“…before 1968, primaries hardly mattered; since 1968, the Conventions have hardly mattered”

The protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 resulted in a change in the balance of power between the primaries and the Conventions: before 1968, primaries hardly mattered; since 1968, the Conventions have hardly mattered. A report issued in 1968 predicted that “instantaneous polls of the entire electorate” conducted by “central computers from every home” would make nominating Conventions obsolete, which has, in fact, happened. That’s the de-facto change, but the de-jure change is that the primaries became binding.

After the chaos of 1968, political reformers called for the abolition of the nominating Convention, to be replaced by a national primary, and the American Bar Association called for the abolition of the Electoral College, to be replaced by direct, popular election. These proposals, which had been made before and have been made since, have a ready appeal. The nominating Convention is a messy and often ugly accident of history. “No American political institution is more visible than the convention, or more often visibly shoddy,” the constitutional scholar Alexander Bickel admitted. But changing the structure of government carries its own dangers, Bickel insisted: “The sudden abandonment of institutions is an act that reverberates in ways no one can predict, and many come to regret. There may be a time when societies can digest radical structural change, when they are young and pliant, relatively small, containable, and readily understandable; when men can watch the scenery shift without losing their sense of direction. We are not such a society.”

The loss of direction that Bickel warned of has come to pass, even without radical change. Instead, there’s been incremental change. The rules have changed, and changed, and changed. The parties change the rules when they lose, with an eye toward winning the next time around. There’s no grand plan; there’s a plan to win in four years’ time. The rule changes since 1968 have made the primaries more binding, notwithstanding the argument that they violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act (since the course of events is disproportionately determined by the very nearly all-white states of New Hampshire and Iowa). The system, as it stands, rewards political extremism, exacerbates the influence of money in elections, amplifies the distorting effects of polls, and contributes to political polarization.

Jill Lepore, “How to Steal an Election”, The New Yorker (4 July 2016), 24.