Presidential selection and restraints on democracy

Donald Trump is plowing ahead toward the Republican nomination, virtually inevitable at this point.   Indiana could do something responsible today and halt Trump’s momentum, but that seems increasingly unlikely.

Much of the media and political commentariat continue to struggle with their explanations for Trump’s rise, concocting all manner of complex reasons: voter frustration with politicians, Republican Party leadership failures, the inability of Republicans to land effective punches and counter-punches on Trump, and, my personal favorite Trump cliche, that Trump has “tapped into” something in the American voter’s psyche, like hot-headed nationalism or economic disaffection.  These various explanations may have merit on some level. But the effort to find the deepest and most complex explanation here simply overlooks possible answers that might be far easier: 1) that we live in a culture that often values celebrity above depth and substance; 2) that we live in a culture that too often has a short attention span and desires what is immediately gratifying, thus moving us inexorably toward the shiny new thing, especially where the shiny new thing is seductive, audacious, and entertaining; and 3) that Republicans simply had too many players on the field for too long, allowing Trump to easily amass pluralities because the intensity of his support was greater (see #1 and #2) and other candidate support was split.  I don’t suggest that this explains every Trump vote, but I suspect it may explain many of them.

Of course, celebrity fades, and what is shiny and new today will become dingy and boringly familiar soon enough.  Ask a Trump voter who hates politicians what to make of Trump becoming a politician.  Listen to the way that Trump describes being “presidential” – he equates presidential character, and civil discourse about serious subjects, with dullness.

But as we contemplate the effects, and challenges, of a Trump nomination, it is worth considering whether Trump’s appeals to democracy – the demagogue’s favorite appeal – should be heeded, or questioned.  Trump’s latest whine was that the Republican presidential selection process is “rigged” against him, and that he favors some form of purely democratic process in which a plurality of voters have dispositive weight in selecting the next president.  That whine caters to the somewhat incoherent coalition of Trump supporters who despise politicians and who, for reasons past the understanding, think that Trump is the antidote to dishonesty and corruption (which no one, who is not a Trump voter, believes).  It has led many to question how Republicans could possibly deny Trump the nomination if he arrives in Cleveland without 1,237.  To a media culture that often stands in awe of Trump –  salivating over his every word, and seemingly desperate to continue having him on air for the next six months – this looks like a daunting, if not impossible, sell.

The answer to that problem is not complicated at all.  It argument would be that Donald Trump is demonstrably unfit for the presidency, and the Party has a responsibility to ensure that such a person does not serve as its nominee for that office.  That’s the argument.  And no other argument is necessary.

But, Trump’s defenders say, “that’s so undemocratic!”  Shame on Republicans for even thinking such a thing!  It’s a perversion of democracy!  Truth is, presidential selection was not crafted as a purely democratic exercise.  And it shouldn’t be, though it has been slouching in that direction for years.

If you want to read a terrific explanation of presidential selection, see James Ceaser’s book, Presidential Selection: Theory and Development.  In it, he grapples with the modern movement toward an increasingly democratic system of presidential selection, and contrasts this with models that favor more restraint on popular authority – models of republicanism, he explains.

There is at least a plausible argument that, as a general rule, the Party’s nominee should reflect the preferences of the Party’s voters and its membership.  The statewide primaries and caucuses help the Party to establish voter preferences and award at least some meaningful percentage of delegates based on those preferences, though this is a complicated marker because many states have open primaries where non-Republicans are permitted to vote for Republicans (thus skewing the results and calling into question whether a particular candidate is the real choice of the Party membership – Trump is an example).  Unbound delegates then may follow suit, either based on their own judgments or as a way of unifying the party around a consensus candidate.  Again, this could be said to be the general rule, where the nominee is of good character and temperament, is dedicated to the Party’s general approach to governing, and will faithfully execute his office and defend the Constitution.

But every so often, the same argument might go, a candidate will emerge who, though preferred by many voters, is unfit for the office and would damage the Party with his or her candidacy.  Here, it could be argued that the Party must be more than a rubber-stamp for voters.  Rather, the Party must play the role of a mediating institution, willing to stand between voters and the candidate and offer an independent assessment of the candidate’s fitness for the office.  Undemocratic?  Yes.  But that’s the point.  The Party’s selection process, like the presidential selection process supplied by the Constitution and laws for the general election, and like the Constitution’s structures for governing, must seek to provide some distance between the people and the office being sought.  This space allows the Party to engage in a more refined judgment as to which candidate can not only win, but also which candidate possesses the character, civic virtue, public-spiritedness, and understanding of constitutional government necessary to faithfully and effectively execute the presidential office.  If that judgment conflicts with the sentiment of the masses, then, the argument might go, so be it.

Now, if Trump gets to 1,237 – as he now likely will – then the Party cannot deny him the nomination.  That’s unfortunate, but a reality pursuant to the Republican Party’s own rules.  George Will has this piece on what conservatives should do next.  For those who wonder about the staying power of Never Trump folks, see David Bernstein’s piece at VC here.

Of course, if Trump really believed that the current system was so undemocratic as to warrant this level of outrage, one wonders why he did not raise this argument when he announced his candidacy – or at any point before March, when it became apparent that some unbound delegates would not support him, even those from states that voted for Trump statewide.  Either Trump did not know the rules and the process (that’s entirely possible, if not likely) or he is simply concocting the argument in response to a process that is denying him some votes.  Either way, Trump is being typically disingenuous, even as he barrels toward the nomination.

But, disingenuousness aside, the entire premise of Trump’s argument has been flawed.  It depends upon the assertion that we should break down barriers between voters and those who govern them, that we should craft a selection process that is immediately responsive to the demands of the masses.  Ironically, Trump is the living, breathing example of why we should preserve a system that does just the opposite: some restraints may be necessary to protect the Party, and the Nation, from a man who detests restraint.

As Tocqueville reminds us, people in a democracy will always complain about formal arrangements that restrain them and prevent them from immediate satisfaction of their passions and urges.  That, Tocqueville explains, is precisely why democracies need such formal arrangements.


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