The Missing Link in Jeff Flake's Speech

Government regulation played a critical role in ending his career.

A loss for words.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jeff Flake's searing indictment of President Donald Trump may come to be remembered as one of the Senate's great orations, but it is also notable for what it lacked: self-awareness.

Flake is one of Congress's most ardent libertarians, and in announcing that he would not seek re-election, he failed to connect the dots between his political philosophy and his political demise.

Sen. Flake Says 'Heaven Help Us' in Trump Era

In retiring, Flake bowed to the defining reality of modern elections: Primaries are dominated by each party's increasingly polarized activist base. Appease the hard-liners, or don't bother running. Flake couldn't stomach the idea of playing the patsy, so he quit.

That's honorable. But the political fix the senator found himself in wasn’t inevitable. It was created by the very thing he has spent his career railing against: excessive and counterproductive government regulation.

For the first half of American history, parties carried out nominating contests without government aid or interference. When candidates lost a bid for a nomination, they could still run as members of their party in the general election. This process had two main benefits: It allowed the widest possible group of voters to decide which party faction had the most public support, and it encouraged party factions to compromise, because a split party vote increased the likelihood of losses.

Over time, this system consolidated power in party organizations ("machines") controlled in smoke-filled back rooms by working-class operatives ("bosses"). During the Progressive Era, well-to-do reformers indignant about being governed by their inferiors began passing laws that opened those back rooms to all party voters.

Reformers believed these direct primary laws would make it easier for independent-minded men (like themselves) to be nominated and elected. But they made one major miscalculation: They assumed turnout for primaries would be similar to turnout for general elections. That never happened.

Instead, a relatively small group of the most inflamed and ideological voters began determining each party's nominations. It is no coincidence that Prohibition, after a nearly century-long struggle by temperance advocates, arrived shortly after the direct primary spread nationwide.

Adding to the activists' newfound power: The primary laws all but eliminated challenges to their power, by preventing mavericks -- like Flake –- from running under the party's banner in a general election. Without having to fear that type of competition, there was no need for compromise or conciliation in nominating a slate. A direct line can be drawn between these primary laws and the Tea Party and Trump, as some Democrats have begun to realize.

No election system is perfect, but if the public wants less extremism and partisanship, as polls suggest, and if Republicans want less government regulation, as they say they do, better options exist.

Now that Flake is retiring, he should lead an effort to "repeal and replace" the direct primary and other election regulations that stifle competition and centrism. One way to do that would be to return to pre-Progressive Era balloting, with parties (and competing party factions) supplying the ballots themselves.

A more modest fix would be to approximate that freer political market while still leaving government in charge of balloting, as top-two voting systems do. In short, here's how top-two voting works: Parties (and party factions) can nominate whoever they wish, under whatever rules they wish. All candidates -- whether nominated by a party or running independently -- appear on a ballot open to all voters. The top two vote getters, regardless of their party, advance to a runoff or second round.

California is among a handful of states that have adopted this kind of system, and most U.S. cities employ a version of it. Had Arizona adopted it, Flake's calculus may well have been different. As it stands, Arizona's voters have lost a chance to elect the kind of independent-minded leader the direct primary was intended to empower -- at a time the Republican Party, and the country, desperately needs those voices.

That's an outcome that should concern all Americans, not just libertarians.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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