Barack Obama and the Tyranny of the Majority

Joseph M. Knippenberg

February 1, 2008

The latest front in the hard-fought battle over the Democratic nomination centers on the so-called “superdelegates,” office-holders and party officials who are supposed to exercise their independent judgment in selecting the person best suited to carry the party’s banner in the fall election. With her long history in the party, Hillary Rodham Clinton had counted on their support as she moved toward the convention, hoping that they would put her over the top if both she and her opponent lacked a clear majority.

But Barack Obama is challenging her hold on the superdelegate vote, arguing, above all else, that they shouldn’t defy the wishes of “the people,” as they have expressed themselves in the primaries and caucuses. The superdelegates, he insists, should ratify the voices of the voters, rather than correct or control them. For these political professionals to exercise a judgment independent of the electoral process is to return to the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” (now smoke-free, of course) where party bosses acted without any concern for what “the people” thought.

Now, I don’t know how a truly independent superdelegate might make up his or her mind. Perhaps Senator Clinton’s long-time service to the party and experience in public affairs would lead him or her to conclude that she’d make an excellent president. Or maybe Senator Obama’s capacity to mobilize and energize new constituencies would persuade him or her that prospects for recapturing the White House are better with him at the head of the ticket. As I said, I don’t know what sorts of considerations particular individuals would bring to bear.

What I do know is that when the Democrats created the superdelegate positions, they intended for party professionals to have an independent voice in the selection of the nominee. Their legitimate concern was that a candidate-centered nominating process—with primaries and caucuses open to anyone who, if only for the day, called himself or herself a Democrat—would leave the party exposed to insurgencies that either promised a general election disaster or didn’t reflect the core principles and identity of the party. If party identification is to mean anything, so the thinking went, those most closely identified with the party ought to have a voice in selecting its nominee. This voice would help assure that the party’s fall standard-bearer was genuinely a party man or woman, capable of working with Democrats on Capitol Hill or in the states to achieve common goals.

The intent, in other words, wasn’t simply to ratify the decision of primary voters and caucus-goers. If that’s all they had to do or were permitted to do, the superdelegate positions would be pointless or superfluous.

The Obama campaign’s argument that superdelegates shouldn’t exercise their judgment independent of the voters can be understood in two ways. Perhaps it’s “merely” a political move to prevent Senator Clinton from snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. If the argument works, if the superdelegates are persuaded to join, or intimidated into joining, the pro-Obama chorus, then that’s all there is to it. He and his people didn’t mean anything serious by it; they just did what they had to do and said what they had to say to win the nomination. Of course, this makes Obama just another politician, but then only a politician would seek the presidency.

An alternative interpretation of Obama’s argument is that he really means it, that he really believes that in almost every instance the wishes of the people—simple democracy—ought to trump any countervailing tendency. Democracy ought to trump the “original intent” of those who drafted the rules creating the superdelegate positions. And it ought to trump the independent judgments of party professionals about electability, party orthodoxy, or the promise of sound execution of the office.

If he really means what he says—and perhaps even if he doesn’t—we’ve learned something valuable about the shape and tone of an Obama Administration. In the first place, the “original intent” underlying laws, rules, and constitutional provisions doesn’t matter very much. Rules should always, or almost always, be interpreted so as to facilitate the wishes of the people, presumably as interpreted by President Obama. They shouldn’t be barriers to those wishes, intended to compel the creation of a wider consensus or the thoughtful reconsideration of popular passions. This is a step away from constitutional democracy in the direction of something more like plebiscitary democracy.

Of course, there’s at least one major caveat here. There’s no evidence that Senator Obama would, as president, dispense with the protections for minorities enshrined in the judicial interpretation or the plain language of the Constitution. He did, after all, teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

In some sense, however, this is precisely the problem. His position is a popularized version of “state of the art” academic constitutional theory, which holds that the purpose of the Constitution is, above all, to facilitate and maximize popular participation and popular sovereignty. On this understanding, judges are tribunes of the people, guardians of the democratic will against the undemocratic distortions embodied in imperfect institutions. The default position of judicial interpretation should favor more democratic participation, against the “undemocratic” aspect of our institutions. To be sure, judges will protect the rights and interests of “discrete and insular minorities,” a function that could also be understood to protect and perfect a kind of democracy.

