A Lament and The Reality of Politics
A illustration from the Senate race in Georgia.
The Proximate Background.
The AJC reports the following about Herschel Walker, a contender for the GOP nomination in the US Senate race in Georgia: Herschel Walker spent years promoting health products with dubious claims.
Through the two decades that Walker has been retired from professional football, the Republican frontrunner has repeatedly tried to cash in on his career as a legendary athlete with a striking physique.
He looked to “revolutionize” the health market with products he said would prevent aging, help weight loss and even protect against the damages of smoking—despite little evidence, his company admitted in filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
In many cases, the products were commercial failures, cost Walker and his business partners millions of dollars and put his companies into deep debt, for which creditors have repeatedly sued Walker and his associates to recover, as revealed by previous reporting by the AJC.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker has more recently promoted a product that he said “will kill any COVID on your body” despite no evidence for his claim.
It is lamentable that a person with this background (and, indeed, with problems well beyond just these) is a serious candidate for nomination for a major party candidacy, especially when one considers that winning the nomination in this contest means a significant possibility of winning the seat.
Indeed, polling from the AJC suggests he is basically a lock for the nomination:
With soaring name recognition and former President Donald Trump’s backing, the former University of Georgia football star leads the GOP primary field with 66% of support. His closest competitor, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, was at 7%.
The other three contenders polled within the 3.3 percentage point margin of error: Former state Rep. Josh Clark, construction contractor Kelvin King, U.S. Army veteran John McColumn and former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler.
With only about 23% of likely GOP voters undecided, Walker’s rivals need a seismic change to force the front-runner into a June runoff by bringing his total below the 50% threshold. So far, their warnings that Walker’s history of violence and erratic behavior will come back to haunt him have had little effect.
This is a good time to note that a candidate selection system that can be so easily influenced by things like name recognition might not be the best way to way to construct political parties and, by extension, government.
But who am I to judge?
The reality is really also a lament: if Walker gets the nomination, it is a rational choice for Republican voters in Georgia to vote for him over Warnock. The reasoning is simple: Walker, even if he is a no experience grifter with a dubious past, honesty problems, and who appears unable to answer relatively simple questions, would be a vote for a Republican majority in the Senate.
If one wants a Republican majority, Republican policies, and especially Republican votes on judges and Justices, Walker would be the way to get those outcomes, not staying at home and certainly not voting for Warnock.
This is the logic of the system.
And before someone tries to tell me that Georgia Republicans ought to draw the line on this, I would ask for honest introspection on the following from Democrat-leaning readers: if in November you are faced with the choice between the most moronic Democratic you can imagine, and one of the most reasonable Republicans you can imagine, how will you vote (keeping in my mind the stakes for, say, another SCOTUS seat coming open in the next two years)?
What we see here are the consequences of strict two-partyism as well as the consequences of building parties through primaries.
We let the parties build their coalitions backward. By this, I meant that candidates are not selected through a process of finding a consensus between various factions of a party. Instead, one faction of the party (the primary voters) selects the candidate and then the broader party has no choice, as per the logic above, to accept the candidate. I would note that even when a candidate is being selected fairly overwhelmingly by the primary voters that the primary voters only represent a slice of the overall general election electorate for a given party.
I would note, too, that primary-based selection of candidates utterly absolves party leaders of responsibility. One of the key reasons that Mitch McConnell is such a moral coward is that he rationalizes to himself that he has to do want the other members of his caucus want, after all, the voters (starting with the primaries) sent them! Moreover, those Senators are far more concerned about what might happen in the primaries than they are about what McConnell will do.
Our parties are largely leaderless when it comes to their basic construction. Primary candidates are largely self-selected and then a slice of partisan voters choose from the base. In a world in which voters adapt their policy views to match their partisan identities, is it any wonder we are in such a mess given the incentives and processes we are saddled with?
