“That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work,” Donald Trump thundered on Fox News. “The system is rigged. I see it now, 100 percent.”
Trump was complaining about a series of states – Colorado, Louisiana, South Carolina – where Ted Cruz’s well-organized campaign elected delegates at state conventions and sliced into Trump’s national lead.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders are making similar protests about a “rigged” system on the Democratic side, where hundreds of “superdelegates” – mainly party officials and office holders – get seats at the convention and can support anybody, no matter how the folks back home voted.
Hillary Clinton holds a large lead among these party regulars, and Sanders supporters are aggressively lobbying – even harassing – them to change sides in states that Bernie won.
“It’s time we take our democracy back,” proclaims one website devoted to pressuring Clinton backers.
The Trump and Sanders people are both wrong. The contests are not “rigged” or unfair. These whiners misunderstand the basic nature of American democracy.
Our system was never supposed to subject every question to a plebiscite, a direct vote of the people. The Founders built in a series of checks and balances specifically designed to contain and counteract the gusts of emotions that can blow forcefully through the electorate and cause long-term damage to the national interest.
In his famous “Federalist 10” essay, aimed at explaining and defending the Constitution, James Madison presciently warned against the threat of “factions,” which he defined as “a number of citizens … who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
That’s why the founders created rules and institutions that would dilute pure democracy and defend “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” One example: the ability of the president to veto bills passed by a majority and to sustain his action with the support of only one-third of the legislature. Or a nine-member court with lifetime tenure that can declare laws unconstitutional.
The threat of “factions” is directly relevant to the current debate in both parties about convention rules. Trump and his followers are a classic example of a movement “actuated by some common impulse of passion” that feeds on fears and phobias and threatens to damage precious traditions and values.
The anti-Trump forces are probably fighting a losing battle, especially if he wins big in New York next week. But they are using the rules in a very American way – to impede a “faction,” to force a rethinking, to make sure that the power of “passion” is balanced out by other interests, especially those of the Republican Party.
Exit polls make it clear that many voters who are backing Trump are not even Republicans, and care very little about his “electability.” But electability is the first priority of any political party, and Republicans have every right to use every rule in the book to find a candidate with a better chance of winning in November.
The Democrats are in a different situation, since their insurgent, Sanders, is not the frontrunner. Nor does he mirror Trump’s cynical appeals to racist and nativist prejudices. But his supporters are echoing Trump’s complaints about a “rigged” system, and they are wrong for the same reasons.
The “superdelegates” to the Democratic convention were created after 1972, when a passionate faction of antiwar activists nominated George McGovern, an honorable man but a terrible candidate who led the party to a disastrous defeat.
A commission chaired by James Hunt, then the governor of North Carolina, recommended the innovation as a way of returning “a measure of decision-making power and discretion to the organized party.”
Democrats, like Republicans, have legitimate party interests that don’t necessarily coincide with primary results. Sanders, like Trump, is backed more by independents than party regulars, and Democrats have voted 2 to 1 in favor of Clinton. In fact, Sanders has proudly called himself an independent through most of his career, and did not officially join the Democratic Party until he announced his candidacy less than a year ago.
He’s never raised money for Democrats or campaigned for them or cared about the party. Why should the superdelegates feel any loyalty to him now?
The truth is, many Republicans sure wish their party had superdelegates, too. It would make stopping Trump a lot easier.
As Lee Kinch, the Democratic state chairman in Kansas, told the Kansas City Star: “The argument for superdelegates is Donald Trump.”
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.