Politics & Policy

Our Presidential Nomination Process Is an Embarrassing Mess

Hillary Clinton arrives to deliver her nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. (Reuters photo: Gary Cameron)
Democrats plan to limit the role of superdelegates, but both parties need more checks on the popular will, not fewer.

Last week, the “Unity Reform Commission,” a Democratic panel designed to make reform recommendations in the wake of the 2016 nomination, voted overwhelmingly to limit the role of “superdelegates” in Democrats’ nomination process. Superdelegates are party officials or elected officials who get to vote at the convention even though they were not selected by voters in primaries or caucuses.

Created in the wake of the 1970s, when vast regional and ideological differences divided the Democratic party, superdelegates were supposed to correct any errors that the voters might have made. But they have come under fire recently, so the Democrats are looking to make a nomination process that is much more democratic. Republicans, for their part, bind their own superdelegates (who themselves were not that numerous to begin with) to vote the way their states’ voters did.

The trend toward an unadulterated democratic nomination process therefore continues apace. I think this is a major mistake, for both parties. The process by which presidential candidates are chosen is theoretically impoverished and clearly producing bad nominees. Too much democracy, in this case, is a bad thing.

While the Founding Fathers were radical republicans, most were not really democrats, in the contemporary understanding of the word. They believed that popular sovereignty was the only firm and just basis for durable government, but they doubted the capacity of the people at large to rule directly in many situations.

For instance, in a letter to Gouverneur Morris in 1777, Alexander Hamilton argued that democracy had often been “unstable” because the democratic principle had been “made to operate in an improper channel.” When certain executive and judicial offices were chosen by the people at large, rather than by “the deliberate wisdom of a select assembly,” the result was too often “error, confusion, and instability.”

James Madison defended representative government along similar lines in Federalist No. 10. The advantage of a representative assembly is that it can “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Representatives can still speak for the people, but in a way that “will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.”

This is why the Constitution, as originally drafted, did not establish any hereditary offices, but also gave the people direct sway over one half of one branch (the House of Representatives). It was a republican, but not a democratic, charter.

The parties, as they were originally designed, were not democratic, either. In fact, they were intended to follow the same lines that Madison and Hamilton had used to defend representation: a way to refine and enlarge public views. The early parties were private organizations that put together platforms, nominated candidates, organized the legislature, and made a public argument to channel and guide public opinion, so that it could have greater sway over government. The parties were not supposed to be indistinguishable from the public.

As the 19th century wore on, the parties were decentralized, and opportunities for participation in party politics were expanded to include average Americans. However, they were never really democratized. They were institutions that stood outside both the government and the public at large, with the ideal being that they mobilized the latter to sway the former.

The problem was that this organization was corrupt in several respects. Urban political machines misused the administrative authority of local governments to keep their favored politicians in power. On a federal level, such patronage was outlawed starting in the 1880s, but the parties (especially the Republican party) became captured by the industrial trusts.

Progressives in the early 20th century argued that a tonic to this corruption was democratization. If the party organizations wielded their power in an anti-republican fashion, then that authority should be handed over to the people — especially in the form of primaries. Party organizations were more or less able to stave off this development on a presidential level between the 1920s and 1970s, but it proved ineluctable. So, whereas once the parties were independent, private organizations meant to influence popular majorities, they are now themselves subject to the whims of those majorities.

I think this has been a bad development, particularly on the presidential level. There are several problems.

The parties are now subject to the whims of majorities. I think this has been a bad development.

First, presidential nominating processes sample too heavily from the “high demanders” in politics. Well-heeled donors and other interests that have pressing business before the government are more likely to contribute to campaigns, skewing presidential nominations toward business interests. The incentive structures inherent to cable news reward those candidates who say outrageous things, and thus capture the most attention. Passionate social movements are most likely to give a boost to candidates who favor their interests over others, or even the general welfare.

Second, we do not even have a well-reasoned conception of democracy for these contests. A single-shot democratic election is more likely to reflect the views of the electorate when there are just two candidates. But the larger the field is, the more likely that no candidate gets to half-plus-one, and therefore the more likely that we have a situation akin to “plurality rule” instead of “majority rule.” In American general elections, the two major parties serve a winnowing function, reducing the number of reasonable alternatives down to two. Yet what about primaries where three or more viable candidates compete, and the ultimate winner gets less than half the vote? Does this person reflect the interests of the voters, or just some minority, particularly the “high demanders”?

This has happened several times in presidential nominating battles over the last few cycles — 2016 on the GOP side, and 2008 on the Democratic and Republican side. Can the winners of those contests truly be said to represent the interests and views of a majority, let alone the whole, of the party electorate? If not, why do they get to be the nominees rather than somebody else who would be a better fit?

There are, of course, ways to handle this situation. Instant-runoff elections, for instance, can produce a candidate who does, in some sense, represent the interests of a majority. The problem is that neither party seems even aware that this is a real problem in a republican form of government. Instead, too often I see party leaders shrug their shoulders and conclude, “The people have spoken,” when in fact they really have not.

Hamilton had a point: Some offices are just too important to leave to the people at large.

Third, I dispute that the people by themselves can be relied upon to nominate candidates for the presidential office. In my judgment, the top three finishers in 2016 among the two parties — Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders — were manifestly unfit characters to serve as commander in chief. Hamilton had a point: Some offices are just too important to leave to the people at large. It is advisable instead to find some wise, virtuous, and public-spirited intermediate body that will channel the interests of the people into a slate of candidates who can represent the true welfare of the nation.

The progressives were right to disdain the party organizations of the 19th century, but they were too sanguine about the capacity of the people to serve as a substitute. Call me an antiquarian, but I think democracy is overpraised these days, and the Framers were right that too much of it is actually a danger to republican government. What we need instead are party organizations that are not corrupted by money, patronage, and extremism, that can somehow filter the choices in such a way to exclude obviously unfit characters.

Yet as the Democratic party’s decision to further reduce the power of the superdelegates attests, I am in a distinct minority. The two parties’ nomination systems are frankly embarrassments to self-government, but both sides are intent on doing more of the same. My guess is that this will continue to produce extreme, unrepresentative, and unfit nominees for the most powerful office in the world.


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Jay Cost is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.


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