Skewed reasoning abounds in Lawrence Jacobs' "The 'primary' cause of our political fevers" (Opinion Exchange, May 22).
Jacobs opines that the reason for what he terms "extremism" in American politics today is the proliferation of primaries since 1968. Before that time, advocacy for a primary system by such early 20th-century progressives as Wisconsin's Robert La Follette had been impeded by both establishment and dissident progressives who argued that a primary system would prevent the selection of the "wisest and best for public office."
Although 15 state primaries selected 40% of total delegates to national political conventions by 1968, most delegates continued to be chosen by party operatives. But by 1980 the number of states utilizing the primary system had risen to the currently prevailing figure of 37, and by 2020 94% of delegates were chosen by the primary process.
Jacobs points to the very real problem of low primary turnout in explaining why those with views unrepresentative of the majority of eligible voters have been able to prevail. Only a quarter to a third of eligible Democratic and Republican voters turn out in presidential campaigns and rarely more than 16% in midterm elections. This leaves the path open to those eager to espouse election denying, extreme anti-abortion, virulent anti-immigration and anti-historical viewpoints so as to appeal to the sensibilities of fringe voters most motivated to show up at the polls.
Jacobs emphasizes the irrationality governing the putative right but, apparently operating from a "sensible center" posture, briefly cites the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 over moderate Joseph Crowley as the Democratic, leftist counterpart to Republican, right-wing extremism.
This is enormously unfair to AOC who, as Lane Kenworthy ("Social Democratic America," published in 2013) would counsel, is most likely ahead of her time in advocating for nationalized single-payer health care and parental child care leave long-since established in the advanced western democracies of Europe.
But Jacobs' most seriously skewed logic pertains to the ill-informed positions rewarded by low voter turnout. His logic implies that since voter turnout is low and the viewpoints rewarded are unrepresentative, the answer is to return candidate selection to political operatives. The American public, at least those engaged enough to show up at the polls, are unfit to select candidates; many of the founders were correct: Republican or representative government, not democratic or mass participatory democracy, is the most appropriate political system for the United States.
But one of the founders disagreed, and one of his admirers clearly defined the actual remedy for ill-considered exercise of democracy. The founder was Thomas Jefferson, who in his letters conveyed that he knew of "no safe depository of the ultimate power of society but the people themselves," and that if they do not "exercise their control with a wholesome discretion," the "remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education."
The admirer of Jefferson was Horace Mann, the relentless advocate for "common schools" that would give people of all economic backgrounds the same foundational knowledge for the exercise of responsible citizenship.
But we have never in United States history had acceptable public education. Most people did not attend school beyond the sixth grade until the early 20th century, and for the first two decades of that century high school graduation was an achievement realized by an elite few. High school matriculation and graduation did increase by the middle decades of the 20th century, but by that time an insidious antiknowledge creed espoused by William Heard Kilpatrick and other education professors at Teachers College/Columbia University was beginning to make its way into urban public education systems, triumphantly so from the 1970s forward.
This creed states that well-defined knowledge sets in mathematics, natural science, history, government, geography, economics, literature and English usage are not important; rather, education should be "child-centered," with the child's driving interests spontaneously guiding curriculum; there are no "teachers" in such a system, only "guides" who accommodate and direct the inclinations of the child.
But this system in fact profoundly disrespects children and adolescents by denying them the set bodies of knowledge that they need to live as culturally enriched, civically engaged, professionally satisfied citizens. This system, still advocated by education professors at such institutions as the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), produces public education administrators and teachers of low subject area knowledge and an approach to education that sends knowledge-bereft graduates (those who do manage to graduate) across the stage to claim a piece of paper that is a diploma in name only.
The primary system and fuller democracy are not culpable for the proliferation of demagogues who espouse positions that appeal to ill-informed but motivated voters; rather, the responsibility lies in our reprehensible system of public education.
The remedy to the failure of voters to "exercise their control with a wholesome discretion" is to "inform their discretion by education" as we overhaul public education to provide abundant factual knowledge and a sense of the responsibilities of citizenship to people of all economic circumstances, in all demographic groups.
Gary Marvin Davison is director of the New Salem Educational Initiative in north Minneapolis. He blogs at www.newsalemeducation.blogspot.com.