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 rare."


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 content whatever.

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 commentator.

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 held.

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.

The Powers That Be

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