The Candidate-Selection Process
excerpted from the book
The Powers That Be
by G. William Domhoff
Vintage Books, 1978
The candidate-selection process is the means by which elective
offices are filled in the United States. It is a process that
is often called "political," but it is more preoccupied
with individual ambition and image-building than it is with substantive
issues. It is a process in which most politicians develop binding
ties to one or another clique within the power elite while professing
to speak for "the people."
Office-filling in the United States takes place primarily
through two political parties. These two parties exist and have
the form they do because of the nature of the electoral rules.
"Parties and elections are so intertwined," notes political
scientist Theodore J. Lowi, "that the very structure of parties
is shaped by the electoral process.'' In the case of the United
States, it is the fact of presidential and gubernatorial elections,
and the selection of legislators from single-member geographical
districts, which lead to a two-party system. The election of a
single President for the nation, single governors for each state,
separately elected senators for each state, and single representatives
for each congressional district creates a series of "winner-take-all"
contests in which the most sensible strategy is to form the largest
possible pre electoral coalition even if numerous policy positions
must be abandoned, compromised, or kept hidden from the voters.
The result of a winner-take-all system is two political parties,
and only two political parties, because a vote in favor of a third
party actually is a vote for the person's least-desired choice.
By way of contrast, the electoral rules of most democratic
countries create a different party system, for they have a parliamentary
rather than a presidential structure. Because the Prime Minister
is selected by the legislature from among its members after the
election, there is less pressure toward two pre electoral coalitions,
thus making the existence of several issue-oriented parties possible.
Even more parties are likely to exist if the parliament is elected
by a system of proportional representation, giving each party
legislative seats roughly proportional to the percentage of the
entire electorate which supports it. According to sociologist
Seymour M. Lipset, "every country which uses proportional
representation has four or more parties represented in the legislature,
and, except in Norway, Sweden, and Ireland in recent decades,
absolute parliamentary majorities of one party have been extremely
Even when an American party adopts the policy positions of
a majority of voters, there is no mechanism which ensures that'
it will carry through with its promises when it assumes office.'
Once in office, the party has fairly wide discretion to do as
it pleases. It can interpret its mandate just about any way it
wants to interpret it. Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide in 1964 obviously
involved his professions of a less "warlike" policy
for Southeast Asia than Barry Goldwater seemed to have, but he
and his party escalated the war soon after his victory into the
most destructive and murderous attack on a small country that
could be imagined short of nuclear bombardment.
For all of these reasons, the major effect of the two-party
system in the United States is that it discourages policy discussion,
political education and an attempt to satisfy majority preference,
rather than encouraging them. It helps to create the confusion
and disinterest for which pluralists constantly scold the general
public. It leads to campaigns in which there are no issues but
I personality even when voters are extremely issue conscious.
Systematic studies by political scientists have demonstrated
that there is an equally meager relationship between political
campaigns and policy issues at the less glamorous congressional
level. Most significantly, they have found that there is little
or no relationship between the issue preferences of the majority
of voters and the policy stands of incumbents running for reelection.
Even at this level, campaigns are more image oriented than issue
oriented, particularly in the case of incumbents, whose primary
effort is to portray themselves as thoughtful, sincere and concerned.
Political scientist Charles 0. Jones summarizes the results of
studies by himself and others as follows:
The major proposition [i.e., conclusion] is that the campaign
and election are regularly scheduled events in the political life
of a representative in which he makes an intensive effort to project
an image of himself as a capable representative-which image is
"issue-involved" in that it provides clues as to what
to expect by way of policy making behavior from the Congressman.
Elections are not primarily policy or issue events where issues
are discussed or resolved or where there is an exchange between
constituency and candidate. When the representative is returned
to office, he is relatively unbound by the campaign and election
in his policy making behavior.
