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SUTA: To avoid extremism, primaries must be replaced by better candidate vetting system

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Primaries may seem like a good way to get involved in politics nationally and locally, but many voters are unable to vet candidates appropriately, creating a dangerously flawed system. – Photo by Flickr.com

Central to President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s campaign for the presidency was bringing people together. He was set to be the great unifier for our divided nation. His response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, his policies, his demeanor has all been unifying, despite the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Jan. 6 marks a moment in American history that combines the disgusting white supremacy that frames American society with the worst forms of political extremism that is the byproduct of an era where partisanship dominates. 

Over the past few years, extremism and partisanship in the country have increased. This partisanship and extremism, is due in large part to primary elections. Primary elections reward extremism. Candidates run on platforms that excite their prospective bases, and if they live in a solidly red or blue district, they have no incentive to compromise. 

The problem with primary elections is twofold. On one end, they of course, enable political extremism — if you do not agree with your party all of the time, you risk a primary challenger who is more extreme. As such, parties become more politically homogeneous where dissent is chastised. 

But this problem has been compounded in recent years, as these faults in primary elections — that if you can just garner enough attention, you can succeed — have been exploited. Demagogues can corrupt primaries particularly well, it seems, because they are adept at creating chaos and factions that only benefit the demagogue.

This erosion of primaries manifests itself especially dangerously when political insiders and the “establishment” are derided as anti-American or anti-democratic.

In dismissing such democratic guardrails, the primaries become especially dangerous as someone who is unfit for political office could achieve power. As such, there becomes a more extreme homogeneous political party, and the path for an actual danger to achieve power becomes easier. 

The primaries, though maybe a beacon of democracy, perhaps give too much power to the people. We need political insiders vetting candidates to make sure they want to actually govern, not just peddle outrage.

The result of this primary system is that it forces us to accept a politics that does not function well — we normalize extremism.  When we collectively embrace extremism — whether it be strict adherence to Make America Great Again (MAGA) or to wokeism — as the political norm, any hope of actual governance crumbles.

The foundation of our democracy is based on consensus building. Negotiations happen where we ultimately find ourselves at a middle ground that most can support. 

Today’s culture views such moves as politically irrelevant, even as treacherous. The problem stems from intra-party conflicts that put ideological purity above everything else. It seems the extreme wings of both parties expect a self-flagellation from anyone who has not always been with MAGA or someone who is not totally woke. 

Repent, or be primaried. Repent, or be cancelled. 

Winning coalitions, good policies, broad support, all be damned. Candidates run on pipe dreams that really have no chance of becoming law, but because it excites their base, they run on partisanship. The primaries do not allow for nuanced ideological differences, they function best on outrage and controversy, where it only matters what you say, how you say it and if you will fight for it. 

This shift away from an ideological basis to a hyper-partisan state is a clear and present danger to governance. When we view ideological uniformity as the all-important political element, our political system begins to crumble. 

Underneath everything that ails our politics seems to be a sense that the other side presents as an existential threat to society. We must move away from that culture. Eliminating primaries would help that, of course. But we need to be firmer in our disapproval of mindless populism that accepts whatever their chosen leaders declare as truth. 

Populism in and of itself is not a wholly bad thing. When populism becomes weaponized to create a toxic culture that embraces simplicity instead of nuance, that looks to regress instead of progress, that looks to cancel instead of converse, it becomes a parasite to democracy. The extremes on both sides — which feed off of and exacerbate each other — present the actual existential threat to our democracy.

In order to begin to reverse that culture, and if we are truly earnest about lowering the temperature of the political climate in the country, we must begin by re-evaluating primary elections. 

Richard Suta is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and political science with a minor in French. His column, "The Suta Slant," runs on alternate Fridays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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