Opinion Forum

Jonathan Bernstein: Civic mess Lincoln had in mind

Responding to my column about Iowa and New Hampshire and how parties, not voters, determine nominations, a commenter wrote:

"It's the parties choosing their candidate. In almost all other nations this is done quietly, and we don't pretend the people have a say. This is just more of a show to give the illusion of choice.

"In the end, you have two choices: the person the Republicans pick or the person the Democrats pick."

What he says about how most nations choose their leaders is correct. Sometimes only official party members have a say in nominations. Sometimes the parliamentary party chooses. Until very recently, only the U.S. had elections or caucuses open to all party voters or, as is the case in many states, any voter who wants to participate, and they are still very rare.

But the U.S. system is not "a show to give the illusion of choice," despite the limited role of citizens who vote but otherwise don't participate.

To show how voters matter, consider the Democratic presidential caucus in Iowa in 2008. If a few more Iowans had voted for Hillary Clinton, party actors might have tilted her way instead of Barack Obama's.

True, in about half the races since 1980 when no incumbent president of either party was running, the parties have settled on the nominee before the voters got involved. In the other cases, the party actors were open to input from voters.

In each instance, several candidates were unacceptable either to the party as a whole -- such as Donald Trump is this time -- or to important party groups, such as Rand Paul was for most of those Republicans who care about foreign policy. Yet sometimes the party actors don't prefer one candidate over another. Democrats could just as easily have supported Dick Gephardt for president in 1988 rather than Michael Dukakis, and this year Republicans could support either Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, for instance. This is where voters' opinions are decisive.

Voters also retain the ability to revolt against whomever party actors choose. In reality, they haven't exercised that (so far), but they could.

The most important distinguishing factor of the U.S. system is the unusually porous line between voters and party actors. Yes, in the end, voters eventually can choose only from "the person the Republicans pick or the person the Democrats pick," as the reader noted above. But it's easy to become one of those doing the picking. Almost anyone has, or can acquire, resources that are useful for parties, whether it's time, money or expertise.

Not only is this kind of participation more influential than "just plain voting." It's also far more meaningful. A vote for, say, Bernie Sanders might be a vote for socialism or for his banking policy or his style, or a vote against Hillary Clinton or whatever. What matters is how the winners interpret those votes, as a guide for what to do in office. More active participation gives people more ways to influence party positions on specific policies.

Granted, those resources are not equally distributed. Some will have louder voices than others. And one individual -- whether it's a new volunteer just walking through the door or the biggest donor -- has only limited influence on national political parties, which have thousands of members seriously involved in their affairs.

Still, what differentiates U.S. parties is how open they are to new people and how little hierarchy is in place. It makes parties not only strong, but fundamentally democratic. This in turn makes the entire system more democratic than it would be if two (or more) entrenched cabals presented the rest of us with only the choices they wanted us to have.

In a real sense, government by parties that are open to new participants is the government by and of the people that Lincoln talked about.

Jonathan Bernstein, a Bloomberg View columnist, covers U.S. politics; www.bloomberg.com/view.