The irony of Bernie Sanders’ superdelegate argument
Following his loss to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary, Bernie Sanders and his supporters wanted the Democratic Party to abandon the superdelegate system. They believed fundamentally that it is undemocratic. Indeed, their contention was that Hillary Clinton’s electoral advantage was only preserved by the inherent predominance conferred by possessing so many pre-committed superdelegates.
In the wake of his defeat, Sanders sought out a delegate system within the Democratic Party that reflects the will of the voters more faithfully. He argued that nothing like what just happened in this Democratic Primary should ever happen again — to anyone.
Sanders and his supporters may very well have a point as to why his campaign was unable to surmount Hillary Clinton’s oft-mentioned “inevitability,” despite his immense popularity. But it is a point that is particularly ironic for this election cycle when juxtaposed with what has occurred on the Republican side.
The Republican system is, in its present form, more reflective of what Bernie Sanders desires: it is much more purely democratic. The Republicans’ nominating system does not have superdelegates, and is mostly winner-take-all from state to state (the Democratic Party’s system of voter-assigned delegates is mostly proportional in each state).
Voters, most of whom self-identify as Republicans, overwhelmingly selected Donald Trump as their party’s presidential nominee, undeterred — and indeed often encouraged — by his nonsensical platitudes and meandering, often incoherent, policies.
This “movement,” as Trump is wont to call it, was completely unmitigated by a Republican nominating system that has no “top down” delegate feature. The Republican Party’s own leadership could not stop Trump’s ascendance, even though, as the process played out, they more and more desperately wanted to.
The paradox of Sanders’ argument is that it is quite context specific. What would have worked positively for him in this cycle is precisely what has worked against the “establishment” of the Republican Party. So, while Bernie Sanders laments what he sees as a system that gives the Democratic Party “establishment” a significant say over the presidential nomination, railing against it as a tool to suppress voters when their will does not align with the party’s, many Republicans, in retrospect, probably wish they’d had such a mechanism to temper the popular passions that selected Trump.
The frightening reality for the GOP is that the freight train that is Donald Trump was fueled by a large faction of self-identifying Republican voters that like Trump not only for his ideas, but for his advertised ability to somehow just make them all happen — ostensibly by fiat.
It is worth asking, at least rhetorically: If the Republicans had a robust superdelegate system and a largely proportional awarding of delegates, like the Democrats, would Donald Trump be the Republicans’ nominee at this juncture of the election cycle? Would the fate of someone like Ted Cruz or John Kasich, or perhaps even Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush have been different?
When arguing over “how democratic” the parties’ nominating processes are, and should be, it is always instructive to remember that the Framers feared direct democracy every bit as much as they did monarchical tyranny. They feared concentrations of power that would lead to “quick” or “easy” answers to complex and contested issues, whether bottom up or top down. They feared the power of majorities and demagogues every bit as much as they feared kings.
This is one of the most fundamental reasons why they constructed a federal republic, what we call today a representative democracy, with built-in insurance policies against concentrations of power in both the electoral process (the Electoral College, the original structure of senatorial elections and the Supreme Court appointment process, to name some), as well as the governing process (the Separation of Powers, Federalism, and Checks and Balances).
Political parties were unanticipated by the Framers. What Washington warned would have baleful effects on our Republic has turned out to be an essential phenomenon of democratic governance. In reality, the very enshrinement of the rights to assembly, to petition government over grievances and free speech make party development inevitable. Parties are private organizations, inextricably intertwined with the political process.
The Democrats and Republicans develop their nominating processes internally, independent of one another — and independent of any governmental guidance outside of the Constitution itself. America’s party primary systems vary from state to state in intricate ways, but basically adhere to an overall unified party philosophy. Both parties’ processes over time, though, have evolved to become less top down than they once were.
How much democracy is appropriate for the parties’ internal nominating structures? Bernie Sanders has sought greater bottom up democracy in the Democratic Party’s primary system because he feels the superdelegate structure should never override the will of primary voters. The Republicans, meanwhile, already rely almost solely upon their voters’ collective will for their primary results.
Given what has happened in the Republican Primary, it may be instructive for both parties to not just look in the mirror, but also toward each other when they consider making permanent and profound changes to their primary processes.
For, while Bernie Sanders’ plight in the face of the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system has become somewhat of a cause célèbre, the Republicans’ plight in the face of their voters’ preference for a man like Donald Trump is certainly a cautionary tale.
Dennis R. Bullock recently ran for the California State Assembly 43rd District Seat. He continues to teach AP US Government & Politics and AP Macroeconomics at Providence High School in Burbank.
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