Ever since getting blown out in Wisconsin, Donald Trump has been hollering about the way we select presidential candidates, calling it unfair, or deriding it as a “rigged system.” Sure enough, the left-of-center pundits and writers who support him, and most of the misguided people who’ve pledged their allegiance to the “Trump Train,” have suddenly decided that a system that’s been around almost as long as the United States is fundamentally flawed. I shouldn’t be surprised. The typical Trumpster also tends to think the US Constitution is terribly flawed and no longer relevant.
The delegate system is based on the same idea that fueled the adoption of our Constitution. That is, the best system of governance is a representative republic, with semi-autonomous states sharing power with a centralized national government. As conceived by the men who gave us our Constitution, the office of President was not to be directly entrusted to the general populace. Rather, they conceived the idea of electors being chosen by the people. The electors would then choose the President. They had two reasons for this, both outlined in Federalist 68. The first is that the general populace can be easily swayed by emotional appeals to our baser instincts. As Alexander Hamilton noted, “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.” The second was they understood the vast majority of citizens are not active politically, nor are they as attuned to the issues and policies as their brethren who are politically active. Their decision was that by entrusting the selection of Chief Executive to a group of people who were politically active, they were ensuring that the gravitas of the position was honored. Yet at the same time, because the electors were selected by the citizenry, the people’s voice would be heard. Hamilton, again: “… the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
I realize this conception of how our political system was created will confound most of you. After all, you’ve heard since childhood that the United States is a democracy. Every politician declares it during every speech. Most sadly, we’re taught in school that because we vote, we’re a democracy. Some people are taught that we’re a representative democracy; that our votes go to elect representatives who are supposed to vote the way we want them to. That’s also incorrect! We are a representative republic. We elect representatives. The representatives we elect are then to debate and vote on the issues and policies as best they see fit. The decisions they reach are not bound by any measure to popular will. We then can decide if we approve of those decisions at re-election time. There have been occasions – quite a few, actually – when a representative has defied popular will in the votes they cast. One of the most celebrated books of the 20th century, Profiles in Courage, highlights eight such occasions that profoundly changed the history of our nation.
Our founders were against the idea of political parties, but their creation is a natural outgrowth of politics. It’s only natural that people who share similar views and goals would coalesce into groups working towards implementing those ideas into law and policy. Even in our nascent stages, the republic soon found itself being divided into political parties. The very men who were opposed to the idea of political parties were creating them. As those parties formed, they began to decide on which candidates for office would receive the backing of the party – including candidates for President. Should it be a surprise that they adopted a similar system for choosing their candidates as the one outlined in the Constitution?
Of course not. Many of you seem surprised at the notion that the popular vote doesn’t decide who a party’s nominee for political office. In order to understand why this is, you need to realize that prior to 1972, most states didn’t even have primary elections. Those that did, did not “bind” their delegates to vote for any particular candidate. The delegates, in most cases, were selected at state conventions. In the remainder, delegates were directly chosen during a caucus. In either case, the general public was barred from attending: only members of the party could choose their delegates. And quite often, the national party conventions did not resolve the issue of who the Presidential nominee would be on the first ballot of delegates. It seems to me that the system worked rather well. In the case of the Republicans, the convention chaos resulted in some pretty momentous choices; men who went on to become some of our most consequential Presidents. Lincoln (3rd ballot), Harding (10th), and Eisenhower (2nd) were all the products of contested/brokered conventions. In fact, during the 1952 convention Robert Taft accused Eisenhower of “stealing” delegates that were supposedly his. That led to the adoption of the “Fair Play” rule. In an ironic twist, it is that rule which Trump is using to accuse Cruz and Kasich of “stealing” delegates this year.
The liberalization of the nomination process began in 1972, in the aftermath of the riots at the Chicago and Miami party conventions in 1968. Most states adopted primaries, many opened those primaries up to the general public (no party affiliation required) and states bound the delegates chosen to reflect the popular vote at the convention for at least the first ballot. Only a few states opted to remain with caucuses or conventions selecting their delegates. And only one state does not bind any of their delegates, while several have a mix of bound and unbound delegates. The desired effect, the nominee being chosen by popular affirmation, has been achieved. Indeed, only the 1976 Republican and 1980 Democratic conventions have offered any drama, although in both cases the insurgent candidate was defeated between the end of the primaries and the convention.
Since the liberalization of the nomination process, consider the men nominated by the popular vote: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Dole, George W. Bush, and Romney. Only one of those men could be considered consequential in a positive manner. Only 3 of them have managed to win the Presidency, and two of those left office with the country in far worse shape than when they entered. If we were to change anything as regards candidate selection, I would prefer we return to closed caucuses and conventions without general public input. You may call it “undemocratic,” but the objective is to find the best candidate; to find people who can represent the values of the party and lead the nation. The general public has demonstrated exactly what the founders feared: an incredible ability to choose the very worst people for the most important job in the world.
Consider the roll call of Presidents since 1972 and see if you can actually dispute that. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, GHW Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama have been elected as President. One was forced from office, another was impeached. Both Bushes left the nation economically in tatters. Carter is best remembered for his failures, while Obama is ending his Presidency with his signature achievement about to go belly up and the nation slipping back towards recession. Only Reagan managed to accomplish anything of note, but even his accomplishments have proven to be short-lived. Even ending the Cold War hasn’t lasted; today we’re faced with a resurgent and belligerent Russia and China.
