The people’s choice

Direct primaries and the Scott Lee Cohen fiasco

Scott Lee Cohen
Scott Lee Cohen
The obituaries for the political career of the unfortunate Scott Lee Cohen list as the cause of death all the common viruses of Illinois politics, from dunderheaded party leaders and lazy reporters to voters happy to buy a pig in a poke if the pig squeals the right way. But Mr. Cohen was not only elected in an Illinois primary, he was elected because of it.

Since the days when delivering a stump speech meant killing a tree, parties chose their standard-bearers at state conventions of delegates chosen by the rank-and-file. Only the University of Illinois trustee candidates are still chosen that way — which may suggest why the system was gradually abandoned for races that count. Historian Ernest Bogart recalled in his The Modern Commonwealth, 1893-1918 that of the more than 700 delegates to a Cook County convention in 1896, 265 were said to be saloonkeepers, 148 were political employees, 84 were ex-petty offenders and 43 did hard time for murder, manslaughter or burglary. “It is not surprising,” he concluded, “that such nominations made by conventions were unsatisfactory to the mass of voters.”

This is mere snobbery. Compared to our spin doctors and pollsters and TV attack dogs, such delegates were civic probity incarnate. However, Pericles in the agora it was not. Conventions were settled by bartering among factions led by mini-bosses eager mainly to maximize patronage opportunities. Such negotiations often deadlocked, as happened spectacularly in 1904, when the Republicans, meeting for some six weeks in Springfield, came up with a nominee for governor only on the 79th ballot. (Forgotten by the public, that convention lives on in the lore of Springfield hoteliers and bar owners, much as Hurricane Katrina will always be remembered by trailer manufacturers.)

Unsavory the party delegates and their overseers might have been, but they tended to put up for election solid citizens, for the simple reason that it was in their interest to do so. Decry all you want the messiness of the process, but a convention whose contenders included — as that 1904 Republican conclave did — Frank Lowden and Charles Deneen would today be hailed as a gathering of giants.

The choices made by party bosses also often represented rank-and-file views better than the often ideologically driven minorities that carry the day in primaries today. Good for the party, you would have thought, but bad for a lot of party members who thus feel abandoned. Today the disaffected gather for tea. Back then, it was the populists led by the likes of John Peter Altgeld that had little in common ideologically with a Democratic Party under the well-fed thumb of Chicago boss Roger C. Sullivan. Rather than balance a ticket in terms of the membership’s principles, they balanced them to suit the voters’ prejudices.

In short, the main gripe was not that the system resulted in bad choices but that it didn’t result in the party members’ choices. The 1880s saw the first of a series of state laws that gradually took away the power of the parties to name their own candidates in statewide races and gave it to the voting public rather than to delegates selected by the voters or party regulars.

The direct primary certainly made for more democratic government. Whether it made for better government depends on your opinion of democracy. Frank Lowden — an efficiency-minded reformer-businssman whose name always appears on the short list of Illinois’s good governors — damned such progressive mechanisms, in part because they sanctioned “rule by the inexpert.” Lowden posed a question that rings like a bell after the Cohen affair. “If the people cannot select delegates among their neighbors, men. . . who will not betray them, what possible chance have they of selecting, directly, a long line of officials, most of whom they do not know, who will not betray them?”

Not a very good one, based on the experience in Illinois in the century since voters were given control of the nominating process. Among other problems, primaries increase the cost of government to taxpayers (who pay to stage an extra election), candidates (who have to run twice to get into office) and voters, who have to choose twice. “Such a burden is placed upon the voter,” wrote Bogart, “that he may fail to bear it except perfunctorily.”

You think?

By taking the parties largely out of the nominating process, reform left it vulnerable to candidates able to provide for themselves what parties used to provide for all. This means usually candidates backed by extra-party organizations such as the LaRouchies in 1986 or to rich candidates such as Mr. Cohen this year.

Thus eccentric minority interests, exploiting an openly democratic process, exert an undemocratic influence on politics more pronounced than that exerted by the bosses, exploiting a manifestly undemocratic process. This is moving sideways, but in Illinois, that’s progress.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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