For the record, I am not arguing that if we had different candidate selection processes everything would be rainbows and unicorns. But I do think that more coherent parties with leaders who can be held accountable for their party’s nominees would be an improvement (I also think that primaries short-circuit new party formation because it is easier to just run within one of the two mainline parties by several orders of magnitude than it is to start a new party–especially since winning nomination is often tantamount to winning office depending on the makeup of the state or district).
If my choice is between a moronic DEM and the Rev. Jim Jones (which is the closest to a reasonable republican I can imagine these days) I’ll go with the moronic DEM every time, stopped clocks and all that. If however my choice is between a greedy, power hungry, black hole of immorality, corrupt DEM and the most reasonable Republican I can imagine…. Hmmmm, I think I’d just leave that race blank. I have in the past.
Nothing pisses me off quite like a guy who is supposed to be on “my side” proving himself to be not much better than a mass murderer.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vs. Rep. Ilhan Omar? For POTUS? I might go with Larry. Fortunately, I will never be faced with that prospect.
I think that is our pragmatic goal. We won’t get Republican votes, but we don’t need them, we just need a few percent of Republicans to opt out on election day. Knock GOP turnout down a couple points, and ours up a couple points, and we have Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia.
I can see races where the Democrat runs ads saying, “Look, I’m not asking Republicans for their votes, I know how hard that can be for people. I’m just asking Republicans to consider whether XXX really deserves their vote. Is that really someone you want in office?”
In this environment, for the Democrat, in order to gain or keep a Democratic Senate majority. Why? Because Democrats are interested in governing and Republicans are not.
In a different environment, say in the 80s or 90s, possibly for the Republican.
I can imagine moronic Democrats but they would be uttering banal platitudes, not behaving like Trump and ripping everybody off 24/7 or worse. It’s just not happening. It’s like picturing the Democrat’s version of Madison Cawthorn or this Blake Masters who was writing for Lew Rockwell when he was 19 and weighing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Who would that be? A guy who went to RISD, does lots of ketamine, and is in a poly relationship? It will not happen.
Thought-provoking and interesting.
What are the people who vote in primaries? Innocent bystanders?
We can rearrange as many deck chairs on the Partisantanic as we want. In this example, as in many others, the problem is the American people. As alluded to, candidate selection reform won’t change the reality that too many American voters are ignorant, easily-manipulated, selfish, Facebook-addled bigots who suck at critical thinking.
Herschel Walker, Qaren Taylor-Greene, and Madison Cawthorn should be getting zero votes in their primaries. Republicans do not have to nominate these azzclowns, they’re choosing to.
Our pretense that the idiocracy does not have agency “because two parties” is baffling. So many think pieces on what the Democratic Party is doing wrong, what’s wrong with the Republican Party, how the system is broken (and to be fair, canceling the electoral college could solve a chunk of the problem). But where is the critique of what the heck is wrong with we the people?
“I have seen the enemy and it is us.”
This is interesting: The lone Ohio Republican candidate who’s NOT a Trumpkin, Mike Dolan, is now running ahead of J.D. Vance and Co.
I would argue for an internal party mechanism to select candidates (basically elite-level selection), as is done in most parties globally. It would create a more coherent product (so to speak) and would require dissident factions to form their own party.
I think you are missing the fact that Walker puts himself on the primary ballot, not the party. There are essentially no gatekeepers.
Then it becomes a collective action problem.
And the fact that name recognition can matter as much as it does is just the reality of mass behavior.
When you blame “The Republicans” for this, who do you consider yourself blaming?
It is especially baffling if that is what you think I am saying.
Let me note this: I am not stating that there aren’t voters who truly want these people, and enthusiastically support them.
But I am trying (and failing, I guess) to explain how our current processes substantially increase the chance of all of us having to deal with these types of people in office.
Still, I will go to my grave believing that if we refuse to understand some of the root causes of our problems, we will never, ever fix them.
BTW, thanks–I should have noted that first.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Insecure white male incels with mommy and daddy issues + conservative white baby boomer Americans + assorted sellouts tantamount to the house slaves of yore.
