The Primaries: what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger?

That special time of the election cycle is approaching us—the primaries. A time when members from the same party begin a four to six month cycle of in-fighting that makes even the nastiest of family arguments look like a walk in the park. I have always found the American Presidential Primary system to be fascinating because of the quick shift that the Democratic and Republican (and…Tea??) Parties must undergo between competition and unification. They compete heavily and often ruthlessly for the nomination amongst their own party, but then everyone in the party is expected to turn around after the convention and promote a unified stance behind whoever the nominee may be.

Essentially, what we see in American politics is that our entire political system was established to be a very deliberately adversarial institution. Americans believe that a one-party system, without debate and negotiation, can lead to corruption, or—our Founding Fathers’ biggest fear—a non-representative monarchy. But, within this system we have developed political parties, which are not deliberately adversarial institutions. Yet, every four years the parties break their norm of cooperation and, essentially, become adversarial institutions in order to attempt to elect the candidate who will win the White House.

This seems pretty unusual, right? Well, I would argue that this is actually a commonplace practice amongst many institutions that are not necessarily adversarial in and of themselves, but must compete in a larger adversarial context. Law firms are perhaps the greatest example. The American legal system is very adversarial, but law firms themselves are supposed to be cooperative bodies that are working towards the same goal. However, in order to motivate employees and attempt to rise to the top of their field, law firms often create inter-office competitions that pit employees against one another.

After: It's a different story after the primary, when party unity trumps all.


The American Presidential election system is often criticized, and as we begin yet another election cycle the pundits and criticism will rise anew, but maybe we should all think more about why it is designed this way and how effective competition can be first.

4 responses to “The Primaries: what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger?

  1. This may be a rather pessimistic viewpoint, but as I try to imagine the political system in the U.S. as one that is all inclusive, I envision an exclusion of many populatin of people. If we as people, are sometimes unwilling to admit our own mistakes, and are most times doing things for our own benefit, would we be able to trust that one group is sufficient to address and hopefully appease the concerns of an entire country. If all people do not have the same life experiences or expectations out of life, I do not envision it feasible to have one party represent a country full of competitive people. If other aspects of the American society remain adversarial, it seems unrealistic the the political sphere would be able to stand alone as a non- adversarial institution.

  2. Pingback: A friendly chat about adversaries | Ethics for Adversaries

  3. Pingback: The ethics of not voting | Ethics for Adversaries

  4. Bethany, I think you’ve hit on a really useful comparative case study for thinking about political ethics. If we think about all of the ways that primary elections (especially among the main “serious” candidates) tend to be more “civilized” that Presidential elections, we are probably looking at most of the ethical restraints or “self-regulation” we would want democratic political actors to be following more generally. They are more polite, more respectful with each other and each others’ supporters, the attacks on rivals tend to be more closely based on factual matters (rather than deliberate distortions and exaggerated claims about the candidate’s psychology or ideology), and there is a strong public norm that puts “what’s best for party
    ahead of “what’s best for the candidate.” Would that this kind of self-restraint survived in general elections (where we would substitute a “nation-first” for the “party-first” norm, of course). It would be worth looking at the way these norms are upheld in the primary context (where candidates come off looking pretty bad if they violate them) and whether there is any reason to think those factors could be strengthened in general elections.

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