Congressional approval rating is at historic lows because most Democrats do not like what Congress is doing. In fact, Republicans approve of Congress more strongly than Democrats do. The mechanism set up to address a situation like this is a primary campaign for the Democratic nomination. Democratic leaders represent not only their district or state, but the Democrats in their district or state as well. This is a formal dual role that Democratic leaders have taken on by winning the party nomination, and it is one that is technically ratified every election cycle during the primary.
I don't have data on how often Democratic incumbents are challenged in primaries, but I think it's pretty obvious at this point that the answer is, not very often. Let's do a thought experiment to prove this point. Process reformers often complain about gerrymandering of districts protecting incumbents from challenge, which is why incumbents support drawing strong blue or red districts. Yet, gerrymandering wouldn't protect these incumbents if there were regular strong primary challenges. This possible fluidity in the political system - safe seats do have competitive electoral possibilities, only those possibilities exist in the primary system - doesn't really pan out.
Let's go through why primaries are essential vehicles.
One, primaries create tremendous inefficiencies for activists, concerned citizens, and outside groups. Spending inordinate amounts of time calling and writing Democratic members of Congress or advertising to get their attention, all to get them to do what they should be doing anyway is incredibly costly, and is a direct result of a lack of real political costs to bad faith actions that would be imposed by a healthy series of primary challenges. The lack of primaries is in effect a tremendous negative feedback loop for activism, dampening all of our focused energy as a piece of insulation does summer heat.
Two, democracy is a core Democratic value. The right to vote, and have that vote counted, is meaningful because it allows citizens to generate buy-in to their civic structures. This is as true within a party as it is within a country (and as true within a union, club, corporation, or church). It's no accident that the Democratic Party gained tens of thousands of new registrants in 2006 in Connecticut. Democratic structures make our party and our country stronger, whether that's by generating Democratic volunteer or donor lists in a hot primary that can be moved over to a general election or letting a festering intraparty fight get resolved by putting it to the voters.
Three, a lack of primaries disenfranchises Democratic voters. John Tanner, who has not faced a real race in years, or Lynn Woolsey, simply do not have to represent their constituents. They may choose to do so, but they do not have to. And their constituents have no recourse. Their constituents are cut out. In that case, why be a Democrat? Why volunteer for Democrats, or donate if the party itself isn't democratic?
Four, primaries are a check on calcification and corruption within the party. The only way to keep Congressional representatives responsive to party activists and voters and not corrupted by their control of the party is to have regular mechanisms for feedback by activists and voters. Joe Biden obviously should be challenged for his Senate seat in 2008, but it's not likely to happen, and this was true for Tom Carper and Dianne Feinstein in 2006.
Now, why aren't there more primaries? Despite the disdain towards the Democratic Congress, Donna Edwards, Rosemary Palmer and Mark Pera are the only strong primary challengers I know of that are taking on an incumbent (correct me if I'm wrong here). There may be others, but not very many. With over 80 Democrats voting for a supplemental war funding bill, and several voting against SCHIP, it's pretty clear that these people, despite the phone calls and letters from voters, don't have to respond to pressure if they don't want to. This seems to be systemic. Consider that in 2006, Ned Lamont was the only person who would step up to challenge Lieberman, despite Lieberman's obvious right-wing extremism. Lamont, a neophyte candidate, was willing to learn on the fly, but it says something that the mayors of the two largest cities in Connecticut fought a vicious primary over who would get crushed by a beloved Republican Governor instead of going up against Lieberman.
Something is very wrong. Politicians are calculating risk-takers, and that these Connecticut politicians thought going after Rell was a better bet than going after Lieberman suggests that there was a serious market failure here. And that the weak Democratic Congress has seen very limited primary energy confirms that this market failure may have gotten worse.
I'm going to speculate here on some reasons that the market for primaries is broken. A primary process can be seen as a dynamic market system, where the buyers and sellers are candidates and activists. It works like this. A candidate emerges who represents a certain value system. A set of activists and voters who want that value system support that candidate. Activists hated Lieberman, but there was no way to turn that hatred into action until Ned Lamont emerged and activists and eventually Democratic voters 'bought' into his candidacy. This was similar to a 'draft' campaign, where anyone against Lieberman would do, but the process can work the other way as well. Donna Edwards sought to challenge Wynn, and sold herself well to activists and voters.
There are three reasons local officials don't challenge Democratic incumbents in Congress or the Senate.
Information Gap: It's impossible to effectively judge, as a potential candidate, whether there is support for a primary challenge. It's impossible to effectively judge, as a potential activist, whether there is likely to be a challenger to support. It's hard to find out there are other activists like you, it's hard to know how to go looking for a candidate, it's hard to know if you could be that candidate. Just where do you start? The blogs have partially solved this problem (Lamont's initial staff were motivated by bloggers), but the market failure still exists. If I dislike John Tanner or Jim Cooper, it's impossible for me to tell a potential challenger that I will send $50 his or her way.
It's also very difficult to do systematic recruiting of possible candidates to challenge incumbents, because there's no map of the country that lays out the possible challengers the way that Progressive Punch clearly lays out voting records. This can be fixed, but hasn't been fixed yet.
Resource Gap: Should a challenger emerge, there is still a resource gap. PAC directors, party committees, lobbyists, labor, members themselves - they will and do support incumbents, from Al Wynn to William Jefferson to Dan Lipinski to Joe Lieberman. By contrast, there has been no systemic approach from outside groups to counter this gap. Blogs do a bit, but Winograd for instance got very little blog support. Moveon has done an email poll of their members without releasing the results (and did a poll last cycle as well). It's unclear to me where They Work for Us is situated, but I don't think it's doing anything considering the organization's last blog post was written in May. And large donors, while possibly having the capacity to bankroll a competitive marketplace, have not as of yet done so.
