I can’t resist a racing metaphor to describe the problem that’s now facing the US Democrats, but one that is a more-or-less generic problem for democracy. In any system of government, there is a problem of succession, which has a large contingent element. In monarchies, for example, the absence of an adult male heir can produce crises of all kinds (in England, this problem recurred in different forms for all the Tudors from Henry VIII onward). Dictators rarely nominate a capable successor until the last possible moment, so their sudden death often brings about the collapse of the regime. To avoid this, it’s common to see a quasi-hereditary succession which rarely works well for more than one generation.
In democracy, unexpectedly close election results can cause big problems, since there is always a range of uncertainty in which normally unimportant procedural decisions or rule violations become critical. Obvious recent examples include the Bush-Gore race in 2000, the Mexican election of 2006, the recent election in Kenya and now the Democratic nomination race. Such close races inevitably produce a lot of bitterness and can lead to disaster. At the moment it seemed as if the threatened breakdown of democracy in Kenya has been averted, but it’s by no means certain that the power-sharing agreement there will hold. And it’s far from clear that the closeness of the race between Obama and Clinton won’t produce a vicious contest that sinks the eventual winner.
It’s tempting, and sometimes correct, to argue that the sharp divisions that emerge at times like these were there all along. But often this is no more valid than the kind of analysis which ascribes civil strife to “ancient ethnic hatreds” when these are, in reality, little more than rationalisations of contemporary power politics. Certainly, in the case of the Democratic nomination, it’s clear that the vast majority of Democrats would be happy with either candidate and likely that the majority would prefer an immediate end, regardless of the choice, to a continued contest.
Rather than reflecting deeper underlying problems, to a large extent, these succession crises really are problems of institutional design. Some kinds of institutions manage succession problems better than others. Confining attention to democratic systems (broadly defined), I’d argue that there are substantial benefits to simple and definite procedures. If US national elections (including primaries) were based on popular vote (whether first-past-the-post or instant runoff) the likelihood of a result so close as to permit serious dispute would be very small. By contrast, when the result is reached from 50 state ballots, each operating under local and variable rules, the only surprise is that crises can be averted.