In response to “How the Republican Party Has Failed American Democracy” by Alison Gerzina
The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States came as a shock to the majority of Americans and the rest of the world. The experienced and established Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was defeated by a politically inexperienced Republican opponent. As an outsider, Trump promised to take down the establishment and offer alternative legislations and policies. He faced criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, but his victory meant that a substantial amount of the American public was willing to accept him as the nation’s leader. As a result of Trump’s 2016 win, Americans on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns over the conduct of the Republican Party. Trump managed to control the Republican Party despite the sharp criticism he faced from within its ranks. Major republican leaders like Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake opposed Trump, but the Republican Party was unable to curb his rise. As mentioned in the post “How the Republican Party Has Failed American Democracy” by Alison Gerzina, the Republican Party failed the American democracy. While the post by Alison Gerzina focused on the changing ideology of the Republican Party, this post will focus on how the party abandoned its responsibility of gatekeeping through primaries and let Trump be nominated as its presidential candidate. The success of Trump, however, also shows a higher level of contestation offered by the Republican Party, although only for right leaning candidates. It is evident that there is a clear trade-off between the level of gatekeeping and the ability of outsiders or newcomers to run in presidential elections. For American democracy to sustain, there must be a balance between gatekeeping measures, and the ability to appear on a ballot and contest in elections.
To seal a ticket in the presidential election, candidates must gain public support during the primaries. The Republican Party uses bound delegates who must reflect the opinion of their constituents. On the other side, the Democratic Party, along with bound delegates, uses superdelegates who have no obligation to reflect the public opinion. In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the biggest threat to American Democracy is the failure of party gatekeeping mechanisms. Both the Republicans and the Democrats have kept out potential authoritarians out of their ballots in the past. Among the examples provided in the book is the opposition of the Democratic Party to support George Wallace in 1964 because his hard-liner segregationist stance. After his continuous open disregard of the constitution, the Democratic Party again opposed his nomination and he was forced to run independently and lose in the 1968 presidential elections. In response to a question posed during his visit to Rollins College, Steven Levitsky argued that the superdelegates used by the Democratic Party work as gatekeepers, keeping authoritative-minded candidates out of the ballot, and preserving American democracy. However, giving such enormous power to superdelegates takes away power from the citizens who vote during primaries. This raises an important question: should the candidates on the presidential election ballot reflect the opinions of the voters or should it be controlled by the superdelegates who have no obligation to the citizens?
Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, in their book Democracy in America?, argue that there are numerous restrictions in the American primary system that limit the ability of newcomers to contest in the elections. Page and Gilens even compare Iran’s Guardian Council (a group of non-elected religious radicals who decide whether a candidate can appear on the election ballot) to the American primary system. They argue that the American system of nomination does not provide the public with enough choices which derails democratic progression. By their argument, to maintain and expand democracy, the ballot must be more open so that they can reflect the public opinion. In this way, the voters do not have to conform to the few choices provided to them within the two-party system. Although both the parties use primaries to select their candidates, the Republican Party does not rely on superdelegates. The candidates chosen by the party reflect the attitudes of Republican voters in the primaries. By not using superdelegates like the Democrats, the Republican Party has made the process more open and responsive to public opinion.
At this point, it seems that there is no right solution to this problem. A fully open ballot would maximize contestation by providing the voters with more candidates, while also opening gates for potential authoritarians to get elected and hurt democracy. In this case, it seems that democracy tends to self-destruct. Democracy can be preserved with a combination of limited gatekeeping and contestation. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that Trump used populist tactics to initiate anti-establishment feelings and doubt in the eyes of the public. During his presidential campaign, Trump employed baseless claims, like claiming Kenya to be the birthplace of Barack Obama, while ironically, calling credible news outlets “fake news” when they disagreed. He also stated that he would not accept the election results if he did not win. As pointed out by Levitsky and Ziblatt, numerous candidates in South America, and nations like Turkey and Hungary showed similar patterns when they competed for power. Most of these candidates turned to authoritarianism once they gained power. Despite these signs, the Republican Party let Trump run as the Republican presidential candidate. While on the other hand, the Democrat superdelegates helped Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Sanders, although gaining substantial support during the primaries, was a candidate who expressed radical ideals, such as government funded higher education. In the context of American politics, Sanders represented the extreme left. The Democratic Party’s superdelegates acted as gatekeepers and kept him out of the presidential ballot.
Democracy left unregulated will be susceptible to undemocratic ideals. Without any gatekeeping, it is easy for individuals with authoritarian tendencies to rise to power, as evident by the passiveness of the Republican party and the nomination of Donald Trump. While both the parties have flaws in their nomination process, the Republican Party failed to prevent the rise of an individual with clear authoritarian claims and tendencies.