Tired of presidential primaries? Blame Teddy Roosevelt!

Theodore Roosevelt created today's more democratic primary system for his own personal gain, says historian Geoffrey Cowan, author of 'Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.'

The primaries we’re embracing (and enduring) this year are the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, argues journalist and historian Geoffrey Cowan.

Sure, it seems like this endless presidential nomination campaign has been going on since the Pleistocene era. But the voting started fewer than four months ago. And in the big picture of American history, widespread presidential primaries are only a bit over a century old.

Wait, weren’t everyday voters always responsible for putting presidential candidates on the ballot? Not directly. Before the Progressive Era, party leaders ran the show.

Then along came the wild notion that voters deserve a say in determining who’d appear on the presidential ballot. But plenty of politicians weren’t thrilled by the idea of democracy on the march, including one Theodore Roosevelt. After all, this was back in the day when state legislatures, not pesky voters, chose US senators.

But in a remarkable switcheroo, TR turned around. The primaries we’re embracing (and enduring) this year are his legacy, argues journalist and historian Geoffrey Cowan in his fascinating new book Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.

Cowan is the right person to write this book since he himself played a major role in the evolution of presidential politics. As a young activist in 1968, he helped rewrite the Democratic Party’s rules to allow more direct democracy and less influence by party bosses. (Cowan, dean emeritus of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and former director of Voice of America, is now president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.)

In a Monitor interview, Cowan talks about Roosevelt’s self-interested change of heart, his legacy on the election front, and Cowan’s own perspective on this year’s wild campaign.  

Q: We’ve had quite an election season this year. Do we have Teddy Roosevelt to blame for this?

He deserves a lot of credit for letting people rule.

The purpose of democracy is to let the people be engaged. When you have 5-10 people picking candidates, is that democracy? Or when 100 percent of the people vote for the same person, is that democracy?

Democracy is a genuine clash of ideas with a lot of participants who agree that the system is legitimate, so they accept the ultimate result. Had it not been for Teddy and the creation of the presidential primaries, we wouldn’t have this kind of engagement and people feeling like they’re really part of the process.

Q: Before 1912, the public didn’t have a direct way to influence party nominations. Why was there a push for change from former President Roosevelt, who decided to run that year to unseat his onetime buddy President William Howard Taft, whom he’d grown to despise?

At first, Roosevelt thought he could get the nomination because he was still liked by so many of the party leaders who controlled the delegates. But they were more beholden to the Republican president.

Roosevelt didn’t actually believe that the people had a right to participate. But the only way he could win was through primaries. It was the only way he could make his way to the presidency.

Q: What did supporters of presidential primaries think about them?

[Political reformer] Charles Dwight Willard called them godlike, makers of men. The idea was that they’ll take away the power of special interests. There was also a notion that participating in government was an end in itself, part of what made you a free person.

Q: In 1912, only 13 states held presidential primaries, although some were in major states like New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois. What was behind that small number?

Primaries were against the self-interests of the leaders of the states. If they think they can otherwise control the nomination process, why would they want to give up power?

When Roosevelt announced he was running, there were 6 primaries scheduled. It was a big battle to get to 13. In Massachusetts and Illinois, Roosevelt did everything he could to humiliate the state legislatures to force a primary.  

Q: Roosevelt won almost all the primaries but lost the Republican nomination and, later, his third-party bid for the presidency. How did the primaries actually play out? Were they like today’s contests?

In Massachusetts, Taft and Roosevelt campaigned all across the state. They each had people who were following the other candidate and sending them wires about what the other one was saying. At each stop, they’d refute the other candidate.

Q: How should we look at Roosevelt’s support for direct democracy today?

He became a huge advocate for letting the people rule, and I think Roosevelt came to truly believe the public should be involved.

But he was a politician. In politics, people adopt the rules that they think will help them. We try to think that we operate on principle, but our principles are very much affected by whom we favor and what rules will help them.

Q: What is Roosevelt’s legacy on the election front?

The most direct legacy is the notion of the primary, which is still with us today. But the system is still gamed. Trump is right about that.

Q: Are you talking about caucuses and super delegates?

As we said in 1968, delegates should be picked by a process fully open to voter participation. That doesn’t allow for super delegates.

And I don’t consider caucuses to be fully democratic. In most states, they’re not secret ballot, and they aren’t as open to public participation as primaries, although they do have advantages in that people get to debate issues.

Q: What about the system overall, especially this year?

We should be celebrating the fact that we’re having a robust election with more people donating to the candidates, watching the debates going to public events, and maybe voting too.

Q: Will you stand by the system if you wake up in late January to a President Donald Trump in the White House?

There are often presidents you’re not happy about. Still, democracy is itself a good thing, and I hope I still think it’s a good thing even if I don’t like the person who’s elected.

But people have to believe the system is fair, that they lost fair and square and won fair and square.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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