Primary Elections Are Not ‘Purges’
Our political discourse is rife with examples of false moral equivalence. Infamously, some opponents of the recent health insurance reform likened the bill to Nazism. Others have claimed that Arizona’s recent immigration bill smacks of Hitler’s Germany. Still others think that they see strains of the Soviet Union in recent reforms of the student loan industry.
It’s essentially pointless to rebut such ludicrous claims; indeed, by even dignifying such ludicrous histrionics, they gain a certain amount of undue credence. (For the record: an individual insurance mandate is not equivalent to death camps, clamping down on illegal immigration is different from murdering your own citizens, and I can find no record of Stalin addressing the Politboro on the pressing matter of student loan procedure.)
One claim, nearly as preposterous as those listed above, has gained traction in the mainstream, “respectable” media, however. That is the idea that contested Republican primary elections are “purges.” Jon Chait of the New Republic said as much yesterday, as did Robert Schlesinger of US News and World Report. Today, the Pulitzer-Prize winner Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post, an alleged conservative she, also said that fiercely fought primary battles amount to “purges.”
These claims are wildly ahistorical, and amount to a form of false moral equivalence that Beltway elites like Chait and Parker typically purport to reject. But more than that, they indicate how distrustful pundits are of the slovenly, great unwashed masses. Or to put it more bluntly: how little faith they have in democracy.
By their very definition, purges occur when someone or some organization in government, removes someone or something else from a governmental position. The first known use of the term refers to the England’s ‘Pride’s Purge’ of 1648, when the military purged its opponents from Parliament. Since then, the term has most commonly been used to refer to the actions of dictatorships such as Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, and Nazi Germany, when regime opponents were unilaterally removed from positions of power.
It should go without saying, then, that primary elections, by their very definition, cannot be described as “purges.” The fates of candidates in primary elections are determined by everyday citizens, not by people already ensconced in power. An action that is inherently democratic is also inherently not a “purge.”
The rhetoric about “purges,” therefore, represents an attempt to add a scary, foreboding aura to normal democratic action. After all, primary challenges to entrenched incumbents actually indicate a healthy democracy: they show that citizens are engaged, energized, and not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to incumbency. Parker’s appalling column is headlined, “The Tea Party’s allegiance to no one,” as if showing no allegiance to professional politicians is a bad thing. She goes on to bemoan the fact that engaged citizens in Utah, Arizona, and Indiana are not willing to vote for incumbents simply because they’re incumbents. Shorter Kathleen Parker: how dare the dirty masses get involved in politics?
It’s ironic: for decades, Beltway pundits have lamented the fact that American voter turnout and civic engagement is so low. But now that a large group of citizens are getting involved in politics, and seem legitimately “fired up,” to borrow a phrase from our President, the likes of Chait and Parker express dismay. Maybe it’s the Washington Post and the New Republic that are due for a purge.