Contrary to the pluralists, then, American political parties
do not involve citizens in the influencing of public policy to
any great extent. Candidates are relatively free to say one thing
and do another. The major conclusion about the political results
of the two-party system as it functions in the United States should
be that of Lowi, not the pluralists:
Majorities produced by the American two-party system are
simply , numerical majorities; they usually have no political
It is precisely because the candidate-selection process h~ become
increasingly individualistic over the past several decades, and
therefore dependent on name recognition and personal image, that
it can be in good part dominated by members of the ruling class
through the relatively simple and direct means of large campaign
contributions. In the guise of fat cats and money raisers, the
same men who direct corporations and take part in policy groups
play a central role in the careers of most politicians who advance
beyond the local level or state legislatures in states of any
size and consequence: "Recruitment of elective elites remains
closely associated, especially for the more important offices
in the larger states, with the candidates' wealth or access to
large campaign contributions." Moreover, the role of the
wealthy donor and the fund raiser seems to be especially crucial
in the nomination phase of the process. This was the conclusion
of one of the earliest systematic studies of campaign finance:
The Effects of Campaign Finance Reform
The central role played by heavy money is a constant strain
on the legitimacy of the electoral system. It contributes to cynicism
about politics and to a widespread belief that politicians are
corrupt and easily bought. This cynicism, combined with the increasing
costs of campaigns, has led to reform movements that attempt to
decrease the impact of large donations. The success of these reforms
is open to question, however.
The upsurge of interest in campaign-finance reform began before
Watergate, but was given a tremendous boost by it. Financing laws
changed at the national level four times in the fir* six years
of the 1970's. Moreover, 49 states revised regulations on campaign
finance between 1972 and 1976. The reforms at both the state and
national levels have increased public disclosure of campaign donors,
established commissions to monitor campaign spending and placed
limits on how much candidates can spend. At the national level,
donors are limited to $1,000 per candidate each year. Matching
funds are provided for aspirants in presidential primaries who
can raise $20,000 in amounts up to $250 per donor in each of 20
states. In addition, public funding is available for the general
presidential election, and the national nominating conventions
of the two major parties are now subsidized by the government.
Some of these reforms are the products of middle-income insurgents.
Others of them, such as full public disclosure, have been urged
by moderates within the power elite. In l978, for example, the
Committee for Economic Development advocated several major changes
in campaign financing, including tax credits to encourage small
donors, stringent disclosure requirements and federal subsidies
to public television stations for political presentations.
The new laws will have several effects on fund-raising strategies,
but they are unlikely to lessen the role of big money in electoral
politics. The reforms will not do away with the need for wealthy
fund raisers who can bring together hundreds of friends for a
$1,000-a-plate breakfast or dinner. If anything, the role of these
essential mediators between the ruling class and political candidates
will increase, for it is no longer possible for a few dozen people
to finance an entire campaign. Instead of 40-50 percent of corporate
directors making large contributions, as has been the case in
the past, now it will be necessary for everyone in the corporate
community to be dunned more systematically.
A 1976 Supreme Court decision, Buckley vs. Valejo, a suit
brought by a coalition of liberals, civil libertarians and conservatives,
limited the effects of the most stringent campaign finance reforms
The Court ruled that there can be no limits on a candidate's contributions
to his or her own campaign, which may encourage even more wealthy
people to involve themselves in politics directly. In the same
decision the Court also said that a person could spend unlimited
funds supporting a candidate if he or she did not coordinate the
effort with the candidate's own campaign.
Most important, perhaps, candidates with wealthy supporters
can continue to use money in various "nonpoliffcal"
ways to build name recognition and popularity. They can create
task forces or fact-finding committees on highly visible or emotional
issues, making it likely that their names will appear in the news.
They can take "fact-finding" tours before they announce
their candidacy. They can be hired as consultants or good-will
representatives by businesses with nationwide operations. They
can have a regular newspaper column or radio show as a political
Although the new law restricts individual donors to $1,00.0
gifts to each of 25 candidates for national-level offices, it
permits these same individuals to give $S,000 per year to the
political action committee of the corporation for which he or
she works, and $20,000 a year to a committee of a national party.
These committees, in turn, can give their accumulated funds to
specific candidates-up to $5,000 per candidate in the case of
the party committees. Not surprisingly, corporate-connected political
action committees proliferated in the wake of the changes in the
law-107 major corporations and 22 banks set up such committees
in 1975 alone.
Even the formula by which federal money is given to candidates
in presidential primaries continues the advantage to those with
wealthy backers. While other nations, such as Sweden, Norway and
Germany, provide public financing on the basis of the number of
people who give to the candidate, the American law instead matches
the amount of dollars contributed. Thus, Morris Udall had 3,000
more contributors than Carter in 1976, but received only half
as much of the money provided by taxpayer checkoffs on income-tax
returns ( $1.9 million for Udall vs. $3.5 million for Carter)
because his average donor did not contribute as much as Carter's
wealthier backers. Fund raiser George E. Agree argues that this
"means test" has a significant effect:
Money became more important than before, as success depended
on having the resources to contest for delegates in each of thousands
of precincts across the country. It is unlikely that Carter could
have been so effective in taking advantage of the new rules without
that extra $1,568,898 from the common pool of taxpayer dollars.
