Section: News

CSAD hosts Lawrence Jacobs lecture on primary elections

Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, discussed the dangers of primary elections in a Monday lecture centered on his 2022 book, Democracy Under Fire: Donald Trump and the Breaking of American History. Sponsored by the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD), the talk focused on the history of primary elections in the United States and the threat they pose to American democracy.

The event was held in Oden Auditorium. CSAD Student Associate Emilie Hankla ’26 introduced Jacobs as a graduate of Oberlin College, an expert in elections and voting behavior and the author of 16 books.

Jacobs began his lecture by recalling James Madison’s original intentions for the United States’ system of representation, which he wrote in Federalist No. 10 should “refine and enlarge the public views” while filtering out demagogues. Primary elections, Jacobs argued, threaten this Madisonian ideal by giving power to a small number of extremists, enabling former president Donald Trump’s rise to power.

Primary elections didn’t become mainstream in the United States until the 1970s, but they are part of a long history of democratic reforms, according to Jacobs. Andrew Jackson’s administration organized the first Democratic National Convention in 1832 to give more power to the people. The movement for direct primaries, led by progressives like Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette, gained traction in the early 20th century but was stifled by opposition. Finally, in 1971, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and others successfully pushed for party reforms following the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention, after which the number of primary elections in the United States skyrocketed.

“There’s a kind of institutional patterning going on… in which Americans equate democracy with the internal operations of parties,” Jacobs said.

These developments have had disastrous consequences, according to Jacobs: Primaries have allowed extremists on both sides of the aisle to take power, incentivized loyalty to factions and led to popular disillusionment with the democratic system.

He proposed a set of potential reforms, including increasing the number of superdelegates and unpledged delegates in party conventions, experimenting with open and nonpartisan primaries and decreasing the number of elections.

A Q&A session with Jacobs followed the lecture. Director of CSAD and Professor of Political Science and International Studies Joseph Klesner shared his thoughts in an email to the Collegian: “[Jacobs’] argument provoked several excellent questions from students attending and lively back and forth between the speaker and his audience — exactly what we like to see at CSAD events,” he said. “[He] told me afterwards how he really enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take.”

The next event in CSAD’s spring lecture series, “The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy and Freedom in African American Political Thought,” will be held on March 20 in Oden Auditorium.

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