But that’s impolitic, vaguely racist and ageist, and not PC. A little unfair, very likely to offend and start a flame war. So.
@Steven L. Taylor:
You are quite welcome!
Is the moronic Democrat pro-democracy? Will the reasonable Republican stand up against The Big Lie and the insurrectionists in the GOP?
These are the questions to ask in 2022. Policy and SCOTUS judges won’t matter much with a pro-authoritarian party in charge and the moment really is that existential.
As you repeatedly note, the root cause of our governance problems is our electoral system. In your hypothetical, you offer a choice between wackiness and competency. This is a false choice even in a thought experiment. Because, there’s been no better time to shout your message to the masses than now. The choice is between an exacerbation of our electoral dysfunction and a path to some kind of reform. For now, and for the foreseeable future, that is a highly partisan choice in favor of the Democrats – each and every Democrat.
Two things: One, a large number of the people who would vote for Walker would describe themselves as independents who vote for the best candidate, not the party. And always vote R.
Two, there are differences in the party constituencies and funding that make it less likely a know-nothing hustler like Walker would run or win. The example would more likely be someone like Barbara Boxer, who’s past her use-by date. And if a) a D majority was either safe or out of reach, and b) the GOP was a competent, knowledgeable person of integrity, I’d vote for the GOP against Boxer. But realistically, what are the odds of the modern GOPs nominating such a person? And the Ds are pressuring Boxer to retire.
@Michael Reynolds: Maybe Republicans don’t understand that a blank ballot is a vote for the opposition, but I doubt it.
@DK: “What are the people who vote in primaries? Innocent bystanders?”
No. They’re essentially the people most likely to believe that Madison Cawthorne, et al., are the best choice “to send a message to them durn liburls that ‘we the people’ are takin our country back.”
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
Sorry to be pedantic, but this isn’t correct. A blank ballot or writing someone’s name in isn’t a vote for the opposition in our system. It’s simply not a vote for one of the two major parties. Our system works on positively voting not negatively.
Case and point–imagine 3 voters where voter A votes for the Democrat, voter B votes for the Republican, and voter C votes for Mickey Mouse because while they won’t vote for the Republican, they also won’t vote for the Democrat. So we end up with a tie. Granted the Republican didn’t win, but neither did the Democrat.
That’s why, while it might feel good from a moral position perspective, voting third party really doesn’t have the impact that people think it has.
@Modulo Myself: I would argue, respectfully, that it is foolish to assume that your side (whatever side that is) can’t produce seriously problematic candidates.
The issue is that he is unfortunately also correct. I think the majority of Republican voters ultimately did not seriously want to see Trump impeached or prosecuted. We can get into the complex reasons why (and you and James definitely done that over and over again) but ultimately, as you point out due to the structure of our system, they don’t matter. Only the outcome does and the outcome is the party still supports President Trump.
Again, the defining silence by the majority of Republicans on anything 1/6 related is a sign of this.
The reality is that this is currently the Republican party. And due to their baked in structural advantages, this isn’t changing any time soon.
“if in November you are faced with the choice between the most moronic Democratic you can imagine, and one of the most reasonable Republicans you can imagine, how will you vote (keeping in my mind the stakes for, say, another SCOTUS seat coming open in the next two years)?”
At the Senate and Congressman level, I have done so in the 80’s and 90’s. I haven’t had the choice more recently, as Democrats in my state haven’t nominated morons or crooks. At the local level, I have done so as recently as last year. So what do I win?
So, you are describing not some unified actor (even a collective one like a party’s governing body but a vast mass. It is a clear collective action problem.
Moreover, and to my central point, the primary process empowers the people you are naming disproportionately to their relative size of the GOP coalition.