Money, then, will remain a central element in determining
who emerges victorious from the candidate-selection process. It
is not the only element, as pluralists constantly remind us, but
it is an essential one. The candidate who spends the most does
not necessarily win, but the person who does not have a large
war chest to begin with usually is eliminated quite early. It
is the need for this large amount of start-up money-to develop
name recognition, to gain legitimacy, to undertake direct-mail
campaigns, to schedule radio and television advertising in advance-that
gives members of the power elite a very direct role in the process
right from the start, permitting them direct access to politicians
of both parties. Even if they do not tie specific strings to their
money, as they often do not, the fundraising process gives members
of the power elite a chance to ensure that only people whom they
consider sensible and approachable will emerge from party primaries.
The Effects of Electoral Reform
Candidate selection through the two-party system has been
by and large satisfactory to the American ruling class. Although
the founding fathers did not consciously create the system, and
indeed were opposed to the existence of political parties, the
next generation of leaders came to understand the usefulness of
a party system, and became its staunch defenders. However, in
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the system began
to produce results at the local level that were discomforting
to leaders within the ruling class. Machine Democrats and even
Socialists were electing more and more average people to city
councils, threatening business control of city governments.
Members of the power elite became increasingly concerned about
these electoral successes by the working class. In 1894 about
150 businesspeople, lawyers and academicians from 21 cities in
13 states met together in a National Conference for Good City
Government. The conference led to the formation of a permanent
National Municipal League three months later. Working through
a special committee, the National Municipal League began to formulate
a municipal program which would put into practice what the league
saw as the essential principles that must underlie successful
city government. The committee report, which became a model for
charter revisions around the country, called for nonpartisan,
city-wide elections, no salaries for council members and elections
at times other than when state and national elections were being
The general line of attack used by the ruling-class leaders
was to criticize city government officials in the name of "reform."
They charged that city government had come under the control of
incompetent and often corrupt people who were wasting the taxpayers'
money and inhibiting the growth of the city. They suggested that
government should be run by "experts" who knew what
they were doing and were beyond corruption. They were for "good
government," which became the rallying cry for their reforms.
The specific mechanisms to bring about "good government"
were several. First, elections should be "nonpartisan"
in nature. Although it was still thought sensible to be Republican
or Democrat at the national level, such partisan identifications
were said to be harmful at the local level, where the issues were
more technical and in need of expert solution. Second, local elections
should not be held at the time of state and national elections,
for local issues were supposedly separate from state and national
issues. Third, local elections should be city-wide rather than
by districts. The good-government forces developed numerous arguments
about the evils of representing a specific district, mostly along
the line that district elections led to a council that did not
look out for the general interests of the city. In making this
argument, of course, they ignored the fact that the Congress and
state legislatures are based upon the district principle. Fourth,
the reformers argued that council members should receive no salary.
This would reduce the temptation to self-service and corruption,
and encourage public-spirited citizens to stand for election.
In addition to these reforms, the good-government leaders
added another one in the years 191() 1915. They argued that the
city should be managed by an appointed administrative expert whose
function would be much like that of the chief executive officer
of a large corporation. The council, like a board of directors,
would set general policy, and the city manager, like the chief
executive officer, would carry out policy in an efficient and
professional manner. The new idea was called the council manager
form of government.
The actual goal of these reforms was to reduce working-class
influence on city government. By removing party labels from candidates,
it would be harder for low-income voters to identify their Democratic
and Socialist friends. By changing the date of the elections,
it was hoped that the hold of parties on the local electorate
would be lessened, and the notion would grow that local issues
were separate from state and national issues. District elections
were opposed because the unwanted council members were coming
from specific districts, namely, working-class districts. Making
the elections city-wide would help dilute the strength of working-class
candidates. They would lack name recognition outside their districts,
and they would lack the money to campaign city-wide. The elimination
of salaries for council service would make it more difficult for
working people to serve, while encouraging the affluent to take
part in "public service." The council-manager form of
government was a general device to depoliticize city government.
