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REVIEW: ‘The Primary Solution: Rescuing Our Democracy from the Fringes’ by Nick Troiano

By: Josh Kraushaar

Of all the maladies that afflict present-day politics, the increasingly irresponsible role that partisans have played is surely at the top of the list.

Partisanship, in reasonable doses, was once a healthy part of our body politic. The two political parties typically served as the saucer cooling the passions from the ideologically driven grassroots—and cared about winning elections more than any policy prerogative.

Historically, the Republican and Democratic Parties encompassed voters of all political stripes: Civil rights activists and segregationists were coalition partners in the same Democratic Party for much of the 20th century. The GOP’s Reagan-era majorities were made up of socially liberal business interests and religious conservatives.

The diversity within the parties helped moderate them internally, and their institutional power served as a gatekeeper against radical or extreme voices. The advent of party primaries, which took off in the 20th century, was a healthy small-d democratic development, allowing voters to have the final say over their nominees instead of party bosses. Primary voters, comprising a cross section of the most engaged Americans, usually made reasonable choices, aided by the political diversity within.

But now, a strong argument can be made that party primaries are the leading reason our politics is so broken. The two parties have largely evolved into ideological vehicles, with Democrats representing the Left and Republicans now synonymous with the MAGA Right. While the partisan grassroots used to be composed of civic-minded, issue-oriented voters making calls to like-minded supporters to turn out, they’re now dominated by the most extreme voices in our body politic who rely on extreme rhetoric and cheap clicks.

With so few battleground states and competitive districts left on the political map, Congress is increasingly represented by a growing group of far-left and far-right lawmakers prizing gridlock over cooperation—decided by the actions of a small, ideologically unrepresentative group of primary voters at odds with the interests of most Americans.

All these recent developments led Nick Troiano, the executive director of the election reform advocacy group Unite America, to write a book, The Primary Solution: Rescuing Our Democracy from the Fringes, calling for major changes to how we nominate elected officials and making the argument for a radical revamp to our electoral system. It’s a worthwhile read, sprinkled with political history, detailed solutions, and an optimistic outlook toward a more functional democracy.

Troiano points to recent evidence that major changes to the primary process can lead to productive outcomes. Of all states, Alaska undertook the most ambitious changes to its electoral rules, creating a ranked-choice system for both primaries and general elections where voters rank their top four preferences, and the outcome is tabulated as the least popular choices get eliminated from the tally. The system, which is a bit convoluted, has led to the renomination of a moderate Alaska Republican senator who has been a critic of Trump (Lisa Murkowski) and the election of a moderate Democratic representative in a deeply Republican state (Mary Peltola).

A similar ranked-choice primary system was used in the 2021 New York City mayoral race, which helped a moderate Eric Adams win the nomination against Democratic candidates running on left-wing platforms. And Virginia Republicans also used a ranked-choice system to nominate their candidate for governor in 2021, helping Glenn Youngkin prevail over a lineup of more right-wing challengers.

At the same time, less disruptive primary tweaks haven’t led to a surge in pragmatism. California was one of the first states to implement primary reforms, allowing candidates from all parties to run on the same primary ballot, with the top two vote-getters—regardless of party—moving on to the general election. While the system has led to some intriguing developments—like when two liberals run against each other in a deep-blue district and need to appeal to Republicans to win—California hasn’t elected many more moderates to its congressional delegation since the electoral reforms were implemented.

Likewise, Washington State implemented a similar “top-two” system in 2008, in hopes of encouraging moderation. The results have been modest, by all accounts. The system didn’t prevent former GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who backed the impeachment of Trump, from losing the all-party primary to a hard-right challenger, though another Republican who backed Trump’s impeachment won renomination (and is one of only two House Republicans who supported impeachment remaining in Congress).

But there are limitations to how much can be done by revamping the primary process.

By focusing so much on technocratic fixes, Troiano doesn’t fully grapple with the bigger reason our democracy is so polarized: the growing demand for extremes within the American public itself. You can only tinker so much with the rules before appreciating that the bigger issue is the democratic demands of voters. The rapid ascendance of social media, the decline of the mainstream press, and the collapse of institutional authority (including parties themselves) are all significant factors that play a much greater role in our political dysfunction than the particular primary rules that advantage ideologues over pragmatists.

Just look at the political outlook in so many other Western democracies, all with different electoral systems than ours, and look at how they’re all grappling with the rise of far-left and far-right parties at the expense of the center. The same French democracy that elected a brand-new centrist party led by Emmanuel Macron in 2017 is now embracing far-left and far-right parties, once considered beyond the political pale, following this month’s legislative elections.

The other major obstacle to Troiano’s reformist vision is that in our populist-minded era, making major changes to the electoral rules strikes skeptics as “rigging the system” for the establishment, leading to the likelihood of public opposition to the voter backing necessary to make such reforms in the first place. In a worst-case scenario, it could mobilize the populist forces in a way that would undermine the good government reformers’ intentions.

Indeed, Alaska’s new election rules are facing a very real threat of being overturned in court. Ballot referenda in Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon seeking to institute ranked-choice voting this November will be a test of whether these measures can garner broad political purchase.

There’s an alternative approach to empowering moderates and pragmatists in both parties that is actually showing signs of success throughout this year’s primary calendar. Outside groups on the left and right, like the Club for Growth and EMILY’s List, have a long history of spending outsized money for favored candidates in primaries, but what if centrist-minded donors rallied to promote mainstream candidates and block extremists?

We’re beginning to see how that kind of strategy could pay dividends, thanks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel advocacy group filling a similar role in this year’s primary contests. While AIPAC’s mission is to elect candidates who support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, it functionally has played the role of a well-funded moderate super PAC, going after some of the most extreme members on both sides while boosting the fortunes of pragmatists in open primaries.

With aggressive and strategic spending, the group has tallied an enviable win-loss record, most recently helping to topple far-left Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) in a contested Democratic primary.

That’s the type of model centrist-minded donors with a little political sophistication could imitate—and such an approach, if executed effectively, could quickly make an outsized impact.

Working to change election laws in many different states is a time-consuming, laborious process without any real guarantee of success. Mobilizing centrist donor dollars to boost candidates with legislative experience over radical bomb-throwers might be the better path to accomplishing the same goal.


The Primary Solution: Rescuing Our Democracy from the Fringes

by Nick Troiano

Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $30

Josh Kraushaar is the editor in chief of Jewish Insider and a Fox News Radio political analyst.

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