The rules for nominating presidential candidates might be one of the least understood and yet most central components of American democracy. “Even the people in the parties themselves don’t understand the current rules; very few political reporters understand them,” says Geoffrey Cowan, the author of Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, a close account of Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 campaign, which in large part brought about our current primary system.
Cowan explains that people are often confused about the rules of primaries because they are constantly in flux from state to state and between election cycles. He was fascinated to discover that from the very beginning of direct presidential primaries, presidential nominee hopefuls like Theodore Roosevelt, running against William Howard Taft and Robert La Follette in 1912, have tried to exploit the rules’ adaptability. “I absolutely started this book thinking of Roosevelt as a hero,” Cowan says over the phone. “I had this role in 1968 of creating more primaries than there are today, and my inspiration in 1968 was Roosevelt in 1912,” he continues, referring to Roosevelt’s role in popularizing direct presidential primaries with speeches such as the one that as Cowan puts it in his book, “set the tone of his campaign.” Roosevelt entitled it “The Right of the People to Rule,” and in it proclaimed that Americans were capable of deciding for themselves who their leaders should be.
Taking into account both Roosevelt’s self-interested and public-spirited motivations for championing direct primaries, Cowan still appreciated how the President had helped the country democratize with his campaign. But as his research into Roosevelt’s campaign deepened, Cowan discovered a much-less discussed side to his subject—Roosevelt’s strong reluctance to include black Americans in this extension of the vote—which showed itself most acutely later in his campaign. After losing the Republican nomination and creating his own Bull Moose Party, Roosevelt excluded black delegates from the South in his new party’s convention. Cowan had read many biographies of Theodore Roosevelt—he partly jokes that George Mowry’s The Era of Theodore Roosevelt 1900-1912 was his “bible” for many years—and still this new information about the extent of Roosevelt’s racism astonished him. Once you read Cowan’s book, you’ll find its dedication—“To those who tried to expand the franchise in 1912—and those who are trying today,” rather ironic, the author says. “It sounds like it’s a dedication to Teddy Roosevelt, and in a way it is; he did try to expand the franchise in 1912,” Cowan says. “And then he didn’t. But he did.”
Cowan’s mix of admiration and skepticism towards Roosevelt allows him not only to cast the story of the 1912 campaign in a new light, but also to resist letting Roosevelt’s force-of-nature personality shape the narrative. His focus on the lives of the eight excluded black delegates in the last section of the book betrays a conviction that they are as much a part of the history of the decisive 1912 election as Roosevelt was. “I think the book’s about the excitement of creating primaries, the excitement of giving people the right to participate in elections,” he says. “And then the sort of heartbreaking quality of this man who helped to make it happen — such an American hero—deciding for whatever reason of personal ambition that he would exclude blacks from the South.”
Cowan says his book is ultimately about democracy as a “fundamental core value.” In his history of primaries, we also see democracy as an organic system that sometimes develops in highly imperfect, even haphazard ways. Speaking of recent changes to the rules for primaries, Cowan remarks, “So there are rules that are established, they’re different every time and they are always designed for particular reasons,” he says. “I’m not saying this is bad; I think this is human nature. But it isn’t like, ‘Oh now we know what democracy is.’ ”
Alexia Nader is a writer in San Francisco and an editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.