Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Votes Versus Rules and the Democracy That Could Be

Timothy Sherratt


On a damp Wednesday afternoon this past February, one week before New Hampshire’s primary, the VFW hall in Raymond, NH smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke and buzzed with conversation. Arriving early, my wife and I found seats a couple of rows from the front, and soon the rest of the seats around us filled up. In due course, we rose to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, then former Congressman Charlie Bass stepped forward to introduce the candidate he had endorsed just a week before. Without much fanfare, Governor John Kasich emerged to give a speech and field questions over the course of an hour.

As we splashed through the puddles to our car after the event, two things struck me about what had just transpired: Kasich had answered questions at a level of informed detail that addressed concerns much deeper than the visceral frustrations dominating the airwaves, and the questions had been superb. The whole scene was pure Americana—ordinary citizens of a republic taking time from their occupations to discuss policy matters local and global with one who aspires to assume the reins of government. They explored matters calling for practical knowledge and calling forth political principle. The atmosphere was calm, focused, and civil. This is what democracy could be.

The 2016 campaign cycle has borne only a slight resemblance to this appealing tableau of New Hampshire’s fabled “retail politics.” Now that Donald Trump’s decisive win in Indiana has ousted both Ted Cruz and John Kasich from the race, the primaries, not the convention, will determine the nominee. Even in the Granite State, retail politics did not determine the outcome; on his way to an emphatic victory there, Trump dismissed town meetings in favor of choreographed speaking events with little audience interaction. Democracy is the poorer for it.

The rapid fading of the prospect of a contested convention raises some important questions for us about how citizens shape their political futures and the role to be played by political parties.

The Moral Power of Numbers

For well over a century, primary elections have been used to nominate party candidates for state and federal offices. They became widespread in the presidential contest more recently, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Since 1976, when President Gerald Ford and Governor Ronald Reagan battled at a contested convention, conventions have served largely to confirm the choice of the primary electorates and to launch the nominee’s general election campaign.

Americans are now so used to expecting nominees to emerge from primaries that the votes won in them have acquired a moral force. The convention rules—that, for the G.O.P. require a candidate to win a majority of pledged delegates in order to claim the nomination on the first ballot—are no match for this moral power of numbers. Voters and commentators alike seem to have embraced this view, with few exceptions. The Trump campaign has gone so far as to condemn the rules as corrupt, designed to keep control of the nomination in the hands of party leaders and to deny the people’s verdict.

In 2016, both parties have experienced one consequence of the primary election system. Both have seen influential campaigns from populist outsiders, one with weak conservative credentials, the other with no affiliation to the party whose nomination he seeks. Both Trump and Senator Sanders have constructed an image of the campaign as moving to the rhythms of a numerical momentum to which they attach moral force. This has not worked quite as well for Sanders, of course, who lags both in the popular vote and the delegate count, but it has served to position Trump as the people’s tribune storming the halls of power.

Special circumstances make this view especially persuasive this year. There are few signs that the polarization that has characterized American politics for the best part of two decades is abating. Republicans, despite returning clear majorities in both houses in the 2014 elections, have failed to turn back all of President Obama’s initiatives. To an enraged rank-and-file, this is proof enough that “the establishment” is not to be trusted.

Political Parties: What Are They Good For?

Let me pause to note the way that Donald Trump, Senator Cruz, and to a lesser extent, Senator Sanders have framed our political party system. In their reckoning, the party is an empty shell that exists only to consecrate the winner of the popular vote. The parties stand for nothing more than what can be injected into that empty shell by the victorious candidate. This is certainly not a new view. Writing in the nineteenth century, James Bryce’s verdict on the party establishment sounded today’s note:

…[N]either party has any clean-cut principles, any distinctive tenets. Both have traditions. Both claim to have tendencies. Both have certainly war cries, organizations, interests enlisted in their support. But those interests are in the main the interests of getting or keeping the patronage of government. Distinctive tenets and policies, points of political doctrine and points of political practice, have all but vanished…. All has been lost except office, or the hope of it.

Echoing this criticism—and guaranteeing its longevity—Progressive reformers in the early twentieth century removed the vital function of choosing a party’s nominees from its leaders and entrusted it to the voters. To be sure, they appealed to the moral purity of the people in contrast to the perceived corruption of party leaders, but they also expected the rank-and-file to prefer the reformers’ policies over those of the party leaders.

It is hardly surprising then, that, when a contested convention seemed possible, 2016’s voters should have viewed any attempt to invoke the convention’s rules as evidence of an attempt to steal the nomination from the people’s choice. Truly, the party is just an empty shell.