It was part of a mystique of efficiency and expertise that brands
the average person as incompetent to make political judgments.
The package of reforms slowly developed and publicized by
the good-government leaders within the power elite came together
as a general program of the National Municipal League.
Aided by other reform organizations and local Chambers of
Commerce, the new campaign had several important successes in
the years just before World War I. The effort picked up momentum
during and shortly after the war, when a campaign of physical
attacks and jailings contributed to the destruction of the Socialist
Party. By 1919, 130 cities had adopted the council-manager plan,
and hundreds more were to follow in the next few years. By 1965,
over half the cities between 25,000 and 250,000 in population
were functioning under council-manager government. The figure
was 40 percent for all cities with more than 5,000 citizens, and
the plan was especially popular in the suburbs. In the largest
of cities, however, the good-government movement usually was defeated
by Democratic Party organizations in its attempts to enact council-manager
government, and it had to settle for lesser reforms and continued
dealings with the political machines.
Despite specific losses, however, the reforms were successful
in accomplishing the underlying aims of the campaign. Working
people, whether Democrats or Socialists, disappeared from the
halls of city government, to be replaced by local businesspeople.
With their voices muted in city politics, ordinary people of course
voted less in local elections. They were then criticized by the
social scientists and the mass media for their failure to be interested
in politics. This is called blaming the victim, the standard outcome
of all ruling-class reforms.
... the system produces a set of politicians who are mostly
lawyers. In 1972, for example, 70 percent of the senators and
51 percent of the representatives were lawyers, but the situation
is about the same for earlier times and in most state legislatures.
Of 99S elected governors for all states between 1370 and 1950,
46 percent were practicing lawyers. Twenty-five of the 39 American
Presidents have been lawyers.
The large percentage of lawyers in the American political
system is highly atypical when compared with other countries,
where only 10-30 percent of legislators have a legal background.
For all the talk about discussing the issues, politics in
America has little to do with public policy. It provides little
control of power-elite programs by the general populace. It is
primarily a costly exercise in image-building, name-calling and
gossip, and it serves as a kind of society-wide carnival and psychological
safety valve. Conflict abounds within the process, but the policy
oriented concerns which motivate many of the party activists-
and more of the general electorate than most social scientists
realize tend to get lost amidst the personal conflicts between
ambitious candidates who are often seeking the rewards and excitement
of higher office for their own personal gain and ego satisfaction.
The pluralist notion that public policy is influenced to any
significant extent by the will of the majority through the competition
between the two political parties is largely misguided. "Politics"
is mostly for selecting ambitious, relatively issueless, upwardly
mobile lawyers who have learned how to advance themselves by finding
the rhetoric and rationalizations to implement both the narrow
and general policies of the bipartisan power elite. "Ironically
enough," concludes a skeptical political scientist, Michael
Parenti, "the one institutional arrangement that is ostensibly
designed to register the will of the many serves to legitimize
the rule of the privileged few."
There is more to American politics than fat cats and their
political friends. There are serious-minded liberals who fight
the good fight on many issues, ecologically oriented politicians
who remain true to their cause, and honest people of every political
stripe who are not beholden to any wealthy people. But there are
not enough of them, and they are often worn down by the constant
pressure from lobbyists, lawyers and conventional politicians.
As Representative Abner Mikva (D.-III.) once said, the system
has a way of grinding you down:
The biggest single disappointment to a new man is the intransigence
of the system. You talk to people and they say, "You're absolutely
right, something ought to be done about this." And yet, somehow,
we go right on ducking the hard issues. We slide off the necessary
confrontations This place has a way of grinding you down.
It is also true that there are differences between Republicans
and Democrats on certain issues. In particular, voting patterns
reveal the greater willingness of Democrats to spend money on
pork-barrel projects, economic pump-priming, agricultural assistance
and social welfare. In part this difference reflects the special
needs of the Southern Democrats for federal assistance, but it
also suggests that voting for Democrats sometimes has some payoff
to those of average incomes and below.
However, even after acknowledging these differences, the fact
remains that the friends and representatives of the working-class
majority have not been able to win other than headlines, delays
and an occasional battle. Despite the considerable efforts of
organized labor and middle-income reformers, the candidate-selection
process produces a predominance of politicians who sooner or later
become sympathetic to the prevailing wisdom within either the
moderate or ultraconservative faction of the power elite.
Powers That Be