language, other topics, politics

Open and Closed Cases


Now that the primaries are almost over, I want to say a little about them, and in particular one aspect of them that has been much discussed by one of the Democratic candidates: “open” versus “closed” primaries.


An open primary is one in which there are no constraints on who can vote for a party’s nominees: a Republican or unaffiliated voter can cast a ballot for one of the Democratic candidates, and their votes will have equal weight with those of registered Democrats. (The same of course is true on the Republican side.) In a closed primary, then, only voters registered as members of a party can vote in its primary.


Bernie Sanders and his followers wax irate at the idea of closed Democratic primaries. They argue that they are undemocratic, small “d,” because they keep some voters out of voting their preferences. They don’t mention the fact that at least some of Sanders’s victories came about because Republican voters crossed party lines to vote for him – in many if not most cases, because they believed he would be the weaker candidate in the general election.


Now, if I were in charge of electoral politics, there are a few things I would change about the nomination process. I would get rid of caucuses, which are undemocratic in a number of ways. I would try to arrange the order of primaries so that small, demographically unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire did not vote first and thus achieve undue influence. And, unlike Sanders, I would require that all primaries be closed.


At this point, some readers may object: “Closed primaries? That sounds bad. Open primaries sound more democratic.” So it’s time for a brief foray into the minefields of lexical semantics. It is time to think about the subterranean aspects of word meaning: presuppositions, backgrounding, connotations, and implicatures, for example. These have a great deal of influence over how hearers understand loaded terms – they are the propagandists’ friends – in part because they are covert. “Open” and “closed” are antonyms with hidden meanings of these kinds in certain (not all) uses.


“Open” is a good word in English: it implicitly conveys freedom, democracy, trustworthiness, and authenticity. “Closed,” on the other hand, arouses suspicions: sneakiness, concealment, and denial of rights. So if you can get in there first and apply these words in ways you see fit and make those meanings stick, you’re well on your way to winning the battle, whether or not you are actually on the right side.


Once upon a time, in the great days of the union movement, “open shop” and “closed shop” were terms to conjure with, used persuasively by those opposed to collective bargaining. An open shop was one in which workers did not have to belong to a union in order to work there; a closed shop required unionization. At first glance, the open shop – significantly because of the connotations of the name itself – sounds better and more reasonable: why should a worker have to belong to a group he or she does not believe in, and even worse, pay dues to that group? But when you think about it, the choice is not so simple.


When a business is unionized and therefore subject to collective bargaining, all its workers get all the benefits won by the union through negotiation and, when necessary, strikes. Those benefits, then, are made possible because unions use dues to pay negotiators and establish a strike fund to help support workers who are striking and therefore not being paid. Hence unions, and the dues that support them, benefit all workers in a business. Isn’t it fair, then, for all workers to pay for those benefits? So if you think about it, open shops are undemocratic, in that they unfairly force some workers to support all workers, rather than allocating benefits equally among all. The open shop is not egalitarian, and equality is the basis of democracy.


Now consider “open” versus “closed” primaries. “Open” primaries sound more democratic than “closed”: you let everyone in, and everyone has a say in the outcome. But should they? It depends on what you think a nominating primary is, and more importantly, what role if any political parties should play in our electoral process.


If every registered voter, affiliated or not with a party, has an equal right to determine which candidates that party should run in the general election, party affiliation becomes irrelevant. In that case, an open primary system makes sense. In that case, too, political parties are irrelevant, and should be allowed to wither and die. Then we would need to have only one election, the one that we hold in November, and if twenty candidates are on the ballot, so be it. Each of those twenty (or more) candidates would be entitled to federal funding and equal time in political advertising.


But under our current two-tiered system, the open primary is fraught with problems. If party membership is meaningful, that is, if parties are distinct from one another in their beliefs and those of their members, open primaries become nonsensical. Why should the vote of a voter who shares none of a party’s beliefs count as much toward a party’s selection of a candidate as that of a registered voter who has an interest in that party’s platform and in what it generally stands for? Should Republicans be allowed to cross over in sufficient numbers to nominate a candidate who is against everything most Democrats care about (and, of course, vice versa)? Then what is a party about? What does a “vote” in a primary election mean?


Democracy requires that citizens cast meaningful ballots – vote for candidates whose positions come close to their own. But there is evidence that, in open primaries this year, a significant number of the votes cast for Sanders (in a few close cases, enough to have changed the outcome of the primary) were in fact cast by Republicans crossing over not because they believed in Sanders’s policies, but because they correctly judged him to be the weaker candidate in a general election. This kind of voting makes a mockery of “openness,” and is nothing but undemocratic hypocrisy.


Bernie Sanders and his followers must have considered the problems associated with open primaries. Then why are they complaining about closed primaries? Their position, despite their avowals to the contrary, are blatantly undemocratic or at least highly illogical. They should be forced to account for their position without resorting to the propaganda language of “open” and “closed.”






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