POTUS, though, changes the equation vs. Senator. I live in MD and can think of all kinds of things I don’t like about Hogan, but he’s basically George H. W. Bush – competent, reasonable, actually FOR things rather than just against things, and wants to get the basics working – infrastructure, pollution controls, etc. On the other hand, I only know Omar as a firebrand rep who has had no executive experience. So in that faceoff, the decision is incredibly easy – Hogan, hands down.
But Senator? Given the repercussions of having either Schumer or McConnell controlling judicial appointments (amongst a thousand other things)? Omar, hands down.
What about the famous Georgia election in which Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, and Donald Trump told Republicans not to vote because of fraud? Georgia ended up with two Democratic senators as a result.*
* Yes, I know there might have been other factors involved.
@Steven L. Taylor:
100% this. See for example William J. Jefferson among others.
Governor is a solitary office. But a Senator is part of a whole.
One Senate seat could be the difference between moving SCOTUS back to 5-4 or moving it to 7-2.
Yes, depressing results can help the opposite party get elected. But it needs to happen en mass and in conjunction with serious GoTV efforts.
Not voting has some impact. Or voting 3rd party. But it’s nowhere near as helpful or impactful as voting for the opposite party (which is what the OG statement was… I admit this is a pedantic argument but it’s an important one–especially with independents who cling to the idea that voting for a third party is a vote against a candidate they want to see defeated).
In the past advocates of forcing citizens to vote or be punished would say that if you really don’t want to be an elector you must still go to the voting booth but when you are there you can leave the ballot blank or write in your favorite cartoon character like Donald Duck.
I don’t think that these proponents of universal compulsory suffrage or be hauled into court to plead your case in front of the Judge understood that an unmarked ballot equals “a vote for the opposition” either.
On the other hand I don’t think that I have read about anyone calling for making all eligible voters cast a ballot or be fined since Trump was elected.
I wonder why that is?
@Matt Bernius: Sorry to be pedantic but add a fourth voter and tell me how it works now.
Additionally, I will not that in 2016 and 2020 the very argument “voting for a third party candidate/staying home is the same as voting for X” spent a significant amount of time on these very threads. And significant numbers of people I’ve met on the left lamented the voters who cast “protest votes” for Nader as denying Gore the clear victory that might have kept the election out of the SCOTUS. (And I recall, the next year was the first year that I heard of the National Popular Vote Project and advocates for instant runoff balloting–but it would be possible that I just missed it earlier.)
But overall, your point is a good enough explanation of why advertising for the opponent’s voters to just stay home may not be the brightest move. Still, there’s a reason why in closely contested situations we believe that every vote counts. (In fact, I think that somebody’s used that as a slogan to encourage participation somewhere.)
@DK: I would just going to write something similar. The Deep South and other trump states have a dominant culture where the purpose of governance is limited to enforcing social hierarchies and putting the uppities in their place. Steven, you think that the system of candidate selection or election can be both more representative in these states yet not yield Trumps or Walkers. But I think all evidence, centuries of evidence, points to the contrary.
Now, Georgia is on the cusp. It has been attracting people who don’t have that very limited and destructive view of government and so, as a whole, Georgians could elect better people. But what this means in practice is that the Republican Party becomes the repository of those committed to that traditional view of government. They drive out those who want more. It’s a feedback loop, and it is one that has played out throughout history, over and over and over again. Bottom line: Hershel Walker is who the Georgia Republican Party is. Donald Trump is who the Georgia Republican Party is. Those two didn’t LEAD Georgia Republicans down a bad path, instead they epitomized what those citizens desire. So the hope for Georgia is that toxic party grows ever smaller, as it did in California.
This is a good example that promoting “democracy” and well-meaning but misguided campaign finance reform isn’t an unalloyed good.
We’ve made our primary system highly democratic and gutted the authority of political parties which are no longer cohesive entities. The result of this “democratization” is that parties no longer control their own brands and our politics is de facto in thrall to the median primary voter who is far more extreme than the median American or median voter generally.
