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’s that you say? You didn’t know there was a user’s guide to the Constitution?
Well, obviously SOMEBODY wasn’t paying attention in Civics class. Either that, or you’re one of the unfortunate millions who never had the opportunity to study civics – but that’s a different post for a different day.
Let’s begin with a little history. Our Constitution didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Neither did it arrive at the National Archives in the same manner that Moses received the Ten Commandments. (I’m only half being tongue-in-cheek about that; one of my younger acquaintances honestly thought that God himself gave the Constitution to George Washington in a burning ring of fire. And we wonder why the country is heading off the rails?) In fact, our current Constitution wasn’t even the first one The United States used. That honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation. It’s in there that some of the quirkier aspects of our national government can be found: the idea of state representation, as opposed to popular representation for instance. It went into effect in 1781 and was quickly realized that it made the federal government too weak to be effective. The principle reason we scrapped it is as old as the fight for American Independence: taxes.
The USA incurred serious debts while fighting off the British Empire, primarily owed to the French. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the US officially became an independent nation, the French – who were near broke themselves (this was the time of “Let them eat cake”, after all) – came looking for their money. The French King was quite accommodating: the new United States could pay up in gold and silver, or could hand over land from the former British Colonies. Not willing to give up the territory we had just fought over for the past 8 years, the Continental Congress passed excise duties in order to pay the debt. Great idea, except under the Articles of Confederation, any state could opt out – and 11 of them did. Just to compound matters, most of the states had individual liabilities resulting from the war, mostly due to the French crown as well. So, they passed taxes and tariffs on each other to pay off those debts. By 1787, the entire country was readying for civil war as each state asserted its rights under the Articles and a hapless Congress could only look on in despair.
Enter the Constitutional Convention. In February of 1787, rather than go to war with one another (thankfully), the states agreed to a redo on how the federal government should operate. Originally, 70 people were selected to attend. Only 55 actually did and of those, only 39 signed on to the new Constitution. It was understandable: most had shown up expecting a sort of massive peace negotiation, not a negotiation about scrapping the current government and replacing it with something entirely different. Rhode Island was so upset by the idea that they recalled all of their representatives. The new Constitution, even after weeks of negotiating, was hardly a hit: as mentioned, 16 representatives refused to sign, including some fairly big names of the day. Imagine if we decided to reboot under a new Constitution today and the current Speaker and Vice-President refused to lend their support to the document. That was the same effect that George Wythe (Virginia) and John Lansing (NY) not signing had in 1787. And that was just the beginning of the trouble getting the Constitution ratified: popular support was anything but forthcoming. Just like today, a document that is amazingly short proved to be incredibly difficult for the populace to comprehend.
That’s where our user guide comes in play. The two principle architects of the Constitution, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York engaged in a series of letters that sought to explain how the Constitution affected everyone: from vagabond to Senator; scullery maid to Governor. Today, we know these letters as the Federalist Papers. These 85 letters, most commonly published as essays on what equates to our modern op-ed pages of the popular newspapers of the time, provided the Founding Father’s actual vision for how the Federal government is supposed to act.
It is the quintessential user’s guide. Like any good instruction manual, it lays out – in detail – how each branch of government should interact, not only with one another but also with the states and the general population. So next time you have a question about why something is set up the way it is, hit that link and review the reasons before going off half-cocked.