But this theory elevates a kind of popular participation—as interpreted by those, like Obama, who claim to speak for the people—at the expense of genuine deliberation by the people’s representatives. Once “the people have spoken,” there’s little or no room for conversations among their elected representatives, aimed at building a broader consensus or accommodating political minorities that, because they’re not “discrete and insular,” haven’t received judicial protection. Once “the people have spoken,” their representatives aren’t supposed to use their better judgment or information to aim for a result different from and better than what the people think they want.

I can imagine a President Obama using his popularity as a bludgeon against those who disagree with him. How dare a senator or member of Congress disagree with someone whose polling numbers are through the roof or who outperformed them among their own constituents in the last election?

Of course, someone might respond that this is just ordinary politics. Precisely. Obama’s theory—if in fact it is even that—holds that there’s nothing more than democratic politics, no responsibility to the common good except as mediated through or defined by the wishes of the people. This is surely “democracy,” but not liberal democracy or constitutional democracy in the best American tradition. On this view, institutions exist only to reflect the will of the people, not to refine or instruct it. Democratic leadership is really democratic followership.

But, we might be told, Obama is no ordinary democratic politician. He doesn’t strike the pose of a tribunician class warrior, upholding the voice of the people against the elites; instead of demonizing those with whom he disagrees, he professes to respect them and wishes to converse with them. His unique biography makes him open to the other and willing to accommodate and negotiate differences.

To this line of argument there are two responses. The first is that beneath Obama’s gentle, sympathetic, and accommodating exterior beats the heart of a class warrior. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger characterizing the substance of a recent Obama speech:

Listen closely to that Tuesday night Wisconsin speech. Unhinge yourself from the mesmerizing voice. What one hears is a message that is largely negative, illustrated with anecdotes of unremitting bleakness. Heavy with class warfare, it is a speech that could have been delivered by a Democrat in 1968, or even 1928.

Here is the edited version, stripped of the flying surfboard:

“Our road will not be easy… the cynics… where lobbyists write check after check and Exxon turns record profits… That’s what happens when lobbyists set the agenda… It’s a game where trade deals like Nafta ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart… It’s a game… CEO bonuses… while another mother goes without health care for her sick child… We can’t keep driving a wider and wider gap between the few who are rich and the rest who struggle to keep pace… even if they’re not rich…”

Here’s his America: “lies awake at night wondering how he’s going to pay the bills… she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can’t afford health care for a sister who’s ill… the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt… the teacher who works at Dunkin’ Donuts after school just to make ends meet… I was not born into money or status… I’ve fought to bring jobs to the jobless in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant… to make sure people weren’t denied their rights because of what they looked like or where they came from… Now we carry our message to farms and factories.”

It ends: “We can cast off our doubts and fears and cynicism because our dream will not be deferred; our future will not be denied; and our time for change has come.”

On this interpretation, there are class enemies in Obama’s America, and they are the staples of Democratic rhetoric: the corporate bosses who put profit above people’s needs.

A second way of responding is to point to the way in which the safety of Obama’s position relies so heavily on his attractive personal characteristics. Because he’s uniquely qualified to interpret, respond to, and represent the wishes of a disparate people, we’re told, we can be safe when he does so. We don’t need the ordinary checks and balances of republican institutions because we have this uniquely empathetic, sympathetic, thoughtful, and respectful individual in the Oval Office. We can trust him to engage with those with whom he needs to engage and respect those who deserve respect. We can trust him to arrive on his own at a “deliberate sense” of the public good.

And I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. No human being is as good and virtuous as Obama’s supporters think he is. The reason we need deliberative institutions, with representatives who aren’t immediately subject to public opinion and barriers to the fulfillment of both popular and elite passions, is that, as James Madison once put it, men aren’t angels. Not even Obama.

In the end, this spat over the status and views of the Democratic superdelegates is very telling. What it tells me is that a President Obama, with his devoted supporters, would have a hard time resisting the temptation of democratic demagoguery, of acting on behalf of a tyrannical majority. He wouldn’t care much for “original intent” or for institutions that stood in the way of his doing for “the people” what he thought they wanted. He might have the best of intentions. But the price we would pay would be a further devaluation of the currency of small “r” republicanism, whose central features are rights, responsible representation, and a thoughtful concern with the public good (as against public passions).

I could be wrong, of course. Barack Obama could be an ordinary politician, interested only in seizing every advantage he can in the mundane battle for his party’s nomination. If that were the case, I would, in a sense, be relieved.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.