You might also argue that by returning a system by which party insiders, we would be disenfranchising you. I don’t think so. Remember, the nominee is supposed to represent the party, not the general populace. I know many people who call themselves Republican or Democrat, but the reality is, they only are on election day, and often only on Presidential Election day. The other 1,460 days of the election cycle they do absolutely nothing to support the party. It’s kind of like telling people you’re a member of the cast of your favorite TV show, because you can quote some dialogue and know all the characters. In other words, if you want a say in who a party nominates, it would mean actually getting involved in the political system. Simply voting is a privilege of being a citizen. Performing the actual duties of citizenship – canvassing for candidates, raising funds, perhaps serving in local government, attending party meetings – these are also ways of becoming involved with a party at the local level. Not incidentally, it’s also how you become more acquainted with the political system.
In this year when so many of you seem more interested in blowing up the system, rather than putting in the individual effort to make it “work,” it’s also the best way to change the things about the system you don’t like. And who knows? Maybe, instead of whiners-in-chief, we can actually get back to commanders-in-chief, to Senators who worry more about representing their states than the national party committee and Representatives with more than graft on their minds.
What spurred me to write about this topic was a recent Facebook discussion I had with an old and respected friend, who opined that he thought political leaders over the past twenty years or so were subjected to more slanderous accusations, ridicule and disrespect than at any time in our history. I might have dismissed that comment, except it seems to be a popular sentiment these days. Whether the cries to denounce comparisons to “Nazis” after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, complaints by members of Congress regarding ethnic and racial slurs used against them, or statements by people like my friend, there seems to be an overriding sense that politics today has become far too personal. Popular sentiment is that unlike our history, we’re a nation more polarized and more willing to use the most vicious ad hominem attacks in place of reasoned debate than ever before.
Such sentiment may be popular, but it is incorrect. Defaming public figures is an American tradition that is older than the Republic – one can find newspaper articles and pamphlets pre-dating the Revolution that disparage, often in the most personal terms, some of the most famous Americans in history. Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” 1 Although Jefferson wrote those words in 1814, the reality is vulgarity and mendacity were hardly new to politics, even at that young age for the nation. As an example, in 1798 Alexander Hamilton published the pamphlet Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. In it, Hamilton not only defames Adams’ character (among other things, he asserts that Adams is “a drunkard, the type for whom sound judgement <sic> deserts at the first drop of whiskey.”2). Of course, six years later Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton would be killed by Vice President Aaron Burr – a duel sparked by Hamilton’s characterization of Burr as, among other things, corrupt and treasonous; even going so far as to actually recommend assassination should Burr win the Federalist Party nomination for President.
The election of 1824 gave rise to “The Corrupt Bargain,” but was nothing compared to the vindictiveness and nastiness exhibited in 1828. Andrew Jackson was portrayed by John Quincy Adams as an adulterous murderer(and you thought Bill Clinton had it tough), while Jackson and his camp gleefully heaped charges of prostitution, elitism and corruption on Adams. The slander reached levels not seen since, as the “Coffin Handbills” were widely distributed and Jackson’s wife was accused of bigamy. The attacks were so vicious that Mrs. Jackson fell ill and later died as a result. In 1840, the winning campaign of William Harrison completely avoided the issues of the day (including the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history, to that date), focusing instead on comparing the personalities of Harrison and Martin Van Buren. (Although Van Buren tried to make an issue of Harrison’s age, it went nowhere. The nation should have listened – Harrison served the shortest term in history after falling ill during his Inauguration.) And of course, Abraham Lincoln faced the worst kind of personal attack when ½ the country decided they would rather secede than accept him as President.
Personal attacks haven’t always been limited to the Executive Branch, either. Indeed the mudslinging on the floors of the Congress and Senate have even occasionally led to outright brawls. The first occurred in 1798, between Roger Griswold (Ct.) and Matthew Lyon (Vt.). Griswold, upset about charges of cowardice from Lyon, took it upon himself to whack Lyon with his hickory walking stick. Of course, it should be noted that Lyon didn’t help calm the situation when he spat at Griswold. Both men were later censured by the House. In 1856, Andrew Sumner (Ma.) took the floor to deliver a diatribe against Preston Brooks’ (SC) father-in-law. In a scathing bit of oratory, Sumner alleged Brooks’ in-law kept a mistress “who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him.” 3 The result was less brawl than mugging: Brooks beat Sumner to within an inch of his life, using his cane; as other members of the Senate attempted to aid Sumner, Laurence Keitt (SC) bayed them at pistol-point. Keitt was hardly a stranger to fisticuffs on the House floor. Two years later, he took exception to Galusha Grow’s (Pa.) calling him a “negro driver” and attempted to strangle Grow – on the House floor. The result was the largest melee ever seen in Congress, involving at least 50 Representatives.
These are just some of the more outrageous examples of how political slander has been a part of our discourse since the days of the Founding Fathers. In fact, you can argue that if anything, politicians today face less derision than their predecessors. The next time somebody you know complains about our leaders being treated like Rodney Dangerfield, feel free to whip out one of these juicy tidbits – and invite them to pay more attention in history class.
- Excerpted from “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” edited by Lipscomb & Bergh, published 1903. The excerpt is from a letter written to Walter Jones in 1814.
- As excepted in the Philadelphia Aurora, June 12, 1800.
- Detailed in “The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner“, Senate Historical Office, US Senate.