a President beginning the term with the support of almost the entire Party, and with a perhaps-grudging acknowledgement on part or most of the other Party that the winner did in fact legitimately win, and apart from being very wrong on policies and principles, is a qualified and legitimate President.

We have had occasions where the nominee wasn’t supported by the Party—the reason we have conventions at all is because in 1824 the national Party failed to put over its nominee on the local machines, and came up with a mechanism for bringing those local machines into the choosing process. For most of the Country’s history in fact, the national Parties have been nothing more than loose and shifting alliances of powerful individuals and their supporters, while the real power has been in tight-knit, well-organized local machines. Over time, the nationalization of our politics and the dispersal of those machines has changed the balance of power, and the challenge of legitimacy has leaned away from party-selected delegates and back-room brokers toward primaries and popular votes, but the challenge is much the same: pick someone that everyone in the party can get behind. Avoid a candidate that will make any big chunk of the party rebel.

Not the Best, but the most widely acceptable. Not the Best, but perhaps the one with the fewest or least-organized enemies. Not the Best, but the one with the widest, if not the deepest or most passionate, support. Not the Best but perhaps the most Good Enough—that is, the one who the most different groups within the Party think is Good Enough, and who a good enough percentage think is great. The Okayest, who is the greatest for the most and the worst for the least. The one who best straddles the line between impassioned support of a small group of dedicated, thoughtful citizens out to change the world and the enmity of all of the other small groups of dedicated, thoughtful citizens out to change the world.

And here’s the thing: that’s wonderful. That really is wonderful! It’s democratic, it’s participatory, and it’s messy and screwed-up and kludgy and hella Federalist and wonderful. Democracy, as I keep saying, is an experiment not only in self-government but in making a people who can be self-governing. In a journey from silence to participation. The great—the unbelievably, implausibly great—thing about democracy is that I think that Joe’s an idiot, and Joe thinks that I’m an idiot, and Jan thinks we’re both idiots, and Jin thinks we’re all three idiots, and none of that prevents any of us from participating fully in out experimental self-government. We won’t always win. Jin will hardly ever win, if by win we mean get a result that Jin likes and Jan, Joe and I don’t, but Jin can be heard and be involved and frankly, if Joe and Jan and I don’t bother to get involved, Jin can win some, too. Which is wonderful.

What wouldn’t be wonderful, to my eyes at any rate, would be if self-governance was merely a matter of finding that one person who was Best Qualified for the Job. Imagine that there were such a human, that there existed someone who really was the Best. What would there be for the rest of us to do? How would that help us to become, as individuals and as a society, self-governing, equal and democratic? No, a nation that is self-governing is always compromising, always settling, always making do, always falling short, always voting for somebody we don’t quite like, always holding our nose, always voting anyway, always doing the best we can. That’s the beauty of it. Not the beauty of the best, but the beauty of good enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.