Is it necessarily true that “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy”? In 1972 the McGovern-Fraser Commission revolutionized America’s primary system under this quote. For centuries Presidential nominees were chosen through undemocratic methods, but in 1972 that changed when both parties adopted the binding primary system. The intention of binding primaries is to give the power to the people over choosing Presidential nominees, however, the election of demagogue Donald Trump has called into question whether the “voice of the people” is too deafening.
Last weekend I began reading “The Plot Against America”, an alternative history novel by Philip Roth. The novel tells the story of Roth’s childhood as a Jewish-American during the fictitious rise of heroic pilot Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh, an anti-Semite and isolationist, defies the odds and defeats incumbent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 Presidential Race despite having zero political experience and questionable links to Nazi Germany. The parallels between Roth’s fictional alternative history and our current political situation are startling. Before 2016, the election of a demagogue like Charles Lindbergh seemed like a distant impossibility, but the reality of Trump’s election has proven otherwise.
However,Trump isn’t an anomaly, as America has seen its fair share of potential demagogues. Despite holding anti-Semitic and Nazi sympathizing views, American entrepreneur Henry Ford was a beloved figure among many Americans. During a proposed Presidential run, Ford generated massive support and he led many polls, surpassing eventual winning President Herbert Hoover! Similarly, ardent segregationist and Alabama governor George Wallace ran several Presidential campaigns with an anti-Civil Rights platform. At one point, nearly forty-percent of polled Americans approved of Wallace, despite his demagogue tendencies. How were these dangerous men kept out of office?
Authors of “How Democracy Dies” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that traditional “gatekeeping” practices have kept potential demagogues like Wallace and Ford out of the running. For much of America’s history, Presidential nominees were chosen by party leaders in what was called the “back room.” Presidential nominees were chosen by what journalists called “the Old Guard”, or party leaders who screened potential nominees and groomed them for the Presidential race. While this process was certainly undemocratic, it provided a way for party leaders to prevent demagogues like Ford and Wallace from becoming party nominees. The American people had little voice in choosing their nominee, but it allowed for candidates to be reviewed before election day, thus preventing dangerous candidates from reaching the ballot altogether. After Hubert Humphrey’s surprise nomination in 1968 after not participating in a single primary, widespread backlash towards the “back room” nomination system grew. This led to the McGovern-Fraser Commission’s creation of the binding primary system that persists to this day.
To further eliminate party gatekeeping, in July 2018 the Democratic Party decided the reduce the role of superdelegates in the nominating process. Previously, superdelegates were able to vote for any candidate regardless of primary results. Now, superdelegates are not allowed to vote in the first round of voting, which leans power towards “pledged delegates.” Starting with the 2020 Democratic Convention, superdelegates are only allowed to vote in extreme circumstances, such as contested conventions. Now, the power to select both Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates lies in the hands of the American people, making party gatekeeping nonexistent.
The election of Donald Trumps begs the question: is too much democracy a bad thing? The 2016 Presidential election marks the first time a demagogue has been elected in America after the country adopted the binding primary system. Donald Trump has proven to have authoritarian tendencies, such as discrediting the media and the denial of the legitimacy of opponent Hillary Clinton with his “lock her up” chants. If the American people are willing and able to elect a President who is dangerous for democracy, it seems like the American people have too much power to influence the future of the country. However, it would be rather foolish to expect the American people to accept rolling back democratic norms like binding primaries.
Thus, responsibility to keep demagogues out of political processes relies on powerful party members and the media, not traditional party gatekeeping. Trump’s campaign thrived on lack of backlash from Republican politicians and extensive media coverage. Prominent Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Mitch McConnell all endorsed Trump’s candidacy, which cemented his legitimacy as a Republican politician. If powerful Republicans had put aside party loyalties and spoken against Trump, the loyal Republican base likely would’ve ended Trump’s presidential run prematurely. News networks also played a massive role in Trump’s election. Trump enjoyed a massive amount of media coverage and free publicity through the creation of controversy. Studies have shown that Trump was covered over twice as much as his adversary during the 2016 Presidential race. Both the media and existing Republican politicians paved the way for Trump’s victory, and they’re both key to preventing demagogue victories in the future.
With other celebrities like Kanye West and Alec Baldwin considering Presidential runs, it is increasingly important for the media and powerful established politicians to denounce demagogues and end their potential runs as soon as possible. Donald Trump’s election has proven that the “voice of the people” can be extremely potent, but it’s possible to use that voice in the correct way. People look to the media and existing politicians for information and guidance when voting, making it imperative for these institutions to convince the American people to make rational voting choices that will preserve and strengthen our democratic norms. Gone are the days that we can rely on party leaders to prevent demagogues from reaching the highest office in the country. If stared in the face of a potential demagogue, powerful politicians and the media should use their influence to convince the American people to vote against demagogues, using their “voice” to put threats to democracy out of existence.
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum. “People Holding Banner Near Building.” Creative Commons Zero license.