Democratic Republicanism in the Primaries, Part I

Joseph M. Knippenberg

May 1, 2008

One of the benefits of this extended and contentious primary season is the way in which it has brought to the surface a number of issues connected with our electoral processes. Although it’s possible to dwell on the virtues and vices of the candidates and their campaigns, we also have the opportunity to think through and learn about our peculiar form (or forms) of democratic republicanism.

Take, for example, the Democratic “superdelegates”—elected officials and party leaders who have convention votes without having been chosen or directly instructed by the primaries or caucuses. These are the quintessential party regulars, apparently given a voice in the nominating process so that party considerations would be heard along with the individualistic claims of candidate nominating organizations. That was the theory, at least. But we’ve heard plenty of arguments about how they can’t or shouldn’t defy or reverse the results of the more “democratic” processes whereby delegates have been chosen. Some have told us, for example, that they have to vote the way the people in their districts have voted, else (apparently) their representative function would be compromised. There’s an implicit theory of representation at work here: when the people have spoken—even the relatively small percentage who vote in primaries—it isn’t the place of the representative to defy them, even if he or she might personally arrive at a different judgment about what’s good for the party or good for the country. Taken to its logical conclusion, this theory makes the existence of superdelegates superfluous. Their votes should be dictated by the results in their districts or states, not by any personal experience or judgment they may possess. To be a superdelegate is just to have an automatic ticket to the convention, not an independent voice in the nominating process.

Along the same lines, we’ve also heard arguments that it would be illegitimate for the superdelegates to vote in such a way as to alter the outcome, even if no one has won a majority of the delegates. The votes that really count are those determined by the primaries and caucuses, not those that are earned by virtue of years of public and party service.

The notion of representation at work here belonged at the time of our Founding to the Anti-Federalists, some of whom argued that it was the responsibility of representatives to mirror the views of their constituencies. Democracy meant, they said, the rule of the people, and the people would rule only if those who exercised power on their behalf were kept on a very short leash. If they thought for themselves, if they acted somewhat independently of their constituents’ views, they wouldn’t pursue a common good, but rather a private good distinct from, and likely opposed to, that of those who elected them.

Underlying this argument was a mistrust of the “high and mighty”—those accomplished or distinguished enough to win election to office—if not of human nature altogether. The Anti-Federalists thought that those at the top had interests different from, and at variance with, those lower on the social scale and, unless subjected to constant scrutiny, would pursue them at the expense of ordinary people. If there was such a thing as public-spiritedness, it didn’t reside at the top, or at least wasn’t so regularly or powerfully present there as to be relied upon for the people’s safety.

The Federalists offered a complicated response, asking, on the one hand, whether self-seeking is limited only to the upper classes and arguing, on the other, that virtuous and public-spirited individuals worthy of our confidence and our votes can be found in a variety of social settings. In their view, the “factious” pursuit of one’s own interest was ubiquitous, but that didn’t prevent some from being able to cultivate and display political virtues or others from being able to recognize and reward them. Political virtue needed institutional help and political vice needed institutional safeguards. Thus the Federalists favored a republican form of government that put some distance between voters and their representatives, making it as hard as possible for someone closely identified with a particular factious interest to win election and laying the foundation for political leaders to have to become, at least, coalition-builders in order to win office. Our political system would work best, the Federalists thought, when representatives had some distance from the people they represented. That distance would enable them to encompass more interests and attempt to balance them as part of a bigger picture.

I’d be the last person to argue that either political party should organize itself as a microcosm of our democratic republic, but it does seem to me that the “original intention” behind the proposal for superdelegates was more “Federalist” than “Anti-Federalist,” more cognizant of the pitfalls of political passion than friendly to candidate-centered campaigns whose principal purpose is to mobilize that passion.

It was, I think, a sound intention. Consider this: if we leave aside the claim that “the people have spoken,” there are two sorts of arguments that might be deployed to sway the votes of superdelegates. The first is substantive, focusing on the candidate’s character and policy positions. Unlike ordinary voters, whose attention to politics is often episodic at best, experienced political leaders are presumably well-placed to evaluate both. The second sort of argument has to do with electability, about which party leaders understandably care intensely. The fact that a candidate has won the most votes in the primary and caucus season is, as they say, a data point, but general elections are different. The intense partisans who participated in the nominating process aren’t sufficiently numerous to carry the day in November. The superdelegates have to consider the candidate’s appeal to a less partisan, more centrist general electorate. And they have to gauge his (or her) capacity to build a winning coalition. What’s more, unlike the voters in the early primaries, they can generally make this judgment with full knowledge of who the opponent will be.

There’s one final consideration to be made on behalf of an independent role for the superdelegates. Wooing them is, or at least can be, deliberative. The emphasis is, or at least can be, on arguments, rather than slogans or soundbites. The Federalists would recognize this as the difference between voters and their representatives, albeit exaggerated in an age dominated by mass media and mass politics. Since governing ought to be deliberative, this is a good test for a candidate to have to pass.

But, having invented the superdelegate position, Democrats seem to be willing to let the current campaigns eviscerate it. One can only hope that they learn from their mistake.

*Let me here promise a “Part II,” focused on the oddly controversial phenomenon of “crossover voting,” in which voters who do not identify with a party participate in its nominating process.

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