The expression “invisible primary” comes from Arthur T. Hadley, The Invisible Primary (Prentice-Hall, 1976). A more recent study refers to the “money primary” (Michael J. Goff, The Money Primary, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). The two terms refer to the same process: the efforts of would-be candidates to gather support, raise funds and cultivate the media in the year before a presidential election, before the “visible” primaries begin.
Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, defines the phenomenon as “a private referendum in which the wealthiest Americans substantially preselect and predetermine who our next president will be… The hottest candidate in the check-writing sweepstakes is deemed ‘worthy’ by the major media via hundreds of news stories… All others are dubbed losers before the first [public] votes are cast.”
This slightly overstates the case. The number of candidates deemed worthy may, as this time round, be two or three. But the great majority of would-be candidates are indeed thrown out.
Money and media coverage
So to get through the invisible primary you need two things: money and media coverage (lots of both). Let’s look at this a bit more closely.
Money and media coverage are closely connected - partly because money can buy media coverage in the form of political advertising, partly because (as Lewis notes) the media treat fundraising success as an important criterion of “credibility.” And also because both money and media coverage are allocated mainly by members of the same class, the capitalist class. They make most of the large financial contributions and some of them own and control the media.
This is not to say that money and media coverage are perfectly correlated. A candidate needs money for many other purposes besides media coverage, such as to hire staff, pay travel expenses, and bribe uncommitted convention delegates. Nor does media coverage depend solely on fundraising success. For instance, the bosses of Fox, CBS, and NBC also take into account candidates’ political positions when deciding who will be allowed to take part in televised “debates” (actually, grillings by TV journalists) and what questions, if any, each participant will be asked.
In terms of the analogy of a referendum of the capitalist class, it is a referendum in which the media owners have the casting vote.
No challenge to corporate interests
What makes the political positions of a candidate acceptable or unacceptable to the media owners?
They would certainly judge any opposition to the capitalist system unacceptable. But the limits are in fact much narrower than that. In order to pass the test a candidate must not convey an “anti-corporate message” or challenge any significant corporate interest. That means in effect that he or she cannot advocate any serious reform.
I reached this conclusion by observing what happened to the most “left-wing” of the Democratic Party candidates - Dennis Kucinich, the Congressional Representative for Cleveland. Kucinich is not against capitalism, though unlike the general run of American politicians he appears to be independent of specific business interests. (As mayor of Cleveland he resisted pressure to privatize the city’s public utility system.) Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, with whose tradition he associates himself, he aspires to “save capitalism from itself” by instituting long-overdue reforms. He was the only candidate to stand for a “single-payer” system of healthcare finance that would eliminate the parasitic health insurance companies. Similarly, he was the only candidate to challenge the military-industrial complex by calling for big cuts in “defence” spending. These reforms are readily justified in capitalist terms, as essential to restore the competitiveness of U.S. civilian industry.
The media did their best to ignore Kucinich, except to ridicule him as a “kook” because, like Carter and Reagan, he says he once saw a UFO. The networks excluded him from TV debates, even when that required changing their own rules. (He sued NBC, but the courts upheld its right to exclude him.) As a result most Americans were unaware of his candidacy, although polls indicate that the policies he advocates enjoy wide support. In January he withdrew from the race, but has managed to hold onto his seat in congress.
Change as a mantra
In order to get through the invisible and the visible primaries, a candidate, and especially a Democratic Party candidate, has to engage in vague and deceptive rhetoric. Obama and Hilary Clinton talk endlessly about change because that is what the voters to whom they appeal are looking for. They are fed up with sending their children to war, with layoffs and home foreclosures, with escalating health costs. Obama repeats the word “change” so often that it has been called his mantra. But just check out what specific changes Clinton and Obama have in mind and you can count on being underwhelmed. They would not have got through the invisible primary had they been determined on serious change.
For example, Obama and Clinton convey the impression that they are finally going to make proper healthcare available to everyone. But this turns out to mean only that everyone will have access to health insurance. You will still have to pay for it. Well, in that sense the U.S. already has “universal healthcare”! OK, they will make the health insurance companies introduce a wider variety of more affordable schemes. That may reduce the number of uninsured somewhat. But cheaper schemes are schemes with poorer coverage and/or higher co-pays and deductibles. (A co-pay is the part of a charge for services that is paid by the patient, not the insurance company. A deductible is the amount that the patient has to pay before the insurance company starts to make any contribution at all.) And some people won’t be able to afford even the cheapest schemes on offer.
The media and the candidates themselves relieve the strain and frustration of trying to assess and compare policy positions by distracting us with trite pseudo-issues such as the relative merits of “youth” and “experience” and whether the U.S. is “ready” for a nonwhite or female president.
Socialists consider most of what passes for “democracy” in the U.S. and other “democratic” countries to be phoney and corrupt - “the best democracy that money can buy.” But we do not deny the existence of some democratic elements in the political system of these countries. One such element is the suffrage itself, which we hope will eventually play a role in establishing the fuller democracy of socialism. The strength of these democratic elements changes over time, and the direction of change cannot be a matter of indifference to socialists.
A crucial factor is the extent to which the capitalist class is able effectively to silence critics of capitalism by monopolizing control over communications media. Until the mid-20th century outdoor public speaking was an important medium of free political discussion, through which socialists could reach quite a large audience. This democratic medium was displaced by television, to which socialists had virtually no access. Now the internet is starting to undermine the monopoly of the corporate mass media, although its impact so far has been modest.