Reforming the Invisible Primary

We have just completed another round in a continuing national experiment in political theory—the primary selection process as it has been revised in several waves of democratic reform. I believe this experiment, filled with noble intentions, has largely been a failure. From the standpoint of democratic theory, the presidential selection process should be both representative and deliberative. The process should be representative of the country in all its diversity and deliberative in permitting an informed consideration of the issues and the candidates. At the moment, the process must be judged inadequate on both criteria.

The process fails to be deliberative because reforms have brought power to the people while, at the same time, the people have little incentive or opportunity to think about the power they exercise. Citizens have been rendered prisoners of soundbite democracy by what social scientists call a "collective action" problem. While more citizen deliberation about the public good would likely serve the collective welfare, individual citizens have so little effect on the outcome and so few opportunities for political efficacy that it is easy for them to tune out, to feel "disconnected," as a recent Kettering Foundation report documented. While there is, theoretically, a great deal of information about the election and its issues available from published materials, from C-Span,...

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