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April 14, 2016

Those complaining about the “undemocratic” nature of the delegate selection processes in the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination contests seem to be suggesting that political parties should choose their nominees in open primaries, awarding each candidate delegates proportionate to their percentage of the popular vote, and awarding the nomination to the candidate that wins the most delegates. Some would likely favor simply awarding the nomination to the candidate who racks up the most popular votes across all the primaries. Or, maybe the most “democratic” way would be to require the winner to earn the support of a majority of delegates and/or popular votes nationally. No matter how you slice it, the recent popularity of fevered indictments of our parties’ nomination processes emanate from a misguided understanding of the function and value of political parties in our political system.

Political parties have long been a popular whipping boy for just about everyone in American politics, primarily because they can’t really fight back and because everyone sooner or later can score political points by running them down. The thing is, well organized political parties are all that really stand between a rational, functional representative democracy and …well… something much less rational and functional.

Why do so many Americans accept so readily and uncritically the notion that the leaders and loyal members of political parties, those long and consistently engaged in political advocacy guided by their party’s principles and interests, should be glad to cede entirely the power to choose their party’s nominees to whoever shows up to vote in primary elections? Why have the concepts of peer review and knowledge-based vetting of potential nominees become so unpopular? Is the handiwork of the Framers of the Constitution so unfamiliar to these self-appointed guardians of democracy that they cannot fathom the utility of combining the delegate and trustee models of representation in party nomination processes?

Echoing the Framers intent in the bicameral design of the national legislature, the Democratic Party divides the power to choose party nominees between representatives of the will of those who vote in primaries and caucuses (pledged delegates) and longtime party leaders, officials, and former leaders and officials (super delegates). The intent is balance; balance between the twin virtues of consent and wisdom. It is about employing a decision making process that is wise and flexible enough to account for unusual circumstances, but not dismissive of popular sentiment, reflective of popular will, but not susceptible to the pathologies of what the Framers called “excessive democracy.” The objective is the nomination of a candidate who is both popular enough to win a general election AND who represents the principles, policies, and priorities of the party.

Does anyone in their right mind think that Donald Trump is popular enough to win in the fall and committed to GOP principles, policies, and priorities? Trump is a walking, fast talking, very clear argument for the wisdom and virtue of the Democratic Party’s use of super delegates to check and balance the choice of delegates bound by primary and caucus results.

Democratic Super Delegates provide informed guidance to voters throughout the process and though they retain the formal authority to ignore the pledged delegate totals when casting their own votes for the party standard bearer, they also have clear political incentives to use their votes to ratify the choice of pledged delegates unless a grossly unfit nominee has managed to hijack the nomination or changed circumstances have rendered the pledged delegates choice unfit and/or un-electable. It’s hard to see what is so offensive and undemocratic about this arrangement once you consider it in the historical context of AMERICAN democracy, rather than an over-simplified abstract notion of democracy.

It seems to me that the folks attacking the party nomination processes in both parties have shown themselves to be “fair weather” democratic purists at best. Political decision making processes designed to produce democratically accountable and substantively appropriate results are particularly appropriate in our hyper-competitive and polarized political environment; an environment that clearly incentivizes a flexible relationship, to say the least, between one’s principals and interests. Rhetorical attacks on super delegates by self-interested actors are reflective of willful ignorance, while the broad and uncritical acceptance of these claims by the media and the general public reflects political and historical ignorance and highlights the urgent need for better civic education in America.

Super Delegates, American Democracy

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