Democratizing political parties: Hazan and Rahat on candidate selection

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 5.01.59 AMHazan and Rahat’s proposal, from Democracy Within Parties: Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences, page 174

In previous posts, I argued that parties ought to internally democratic, but grassroots members’ perennial demand for direct, authoritative control over party policy cannot be met. Direct election of party leaders has also been a failed experiment in democratization; in practice, direct elections seem to have concentrated power in the hands of an increasingly remote central leadership. So what can parties feasibly do to improve their internal democracy?

A more promising avenue for reform has been suggested by political scientists Reuven Hazan and Gideon Rahat in their book Democracy Within Parties: Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences. Selection of candidates for public office is the essential function of political parties—the thing that really sets them apart from interest groups, think tanks, industrial associations, service clubs, and other organizations of civil society. Democratizing the process of candidate selection, then, seems like the natural place to start when thinking about democratizing political parties.

But what would democratizing candidate selection actually involve? The simplest approach would just involve open nominations, local control of nomination contests, and inclusive membership rules. However, Hazan and Rahat argue that this maximally inclusive approach can have a perverse effect on intraparty democracy.

Parties are largely volunteer-run organizations, and so need to provide non-monetary incentives to attract and retain committed long-term activists. Traditionally these incentives have included opportunities for positions of power and responsibility within the party, up to and including the prospect of being selected for candidacy. A maximally inclusive candidate selection process precludes such incentives, threatening to reduce parties to a small professional core of officeholders and staff surrounded by a largely ephemeral membership that tends to dissipate almost completely between elections.

Without some degree of exclusivity, then, parties cannot possibly be loci of sustained, high quality democratic participation, independent of both the state and the broader society in which they are embedded. Parties need to strike a balance between inclusivity and exclusivity. Hazan and Rahat argue that in the context of candidate selection, this balance would best be achieved by adapting the classical concept of mixed government (i.e. a regime that incorporates features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, so that the particular virtues of each basic regime type compensates for or corrects the defects of the others) to the nomination process.

The process Hazan and Rahat envision consists of three stages, proceeding from the most exclusive to the most inclusive. At the first stage, a screening committee would create a longlist of prospective candidates. This committee would be composed of senior party figures including retired politicians and veteran activists who do not have a direct stake in nomination contest, randomly selected rank and file members, and perhaps representatives of organized internal party factions, affiliates, and stakeholder groups. The exclusivity of the screening committee together with its balanced composition improves the conditions for serious deliberation; however, Hazan and Rahat stress that the function of the screening committee is only to rule out those candidacies that would harm the party, not to fix the outcome of the race.

The longlist would then be submitted to a nominating agency composed of party delegates elected for the purpose of amending the screening committee’s recommendations. By giving a special opportunity for influence to active party members, this second stage preserves incentives for members to commit to activism on the party’s behalf, yet it is also reasonably inclusive given that delegates responsible for the shortlist must be selected by the general membership.

At the third, maximally inclusive stage, the nominating agency’s shortlist is submitted to the whole membership in the nominating district, who have the final say on who should receive the party’s nomination. This third stage preserves incentives for party membership, creates an opportunity for member recruitment to activist roles, and maintains the benefits of mass participation (such as democratic socialization, opportunities for non-citizens to exercise political influence, and providing a counterweight to more ideologically motivated activists).

Above all, Hazan and Rahat stress that the final stage of the nomination process should be the most inclusive. In Canadian political parties, however, the final stage is the most exclusive—the party leader, a selectorate of one, has an absolute veto over the local party’s choice. In a sense, then, Canadian parties already use a kind of mixed regime, albeit one in which the mix seems to have been arranged so as to emphasize the defects and suppress the virtues of each basic regime type. But the principle is familiar enough. We just need to apply it properly.


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