In many ways, it's not a resource gap so much as it is a perceived resource gap. While it's possible a primary challenger will get support from a variety of liberal sources, it's not always the case that this happens. And it is the guarantee of resources that matters to a potential candidate looking to give six months of their life and burn bridges with the incumbent, not the possibility.
Institutional Gap: Perhaps this is the biggest problem of all - party insiders hate primary challenges and have built up a set of cultural arguments against them within donor and activist networks. There is a strong and valid point to make that primaries cost money and TV time, and time and money that could be better spent on the general. Party committees want all money raised to go against a Republican, not a fellow Democrat. From 1974-2004, the limited donor pool and television dominance of politics created the logic for these institutions to dislike primaries.
As a result, local politicians are extremely cautious about challenging higher ups. Not only will they get no help, but there can be political retribution against the career they do have. Like the Connecticut mayors who decide to run fruitlessly against Rell instead of Lieberman, the downside to challenging a local machine can be high, and there's no counterbalancing mechanism like the right has (Club for Growth, NRA, etc).
So what do we do?
The only reasonable arguments against primaries is that they waste resources or could potentially weaken an incumbent and 'lose' a seat to a Repubican. Yet, this is a very linear model of considering politics, one that is probably flawed with the dramatic increase small dollar donors and strengthening activist media networks. Primaries build donor and volunteer lists and activist networks on the internet, they no longer just not waste money on TV that evaporates. The tremendous effort to call and write Democrats to get them to do what they should be doing anyway is not without its own tremendous financial, political and psychological costs. And if you are considering leverage in the political system, and not simply partisan gain, it's undeniable that the Lieberman-Lamont challenge had political consequences far surpassing those of a normal Senate challenge, even though Lamont ultimately failed to win the seat. Linear and not systemic thinking is dangerous for progressives to adopt, mostly because it's playing the same game we've been losing for thirty years.
Still, the cultural habits against primaries are very powerful, and you can hear these habits echoed quite frequently on the right and the left by people who consider primaries 'threats' instead of democratic mechanisms. Take conservative Time Magazine blogger Kevin Sullivan, who coined the term 'Stollerism' as a way of discussing my ostensible desire to 'purge' the party. Perhaps I'm intolerant, but calling for democratic and open elections to ratify or reject political leadership is not the same thing as a Stalinist penchant for murdering one's opponents, or a hostile purge of dissidents in an authoritarian regime. I don't mind that Sullivan uses terms like purges to describe my goals, since he's not the audience relevant to this discussion of Democratic Party matters. But disturbingly, this equating of purging with its clearly hostile overtones and democratic structures like primaries is a consistent theme within the party as well. I'll randomly pick Oliver Willis, who suggested in response to the same line of posts Sullivan discussed that primaries are ideological purges and that the only reason I could think a primary against Kucinich was a positive development is that Kucinich is not progressive enough for me. When I confronted him and pointed out his illiberal impulses, Willis's rationale changed, and he then returned to the premise that primaries waste time and resources.
The illiberal nature of the anti-primary arguments is a consistent theme among a certain slice of Democratic activists and insiders. They argue without realizing it that if you live in a swing district or a Republican district, you don't deserve a voice in who runs for the Democratic nomination. For a party that believes in enfranchisement, that illiberal line of argument needs a strong and consistent rebuttal.
Fixing this market is a long and slow process that started in 2006. To reorient the incentive system, we must consider supporting primary challengers wherever they appear, if only to send the message to other potential candidates that there is a guaranteed base of support for people willing to challenge calcified incumbents. Perhaps at some point in the future we will have the luxury of choosing between ten different qualified challengers to support, but at this point the imbalance in the system is so severe that we must weight the value of an open primary more strongly than other political considerations.
I've been meaning to write this essay for some time, but I'll close by relating a typical conversation I had with a wonderful and experienced strategist. He and I were debating the antiwar coalition (which I consider myself part of), and I made the argument that primary challenges should be a much larger strategic imperative than they are. He said, well, the top priority is to get rid of Republicans, and then to work for challenges to Democrats. What I tried to convey is that these priorities are not in conflict, but are complements. Doing one without the other creates a structural weakness that we saw during the Iraq Summer project, when Democrats and Republicans came back to DC more intent on funding the war, and in fact did so quietly with a continuing resolution. Ultimately, I did not convince him, but smart strategists in the Democratic Party ought to begin considering the nonlinear nature of political change, that adaptive change by politicians in the system as a whole can sometimes be more important than any one electoral contest.
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of writing and calling representatives and feeling they will ignore me. I don't like that the ACLU is cut out of civil liberties legislative drafting, or that net neutrality is still nowhere in Congress. All of this is actually wasted energy; it's a negative feedback loop that substantially dampens the effectiveness of liberal activism. And obviously, I don't think that getting rid of Republicans is the whole answer, any more than electing a Democratic Congress did anything to slow the war. Politics is complex, but sometimes we can identify a systemic problem and a model to address it. The broken market for primaries is one such problem, and it's very fixable. Once Democratic leaders recognize that they represent both the Democratic Party and their district/state, their behavior will shift in important ways, and allow us to focus on other activities.
Primaries are strong positive feedback loops for activists, and a good insurance policy against betrayal. And I'll point out that we may need such a policy in 2012.