And we see here that people will still double-down on the tribal partisan affiliation and that candidate quality and minimum standards for candidates don’t matter anymore. In a contest between Hitler and Stalin partisans will continue to justify supporting their team as the lesser evil. It’s all about factional power now. Madison’s fear of faction has come to pass.
@Steven L. Taylor:
No, the Keconomic Kanxiety Klowns comprise the majority of the GOP coalition. The Very Serious People just don’t want to admit it, to keep the peace at Thanksgiving dinner.
Trump won the 2016 primaries with a plurality, but by 2020 the GQP was in lockstep approval. The masks fell off.
To channel Steven, I think we need to define what is meant by “democratic.” If the primary system is structured in such a way that only a small percentage of the general electorate (or a small percentage of a party’s electorate within closed primary states) actually highly democratic?
@Moosebreath: “So what do I win?”
Better government? Whatever comfort there is in knowing that you’re not making the system worse?
Not enough? Feel free to reconsider. As Vince Lombardi has been misquoted as saying, “Winning is everything, and losing is nothing.”
Agree 100%. Long term, Bernie’s legacy is going to be that by expending so much of his political capital on eliminating Super-Delegates, i.e. party officials, in the Democratic Primary, he has set in motion the same forces that led to Trump, Boebert, MTG, and so forth in the Republican Party.
I think you go wrong here, though, drifting into lazy “both-siderism”. Whatever happens to the Dems in the future, today they are the refuge for those who detest the whacko-extremism in the modern Republican Party. There was a lot of symmetry between the parties 30 or 40 years ago but that is no longer true.
@mattbernius: I think “structured” is the wrong term in this case. Are there fewer total polling places? Fewer ballots mailed out? Shorter polling hours? Special requirements to cast ballots? The fact that large numbers of voters choose not to vote does not show in and of it self that the system is structured to accomplish this result. Or maybe you’re defining “structured” differently. Feel free to elaborate if/when time allows.
“Structured” is doing a lot of work here. The vast majority of people don’t vote in primaries. Is that because of “structure”? If so, I can’t think what it is. In every state I’ve lived in (and I’ve lived in… five, long enough to vote) it has been relatively straight forward to vote in the primary. Heck, in some of the states, you didn’t even have to be registered with a party to vote in their primary. Any structural differences between primaries and the general were pretty insignificant when it comes to encouraging and discouraging people to vote.
[I see just nutha beat me to it. Great minds think alike… Fools seldom differ.]
I recall discussing “disintermediation” and its effect on primaries, and advocating for at least a partial return to the whole “smoke-filled room” thing for nominations. IIRC, you endorsed it. Of course, the primary voters won’t stand for it. So it’s hard for me to see the scenario where it gets enacted.
A better version of Steven’s question is ” If you were faced with a Democrat who promised to enable the destruction of American democracy versus a Republican who would respect democracy…”
In which case, yes I would happily vote Republican.
There is no issue that beats the preservation of democracy.
But even the most moderate Republican will do nothing to stop the rise of fascism, so even the most moronic Democrat is still preferable.
@MarkedMan: Bernie certainly makes a convenient symbol/scapegoat, but people who aren’t particularly associated with the party organization voting for who becomes the party candidate predates him by some significant amount of time. Part of the reason that the system changed, though, may have been from stories about the old days where multiple opinions/discussion were thwarted regularly. I remember my dad telling a story about a precinct meeting of Democrats he attended where when the host declared “anyone not for Scoop [Jackson–a Senator from our home state] can leave now” was greeted by heart laughter. And then the people who would have advocated for other candidates left–no reason to stay if you won’t be speaking/making motions.
It’s not like it was in the old days; that’s for sure. (Of course, it wasn’t really like that then, either.)
@just nutha: It’s a hard problem, but the current situation is horrendous, in which anyone can run as a party’s nominee and if they win they legally must get the endorsement of the party no matter what they do or what they stand for. The Super-delegates were the last emergency exit for the Democratic Party. If someone like Trump had gotten the Dem nod from primary voters, it was still possible for the officials to avert disaster. Yes, at the cost of almost certain defeat at the polls, but some victories are not worth the cost.
