Presidential campaigns start earlier and earlier—but depressingly seem to get emptier and emptier. Already the credulous media have coronated Hillary Clinton as the inevitable Democratic Party nominee. On the Republican side, contenders seem to be tripping over one another, with a baker’s dozen or more considering a run. Nonetheless, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s aborted exploration, the GOP’s powerful donors seem to be aligning around former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents.
This all-too-hasty consensus that the American electorate is destined to see another Clinton-versus-Bush general election in 2016 represents all that is wrong with the big-money, big-personality politics that corrodes our democracy. In a post–Citizens United era, name recognition and established donor bases wield even more power to pre-emptively scare off potential challengers. The resulting atrophied democracy may satisfy the billionaires and CEOs seeking to buy elections, but it locks ordinary citizens out of the democratic process. On both sides of the aisle, but especially within the Democratic Party, it’s vital that the country see vigorously contested primaries.
In fact, contested primaries are good both for the presidential contenders and for the country. Most Americans have little time to pay attention to the news or to political debates in Washington. Primary battles have the potential to catch fire and engage a broader citizenry. The media broadcast many of the debates. Activists can be roused. Challengers can take advantage of free media exposure and matching funds to gain a larger hearing. The time to challenge the politics of complacency is not in the fall of 2016. It’s now.
First and foremost, contested primaries mean the difference between a bland talking-points election and one that meaningfully engages the urgent issues facing the vast majority of Americans. Income inequality is at near-record levels. Failed trade policies, deindustrialization and a war on organized labor have depressed wages. Racial and ethnic divisions, intensified by Washington’s dysfunction and inaction, have reached a boiling point in communities nationwide. Disastrous foreign-policy decisions are blowing back on America, and the same “experts” who proposed the old cold and hot wars are picking new fights. Climate change grows worse with each season. If ever there was a time when America needed a progressive vision to be articulated at the center of the political process, this is it.
Second, contested primaries create better, more accountable candidates. When a front-runner like Hillary Clinton faces serious competition, one of two things happens: that candidate is defeated, or that candidate sharpens his or her message sufficiently to move beyond “safe” politics. It is that sharpening that rallies the base and boosts turnout. The Republicans still enjoy a somewhat competitive contest for their party’s nomination; if Bush is beaten by an upstart like Scott Walker, that nominee will be positioned as an agent of change—even if it is for the worse. If Bush is nominated, he will have done so in the face of a competition that has honed his message for the fall.