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Pildes: Democracy’s Power-Sharing Fuels Political Divisions

March 15, 2018

McGlinchey Lecture 1

America’s democracy has given more weight to individual voices in selecting presidential candidates in the last century – diminishing the role of political parties – and that may not be a good thing.

That’s the conclusion of Tulane Law’s McGlinchey lecturer, Prof. Richard Pildes of New York University Law School, whose scholarship suggests well-meaning reforms over the past 40 years meant to empower ordinary voters may be tilting politics toward ever-greater polarization and dysfunction.

Missing, Pildes argues, is thoughtful “peer review,” through which established party leaders can vet candidates and moderate populist impulses toward ideological extremes. And, Pildes argued, campaign finance reform that celebrates the small donor isn’t helping, either.

 “I wholeheartedly believe in democratic self-governance. But my view is that since the 1970s, as our country gave more power to citizens through the primary process, as we had more participatory democracy, more distribution of power – the two major parties gave up their role in bringing forth the best candidates,” said Pildes, a constitutional law expert with decades following political processes and institutions. “This type of power sharing has perversely contributed to the divisions of today.”

McGlinchey Lecture 2

The McGlinchey family with Prof. Pildes and Tulane Law School Dean David Meyer (far right).

Pildes is one of the nation’s leading constitutional law experts whose scholarly work centers on free and democratic institutions. He has spent decades writing and teaching about elections, the role of money and political parties.

Pildes pointed to the 2016 presidential election as a clear example of how the Democratic and Republican parties no longer have much sway in choosing a presidential nominee:

•    On the Democratic side, an establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, faced a realistic challenge from an Independent with minimal ties to the party, which had little option but to let it play out.
•    On the Republican side, 17 candidates – many of them highly experienced in government – had to filter through a primary process that ended with a party nominee who was an entertainer with no political experience and had been a Democrat most of his life.

“Historically, this is not how the process of choosing a nominee has worked,” Pildes said, harking back decades to a time when the two parties winnowed the field of candidates well before the general election. In some ways, Pildes blames the primary system – which exploits the factions inside parties, and where the candidates who win are those that can please a slim majority of voters.

 Pildes pointed to Tuesday night’s special election of Conor Lamb to Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. Lamb, a Democrat who ran on a centrist platform, rattled the GOP with a win in the deep-red suburbs of Pittsburgh that Donald Trump won by 20 points.

McGlinchey Lecture 3

Because this was a special election, Lamb was chosen under the old system, by 500 or so committee members. In effect, Pildes said, the committee chose the perfect candidate for that district. 

“If they had used the primary system, would a Conor Lamb survive in that district?” Pildes asked.

Pildes also raised questions about laws governing campaign money. He believes the rise of small donors fuels political polarization, pointing to evidence that the great majority of small donors identify with the extreme ends of their parties.

“Many of these reforms created systems that took away money from the political party,” Pildes said. “It enabled the candidates to play to special interests, and makes it harder to reach compromises later.”

While Pildes addressed just two issues – the diminished party role and how money plays into politics – he acknowledge other issues have hurt our democratic process.

The push for transparency everywhere makes it difficult to have honest negotiations and reach consensus, for example. Another issue is the ban on earmarks, which, again, make it harder to reach compromise across the aisle.

“My goal is not less participatory government,” Pildes said. “It is to remain skeptical about the processes we have in place now which seem to be fueling polarization in the country. It is also to start a conversation about the range of our democratic values.”

The McGlinchey Lecture is named for Dermot S. McGlinchey (L ’57), a lion of the New Orleans bar and civic leader who passed away in 1993. He was a devoted Tulane supporter and helped found the McGlinchey Stafford firm, which has permanently endowed the lecture series in his honor.

 McGlinchey was president of the Tulane Alumni Association, served on the law school Dean’s Council, chaired the Dean’s Council Development Committee and the law school building fund and was vice chairman of the Maritime Law Center’s endowment program. He also helped revitalize the Louisiana Bar Foundation and was instrumental in forming its Pro Bono Project.


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