But now the Democrat Party has the same mechanism the Republicans have had for the past couple of decades. And remember, that mechanism made the Republican Party a mecca for the those who would otherwise be ostracized. Wife beaters, men who covered up sexual abuse, rapists, child molesters, as well as your basic looney toons and garden variety creeps know that all they have to do is con the voters in their states and the Republican Party will back them. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, such degenerates will discover it can work as a Democrat now too.
The exception is in an ‘at large’ election, where are X offices and the voters instruction is to vote for X candidates. If you, as a voter, want to maximize the opportunity for a specific candidate, voting for only that candidate provides a minor advantage.
How is he a scapegoat. This is literally what he expended his political capital on after his loss to Clinton (and BTW, the superdelegates had nothing to do with that loss. He lost every other category too). He hardly supported any other candidates, didn’t champion any significant legislation, didn’t use his capital to champion voting rights. He spent his, and his staffs, time and efforts on settling scores and eliminating superdelegates. Oh, and “reforming” the caucus system to the point where there are almost no caucuses any more.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Put it this way–Andre Dickens, the current mayor of Atlanta has a masters in Public Administration and served for about a decade on the city council. He may be bad or good, but the Democrats in the same state as Herschel Walker have different expectations about their candidates and their relationship to public service. For any Republican who wants to sound competent as a potential public servant, what would they say to their audience that wouldn’t elicit sneers and derision?
Fair enough. I tend to look at presidents in terms of foreign policy first. I’m not going to love a FP that starts with demanding Israel commit suicide.
Unfortunately, if history is any guide, such degenerates will discover it can work as a Democrat now too.
I think it’s the more likely that the degenerates are going to be unionized Starbucks employees and activists beating out-of-touch incumbents in the primary. For example, the mayor’s race last year in Buffalo when India Walton won the primary and then the incumbent who lost ran against her in the general and won.
@MarkedMan: The reason I picked two selections was to allow others to pick whichever choice they preferred. I put scapegoat first because your sentence had an “it’s all Bernie’s fault” tone to my reading. (Feel free to play the “it’s not my fault that others can’t read” card if you wish, I got no dog in the fight.) I put the second choice in for those who would object to the idea that Bernie is a scapegoat. The fact that primaries date back to when he was a local pol in Burlington (??) makes the *Bernie did this* argument ring hollow, but mileage varies for all of us.
You’re right about it being a mess, though. My inner Calvinist tends to lean toward the problem being less the system (although it’s terrible) and more the people running and the voters selecting them with noses tightly clamped by fingers or clothespins. So, the solution is better people; to which my inner Calvinist snarks “Right! Lemme know how THAT works out for ya.”
As for me, I’m content watching from my vantage point ACROSS from that 3rd Turn. (No sense in getting hit by any flying debris. 😉 )
Since the parties don’t want to deal with their internal contradictions, direct ballot initiatives at the state level are a great way to get around the 2-party nonsense.
Prime example: 2020 November election in Florida. Electoral votes went for Trump… and they also approved a $15/hr minimum wage.. by 61%-39%.
@Gavin: You will no doubt be disappointed to note that in response, Ron DeFascist and Florida Republicans have since passed limitations to block and discourage such ballot initiatives. Shocking, I know.
Way late but just want to say that I get exactly what you are saying Steven, but you asked what would I do. I just don’t follow the normal rules.
‘Reasonable Republicans’ still get toxic policies and toxic voting in the Senate and in the House. Don’t believe me? Look at Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Rob Corker, or Lamar Alexander for example – they are as ‘reasonable as Republicans get these days yet, time after time they went with Trump on virtually anything important.
There is no real incentive for a Democrat to vote for a ‘reasonable Republican’ as long as a significant majority of the Republican Party is off the rails and winning the battle.
Wake me when Republicans start voting for ‘reasonable Republicans.’