In the first decade of the 19th century, the Federalists became the first major American political party to keel over and die. Led by such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, the party was done in—or rather, it did itself in—largely through internal squabbling and managerial incompetence.
At the heart of this disintegration, however, was the Federalists’ increasingly unpopular theory about government, which argued—in a nutshell—that America ought to be run by a select group of intellectual elites—a “natural aristocracy,” as it were—who were smarter, wiser and nobler than the public at large. They viewed ordinary citizens as an unsophisticated “mob” prone to irrational, violent outbursts, whose opinions, therefore, should be neither sought nor heeded in matters of great national importance.
In short, the Federalist Party didn’t really believe in democracy—not directly, anyway—and felt the country would function just fine without it.
In light of this year’s party nominating contests, I think this would be the perfect time to consider whether they were right all along.
A boatload of Republicans certainly seems to think so. Having seen GOP primary voters anoint Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee, a great many officials are still entertaining the possibility—however remote—that the party will stage a coup at the upcoming Cleveland convention by somehow stripping Trump of the nomination and handing it to somebody—anybody!—else.
The immediate rationale for this would-be hostile takeover is that Trump could not possibly defeat Hillary Clinton in November, and since political parties have no greater duty than to win elections, this entitles the so-called Republican establishment to take matters into its own hands by overruling the will of the people and hoping all goes well.
The implication is clear: Given the choice, it is better to win with a candidate whom primary voters did not choose than to lose with a candidate whom they did. The democratic process may be all well and good, but when push comes to shove, all that really matters is victory.
It has been theorized that had the GOP copied the Democrats and introduced “superdelegates” into the mix, Trump may well have been overtaken by some other candidate. In truth, based on Trump’s lead in “pledged” delegates at the time his rivals dropped out, it’s unlikely that a superdelegate revolt would’ve been enough to produce its desired effect.
But let’s grant the premise, anyway, and suppose that a) the GOP elite succeeds in removing Trump from the race, and b) the replacement nominee actually defeats Hillary Clinton in the fall. Would we consider that fair? Would it signify that the system “works”? Would it reflect the sort of country we want to be or, rather, would it suggest that democracy, as we know it, is a mere figment of our imagination?
The answers might seem obvious to us—namely, that the above would be a clear perversion of the principles of representative government and a big, fat middle finger to Republican voters from a party leadership that views them with patronizing contempt.
By today’s standards, yeah, that’s about the size of it. By definition, if the party decides, the country does not.
However, by dismissing such tactics as brazenly undemocratic—and, by implication, blatantly un-American—is to ignore almost the entirety of American history and the U.S. Constitution along with it.
Although political parties have existed for almost as long as the country itself, our founding documents conspicuously omit mention of presidential primaries—possibly because they didn’t exist until 1904. For the first century of the American presidency, nominees were selected not by a state-by-state popular vote, but rather by—you guessed it!—a group of party elites, acting on nothing but their own superior wisdom and, presumably, a series of crooked backroom deals. In this preliminary stage of presidential campaigns, the “will of the people” was not yet a thing.
What’s more, once primaries were formally introduced, it soon became clear that the results were not exactly binding: However the rabble voted, delegates went right on choosing whomever their hearts desired—based, again, on which candidate might actually win the election. Indeed, it was as recently as 1968 that the Democratic Party selected a nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who had not even competed in direct primaries, but who nonetheless secured enough delegates from non-voting states to jump the line past such candidates as Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, who had taken the trouble to actually campaign.
Was the 1968 Democratic nominating contest an electoral farce? According to us in the present, yes, of course it was. (Plenty of folks thought so then, too.) However, when compared to all previous primaries up to that point, the shenanigans that produced Humphrey were essentially par for the course. What mattered to the party was not how its voters felt at the time, but rather how the entire electorate might feel in the first week in November.
Until very, very recently, that is how American democracy functioned: From the top down, with the public playing an exceedingly minor role in how our leaders are chosen. Even today, the existence and idiosyncrasies of the Electoral College dictate that the country install the people’s choice for commander-in-chief only after all other options have been exhausted.
The rationale for this is rooted in an admirably straightforward assumption: On the whole, the American people are a bunch of idiots and rubes whose ability to choose a leader is no more informed than a toddler’s ability to land a jetliner.
Now that the rise of Donald Trump has lent real credence to that theory, we are forced to confront whether unfettered democracy—that is, a direct primary that cannot be overturned by superdelegates or anyone else—is simply too dangerous for the continuing health of the republic and the world at large.
Our system has institutional checks for when our leaders lose their minds and put the entire country at risk. Why shouldn’t we retain similar checks for when voters behave the same way?