The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North

By Alan Ware | Go to book overview

7
Explaining an “Irrational” Reform
With the benefit of that best of predictive instruments, hindsight, it has always seemed that the introduction of the direct primary was a reform that ran counter to party interests. Unquestionably, in the long term, it helped to weaken the parties. Consequently, explanations of why this reform was introduced have generally assumed that it was something parties would rather have not done, but that they could not prevent. Thus, one common explanation has been that it was the result of antiparty reformers triumphing over party regulars, while another explanation was that it followed from a supposed descent into one-party dominance in much of the North after the mid-1890s. However, the states studied in detail in the last two chapters demonstrate the limitations of these two accounts of the rise of the direct primary. In the West, the introduction of the direct primary was linked to the success of insurgency, but this occurred only after a number of states, many in the East, had started already to experiment with direct nominations. That is, in spite of the weakness of insurgency in the east, most states there did introduce the direct primary, and there is no evidence either that the legislation involved conflict between antiparty reformers and urban-based political machines. Furthermore, there is also no evidence that the absence of party competition was responsible for this legislation. To the contrary, in some circumstances restrictions on party competition were a factor hindering its introduction (Connecticut), while intense party competition could drive both parties into supporting the direct primary (Maine).To begin constructing an explanation of why the direct primary should have been introduced even in the eastern states, it is necessary to recapitulate some of the points that have emerged in previous chapters.
1. By the end of the 1880s and the beginning of the 1890s, party elites in many states had become concerned about how party nominations were being made. Nomination procedures did not appear to be

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