Political parties should not be dismissed in this way. They have played a robust, and necessary, role in democracies, educating the electorate via the choices they offer, linking the like-minded, providing important career ladders, and empowering individual citizens with organized expression of their political views. What these attributes point to is the need for careful deliberation over the party’s aims, strategies—and nominees for office.

This view of political parties treats them as essentially private entities, freely formed by the citizens they represent. But in the United States, it’s not that simple.

Our Semi-private, Semi-public Parties

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Kimberly Strassel recast the role of convention delegates and gave a new twist to the looming standoff between votes and rules. From the perspective of what I have been calling the moral force of numbers, convention delegates match Presidential Electors in irrelevance, their embodiment and actual meeting to vote a mere formality. Delegates are not choosers but indentured servants of the majority.

Strassel objects to this perspective but she does not repeat the old bromides about reading-the-fine-print-because-the-party’s-rules-have-always-been-there. Instead, she urges the delegates to reclaim their power to choose, not from the voters, but from the government.

The government?

Strassel puts special emphasis on the Democrats and Republicans as “private parties” whose internal sovereignty has been eroded by government rules that variously make primary elections “open” or “closed” or some variant of these. State legislatures, not the parties themselves, have allowed registered Independents to pick up a Republican or Democratic ballot on the day of the primary in some states, or have permitted registered voters to “cross over” to the other party’s primary—as in Wisconsin. In Strassel’s view, countering these interventions, adopted in a piecemeal way over the decades since Progressive reforms introduced primary elections early in the twentieth century, justifies restoring the power to deliberate and decide at the convention.

For her, convention delegates are important democratic actors who must be liberated from government interference to deliberate and decide on the best candidate that the private organizations known as the Republican and Democratic parties will field in the general election. After the opening rounds of balloting, where that role is muted by their pledges, delegates step forward to assume this, their principal role.

Strassel is half-right in my estimation. Independents and crossovers do “dilute” the purity of the party’s deliberation on the choice of candidate, but they also strengthen each party’s efforts to attract those voters into its fold at the general election. Those same rules also make third-party efforts much less attractive to would-be nominees, steering attractive candidates towards the prize of a major party nomination with all the legitimacy this confers on the successful candidate. It is worth considering that Donald Trump is at best a quasi-Republican with dubious credentials as a conservative, and that Senator Sanders has never been a Democrat, even if he has made his peace with the party in the Senate and caucuses with them.

The image of our two major parties as private entities struggling under the heel of government may be farfetched. It is better to see them as privileged entities enjoying government patronage at the price of restricting their control over who represents them.

A Case for Deliberation

One does not need a primer on representative democracy to make an elemental point: citizens send representatives to Washington or to the state house to do their bidding in the twin senses of seeking to do what the voters want but also to act in their interests-- two concepts that are different enough to open up a big space. Ideally, it is a space to be filled by deliberation—preferably calm, focused, and civil.

Of course, it is not wrong that the Trump phenomenon, fueled as it has been by free media from outlets that know what sells, should have had its origins in frustration and should seek to remedy that frustration through the campaign. Frustration, anger even, is common in democratic politics, will persist, and can know only partial mitigation. Representative democracy accommodates a wide range of emotion.

When a party nomination is decided exclusively in the primary contests, however, as is now to be the case with the Republicans and very likely for both parties, an opportunity has been lost for the party to reclaim a vital element of representative democracy—if not from government, at least for democracy itself. What does the party stand for? Which candidate best represents the party’s principles? How should the party advance its policy priorities? Who can beat the likely nominee on the other side? Which candidate has forged strong relations with the legislators (s)he must work with should (s)he assume the presidency? Who has the maturity and experience to govern if elected? Who is most deserving of the party’s trust?

In whatever direction you find these questions pointing, all of them are the kind that elected delegates should have been free to ponder in Cleveland or Philadelphia this summer, whether or not the atmosphere is as heated as the prospects of victory and defeat were bound to make it. In fashioning a party’s choices, votes are good; rules are necessary. Without deliberation—preferably calm, focused, and civil—neither is sufficient for the democracy that could be.


Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is your view of primary elections as the way to choose a party’s nominee? Do you participate in voting in these primaries? Why or why not?
  2. Should all primary elections be closed to those who are not registered party members? What would be the value of doing so or the drawbacks?
  3. What are the most important questions for a party to consider in choosing a nominee? How can those questions be most effectively explored and deliberated?


-- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College and author of Power Made Perfect? Is there a Christian Politics for the Twenty-First Century? (Cascade Books, 2016). He is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”