No one seems to like them: The parties endure them; the voting public suffers them; the cynical resent them; and candidates would wish them over yesterday if assured victory. Yet, they are necessary as an absolutely critical part of the whole electoral process. We’re talking, of course, about primaries.
On March 5, 2024, North Carolina will join a bevy of other states holding primary elections for the two major political parties on what’s colloquially known as “Super Tuesday,” the day when the greatest number of states hold said elections. Primary election day itself really marks the end of what is likely the most uncomfortable stretch of any electoral calendar. In an era in which politics can be quote toxic to relations in general, primaries turn the conflict into an intra-family affair, a domestic dispute. Family, friends, and neighbors who are usually simpatico in all their ranting and raving now may find themselves diametrically opposed to each other.
“How could he like him?!” one may wonder when confronted with the primary preference from a usually like-minded friend. “Just when you think you know someone, you find out she supports [enter non-preferred primary candidate here]!“
Competitive primaries are replete with mudslinging, character assassinations, seemingly irreparable infighting, and maybe even broken friendships. Focused more on active, engaged voters than a general election, primaries often incentivize a race to one end of party extremes or the other. The discomfort doesn’t come without reward; however, and the benefits earned from passing through primary season outweigh the relatively truncated stretch of misery. By a lot.
It reminds me of a popular trend that offers a similar set up — definite short term suffering, for enlivening longterm benefits — ice baths — also called “cold-exposure therapy.” Though practiced for millennia in certain parts of the world, the ice bath trend has had quite the spike in popularity with the advent of internet health experts-turned influencers. By now, you’ve almost certainly either shivered your way through one yourself or know someone that has incorporated the practice into their routine — and won’t stop talking about it.
There’s lots to talk about. Modern health scientists now have a granular understanding of how the ancient practice of cold water exposure affects the brain and body to contribute to better health. To wit, a mere few minutes in uncomfortably cold water increases energy and focus as the brain reacts by producing epinephrine and norepinephrine; enhances your mood by spurring a prolonged release of dopamine; increases metabolism as your body burns calories in overdrive to warm up; and, not to be discounted, builds mental fortitude as you exert disciplined control over deep-seated reflexes telling you very convincingly to, “Get out!”
Even the biggest advocates for cold water therapy will tell you that the end is the best part. That’s when the suffering yields to flourishing, the paradox being that you only achieve the latter after enduring the former. Such is life.
And so it is, too, with primary elections. For all the suffering primary campaign season brings, it also has plenty of benefits. While they may only be felt after the ballot is decided, their genesis is in the depths of the primary campaign. It is there that candidates are beckoned to remove the dressings of party unity, to differentiate themselves as individuals, and to test their mettle in a contest whose results are determined by only the most zealous of judges.
The benefits go double for the electorate, despite (or because of?) the apparent agony that precedes them. In suffering a competitive primary, engaged voters get to exert unmatched influence over what kind of nominee represents their party, the policy issues that are prioritized, and who best puts those policies in play through a General Election victory.
It is only after that point that General Election candidates, activists, and voters are free to train their politicking toward a common target. But as they do, it is with a battle-hardened stance that was earned during the combat of the primary.
Many voters decry the two-party system in the United States for reliably producing, what they deem as, two bad choices from which to pick a leader. If only there were a third way, a third party, or a proportional system, critics say, then voters could more confidently and accurately cast their votes for representation.
I’d argue most of that impulse can and would be satisfied by a more purposeful overall participation in the suffering that is primary election season. The greener grass of Europe’s proportional representation isn’t as quite as verdant when one realizes all they have is primaries, so to speak; the final “General Election” results are usually decided in the halls of power through backroom coalition building.
So let us embrace the suck. While they promise misery and an undeniable urge to escape for more comfortable environs, voluntary exposure to primary election seasons are good for the mind and body politic. Jump in.