The Importance of Being Earliest
Let's let that little pissant state sit by itself in February and let's all go in April!
-- Robert W. Beckel, 1986
The successive rules revisions that followed the McGovern-Fraser Commission during the 1970s and 1980s are often regarded as haphazard, bungled efforts by the Democratic party to come to terms both with its increasing heterogeneity and the end of the New Deal ascendancy. In fact, these commissions were primarily a reflexive response to growing pressures for democratization experienced both inside and outside the presidential selection process.
Beginning in the first half of the 1960s, the rise of radical activism on American college campuses presaged changes in established political practice no less radical or disruptive than those accompanying the franchise expansion of the Jacksonian epoch. Deepening hostility within the liberal and conservative wings of both major parties to the burgeoning influence of centralized authority, combined with the appearance of new, mobilizing issues such as civil rights, environmentalism, feminism and consumer rights, presented an incoherent but powerful movement that was fundamentally subversive to the post-Depression political order. The organizers and stewards of this order, party officialdom, found their authority challenged and their monopoly of the levers of power threatened by the rise of television and computer technology, which diversified and diffused political influence and drew hosts of activists into the political arena--activists with transient partisan loyalties and individual policy agendas.
Predictably, the two arenas in which these changes were most deeply felt have been the U.S. Congress and the electoral system, the two arenas most closely dependent on intimate connection with state and national electorates. Both responded to escalating pressures by opening up their procedures to outside scrutiny and diluting elite authority by broadening participation. The Democratic party in particular spent much of the 1970s erecting totems to representation and responsiveness. Attacks on the congressional seniority system and sweeping revisions of procedure were combined with a mania for voting formulas geared to reflect every conceivable variation in social status and public opinion.