Donald Trump is killing the Republican Party. And maybe that’s a good thing. Many people think that the Republican Party has gone loco. Of course, many people think that the Democratic Party has also gone loco. Many people, myself included, cannot understand where our traditional political parties are going and are left facing elections where none of the candidates are acceptable. In the 2016 election, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were viewed unfavorably by American voters in a Gallup pre-election poll.
The 2020 election is shaping up to be an equally dismal exercise. In a February 2019 Gallup poll, Joe Biden was the only Democratic candidate viewed more favorably than unfavorably. And President Trump’s unfavorables are huge. Why can’t we get better candidates? Why can’t we get better platforms? President Trump won’t push any policy that won’t fit on a bumper sticker. And if Nancy Pelosi believes that President Trump was trying to bribe the president of the Ukraine, then what does she think all those Democratic candidates are doing with “free” healthcare, “free” college, and universal basic income (for no work)?
I believe that the system of primary elections has been a major factor in not only radicalizing the traditional parties but also coarsening political discourse in this country. There are other factors, of course, such as the Internet and social media that isolate people in their own feedback loop of news and information while ignoring alternative sources and opinions. Many people are trying to address the impact of the Internet and social media although they have not yet found a solution (and likely never will people being who they are). Meanwhile, the primary elections keep churning out ever more radical candidates with ever more radical platforms. One only has to look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who defeated an incumbent Democratic Congressman to see the impact this radicalization.
The Founding Fathers are well known for their fear of tyrannical government and for the checks and balances they put into the US Constitution to limit the power of government. Less well known is their concern of unrestrained democracy. John Adams stated, “Democracy... while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” And James Madison believed that, “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
The Constitution makes no mention of democracy and leaves it to the states to determine who has the right to select (every two years) Members of the House of Representatives stipulating only that qualifications for such electors be the same as those for the largest legislative body in that state. In the early days of our republic, most states only allowed white men with property to vote. This may smack of elitism, but John Locke believed that without rights to the property of your labor there could be no liberty. The reason for this is that in a democracy the poor could vote to expropriate the property of the wealthy (exactly as is being proposed by the Democratic presidential candidates). But if you have no rights to your own property you have no liberty or freedom.
For most of our history, Americans could not vote to select the Senators for their state. The US Constitution mandated that the state legislatures select the Senators until the direct election of Senators was ratified in the Seventeenth Amendment (1913). And the president is not chosen directly but by the electors in the Electoral College, a sore point in the last election.
Over time, the right to vote has been expanded to include more and more people, as it should. Former slaves were given the right to vote in 1870 and women in 1920. Teenagers (18 and over) were included in 1971. This expansion of suffrage has been a good thing, but it is not a riskless thing. Plato stated, “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy.” Some of the worst dictators in history were democratically elected; men such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
An unrestrained expansion of democracy, fulfilling the warnings of Plato, John Adams and many others, increases our risk of losing that democracy and our liberty as well. We live in such a dangerous period, right now.
The current system of selecting who will be candidates for office through primary elections is relatively recent. I remember national conventions to select presidential candidates where the outcome was unknown. There was high drama (along with back room wheeling and dealing) on each successive vote of the delegates. Only a few states had primary elections in the 1960s and 1970s, and even these were so-called “beauty contests.” The party leaders still chose the delegates to the national convention and the delegates chose the candidates. Nowadays the primary elections bind the delegates (at least in the first round). Nowadays national conventions are just glitzy showpieces filled with blowhard politicians and a lot of confetti and balloons. But no drama.
But this expansion of democracy has led to more and more extreme candidates. Consensus candidates rarely have highly motivated supporters to go around town knocking on doors and asking for donations. Extreme candidates, however, often have a dedicated group of radical followers who pound the pavement for their candidate and his or her agenda. And the states keep moving their primaries months earlier in the campaign season extending the campaign rallies and seemingly endless debates with ever sharpening rhetoric (the first Democratic debate was seventeen months before the election).
It is hard to tell people that there is such a thing as too much democracy. I used to believe that there was no such thing as too much pepperoni pizza but that was quickly proven erroneous. And it is possible to have too much democracy. As our country has advanced, we have become more complex, industrially, technologically, medically and by almost any other measure you can think of. And as our country has become more complex, the rules and regulations needed to keep the social contract operating have become more complex. The average citizen can know only a fraction of the details needed to keep this country operating smoothly. Technically, it would be possible for every citizen to vote on every bill in Congress via the Internet. This would be maximum democracy. But most citizens would not have the time or expertise to fully understand what they are voting for. This would be, clearly, too much democracy.
Is it possible that America has become too democratic?
One pragmatic step to curb excessive democracy would be to reform (or actually unreform) the way candidates for office are chosen to run in the general elections. In the past, the Democratic Party used to have superdelegates in addition to the delegates chosen in the state primary elections. In 2016, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders complained that the superdelegates gave Hillary Clinton an advantage. Of course, they did. That’s the point. In the pre-primary days Senator Sanders would not have even been considered as a potential candidate. He is not even a member of the Democratic Party. He is an independent and avowed socialist. If he wants to run for president he should do it as the candidate for the Democratic Socialist Party of America (a party of which he is a member).
If Republicans had superdelegates at their convention in 2016, Donald Trump might not have been named the candidate for the Republican Party. Many of his supporters would express outrage at the very concept of blocking Donald Trump’s ascension to the candidacy. But maybe a convention decided by superdelegates might dial down the rancid rhetoric of the current political environment. And maybe, with a more moderate person in the White House, socialists wouldn’t believe that they could convince average Americans to prefer a politician touting a failed philosophy to an incumbent president with a toxic persona.
If you are still pondering about whether it is possible have too much democracy, you only have to look at today’s college campuses. Conservative speakers and anyone who questions progressive orthodoxy are inundated with protests from outraged students who define contrary opinion as hate speech. Students riot outside lecture halls and attack distinguished speakers and provocateurs alike (see Heather MacDonald's Commentary from the Wall Street Journal). Some universities want to charge these speakers for providing security against the raging students. Speakers are invited and then uninvited when students begin to howl. For peace to prevail, many universities simply don’t invite speakers that do not meet the progressive threshold of “wokeness.”
Even tenured professors are not immune to this cancer (a tenured post is an indefinite academic appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances - Wikipedia). Evergreen State University biology professor Bert Weinstein was hounded from campus for not acceding to the demands that all white people participate in a Day of Absence. The university would not provide security despite threats to him and his wife.
This is the dictatorship of the majority that Adams and Madison feared. And the progressive democrats want to further increase the excess of democracy by extending the voting age to sixteen-year-olds. If we don’t trust young people to make rational decisions about drinking alcohol or smoking until they are 21, how can you trust them to make a rational choice about something that doesn’t just endanger their health and well-being but yours and mine as well? Neurobiologists acknowledge that a person’s frontal lobe (the seat of reason) is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. This ploy to increase democracy is a thinly disguised attempt to get progressive votes from immature individuals (at the mercy of raging teenage hormones) more motivated by emotions than by reason.
There can be too much of a good thing – and pizza is the proof!