We the People or We the Party: Delegates and Democratic Deliberation


By: Adam Ishaq

On April 14, 2016, Donald Trump released an article in the Wall Street Journal outlining his problem with a delegate system he has called “rigged.” In his op-ed, Trump voiced his anger with the Republican Party’s nomination process that he perceives as limiting the voice of the American people in lieu of the wishes of the political elite composed of “the consultants, the pollsters, the politicians, the pundits, and the special interests.” As Mr. Trump sees it, the Republican Party is attempting to stack the deck against his candidacy by placing the power to choose a nominee in the entrenched party establishment rather than in the American people.

Trump’s anger with the nomination process has garnered a high amount of media attention recently, as Trump protested the way in which Colorado had assigned delegates to Senator Ted Cruz without taking a statewide primary. Instead, the process of winning Republican delegates in Colorado centers on registered voters selecting local delegates who would then vote on which delegates would represent Colorado at the Republican National Convention. Rather than award delegates by proportion of voting percentage received or in a winner-take-all system, Trump believes this local delegate caucus system has left room for candidates, such as Senator Cruz and Governor John Kasich, to essentially bribe delegates in the hopes that they will vote against their state’s wishes at a brokered Republican National Convention.

In a similar way, supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders have also criticized the nomination process of the Democratic Party as the process of choosing a candidate for the November general election is nearing its end. A petition signed by 208,000 Bernie Sanders supporters on moveon.org voices their anger at the Democratic process of having superdelegates, which are delegates from various states that are not bound to vote the way in which their states’ populations voted. The petition asks for these superdelegates to “announce that in the event of a close race, [they will] align [themselves] with regular voters- not party elites.” Echoing the frustration of Trump, these Sanders supporters are upset at the ability of party elites to select a presidential nomination that is not in agreement with the voting of Democratic supporters.

In this large debate, many political pundits have been debating whether or not the process of delegate caucuses under the Republican Party and the superdelegate process of the Democratic Party are democratic in the sense of representing the wishes of the American public. Yet, the issue with this question is the assumption that these political parties do in fact need to be democratic. Whereas national elections are mandated by the Constitution, the parties and primary system under which our current electoral political system chooses its national candidates is not. Political parties are not inherently necessary to our political system and were not ordained by the Founding Fathers; in fact, President Washington’s renowned Farewell Address stated that the “common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Our first president was not only weary of parties, he actively told Americans to attempt and restrain the growth of parties.

Understanding political parties as merely associations of interested and active political actors helps explain why the parties themselves are not bound to any democratic process of choosing a candidate. Parties represent a wide range of people with wildly different level of political knowledge who come from a vast array of social, economic, and racial backgrounds. In an effort to ensure the party nominates a candidate the party leaders approve of, the party itself retains the right to choose its nominee in whatever way it deems fit. Though the parties operate under a democracy and have become more democratic in the way in which a larger amount of people have become enfranchised to vote in primaries, the parties are only obligated to follow the rules which they have set out for themselves.

Donald Trump and supporters of Bernie Sanders have made claims that the current primary system is skewed toward favoring lifelong political elites and is therefore not representative of the American people. In this assessment, both make a valid point and have reason to be upset with this election cycle. Yet, this issue will remain, and perhaps negatively affect the power of the American public to choose its leaders, beyond the 2016 election. This moment is one in which the American public has an ample opportunity to determine the democratic accountability that its political parties adhere to. The American people themselves need to take this moment of increased publicity surrounding the issue of party nominations and push for parties to create rules to become more democratic.

If Americans truly want to see a primary process that represents the interests of the American people as a whole, Americans must push for the Democratic and Republican parties to institutionalize democratic practices. By ensuring that delegates must represent the results of primary voting in their respective states, voters can ensure that delegates represent voters rather than the candidate who knows the system the best and can influence delegates to vote contrary to their states’ population. However, if Mr. Trump’s analysis of the primary system as one favored by party elites who can perpetually overturn the rule of the American public is correct, then perhaps it is time for Americans to push for a new party that will represent its interests. Rather than allow the parties to unilaterally determine who gets heard and when, Americans must push for reform of the system or break out and amend it themselves by creating a truly representative party. After all, the Constitution begins with, and stands for, “we the people” not “we the party.”