Presidential Elections, Party Establishments, and Demagogues


The American Founders created a careful system to prevent the election of the power-hungry. Progressive-led changes to the electoral process in the twentieth century, however, make it all too easy for ambitious demagogues to seize control—as first Obama did, and now Trump is doing to far worse ends.

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It’s not easy for citizens of a democracy to admit the force of the ancient argument against their form of government. As Plato and Aristotle famously argued, since wisdom (even in its lower, practical form of prudence) is the province of few, the claim of the many to rule is doubtful at best. Lacking education, leisure to acquire any, or wealth to provide the leisure, the many were considered unfit to have complete charge of the political community, and could at most be trusted with a partial role in governing in which they checked their “betters” and were in turn checked by them.

The American founders did not wholly reject this classical perspective. They broke with the ancients in holding that men are equal, have natural rights, and are to be governed only with their own consent. But they did not want to create a pure or direct democracy, and not just for practical reasons of the community’s size. They believed in republics: representative democracies in which the people are ultimately in charge (because no one has more at stake than everyone does) but not immediately in charge (because someone must have time, knowledge, and experience to govern well on the daily pressing matters of state). Thus the famous argument of Federalist 10 that the function of representation when it works well is to “refine and enlarge the public views.”

No one, of course, can be trusted with the sum total of political power, which is why the founders gave us such a complex array of constraints: a written constitution, regularly scheduled and staggered (never impromptu) elections, federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, bicameralism, an independent judiciary, strong traditions of the rule of law and protected rights, pluralistic interest group politics, and a mix of different “electoral connections” between voters and officeholders.

To this last we turn, with our eyes on the presidency. In his classic 1979 book Presidential Selection: Theory and Development (on which I will rely heavily in what follows), James W. Ceaser described the founders’ aims in designing the indirect method we call the Electoral College. The idea was both to connect the presidency to, and to distance it from, popular opinion. The man chosen by the electors would, it was hoped, be a person of character, of national reputation, not beholden to any narrow factions or particular regions; one who need not have practiced any flights of uplifting oratory or any low arts of demagoguery to attain the office. Statesmanship was preferred to leadership, the president’s power was to be derived from the Constitution and not from his relationship with the electorate, and ambition was to be invited to the table yet tamed with republican manners.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president to upset these careful institutional arrangements, by overtly partisan pursuit of the presidency. As Ceaser argues, Jefferson saw his “Revolution of 1800” as exceptional, and restorative of the Revolution of ’76. But there was no going back: Now our politics were organized on a partisan basis, as reflected in the Twelfth Amendment (which implicitly recognized party nomination of presidential and vice presidential candidates) and in the emergence of the congressional caucus as a nominating body of the party.

It fell to Martin Van Buren, in Ceaser’s telling, to make party politics serve rather than frustrate the founders’ aims. A complex party structure—cemented together by patronage and the passions that electoral contests generated—would stabilize and moderate our politics, normalizing inter-party competition, exploiting yet taming presidential candidates’ ambitions, and restoring the separation of powers by getting the congressional caucus out of the selection picture.

Thus the party “establishment” sprang up of professional politicos whose work was maintaining the links between citizens and their government. But this work was like making sausage; even if one liked the product, it didn’t bear too much scrutiny.

Upending a Delicate System

At last, in the twentieth century, Van Buren’s complex system came under attack by the Progressives, led by Woodrow Wilson. Their preferred reform was to sweep aside the machine-dominated convention system and replace it with primary elections—one national primary if possible, an array of state primaries as it turned out—in which the people select each major party’s nominee for the presidency. For two-thirds of a century the struggle between establishment and reformers was waged, until in the 1970s the Wilsonian vision won decisively. Nominees’ convention delegate majorities were determined thereafter at the polls, in a critical mass of state primary elections.

What was gained in democracy, however, had some costs in republican constraint. Wilson and the Progressives thought the Constitution itself outmoded and inadequate for modern conditions—but it was more trouble to replace it than to reinterpret it, with expanded powers, at the vanguard of which would march the president. His own power would be that of popular leader, not constitutional executive—depending on, and shaping, popular opinion through the force of his personality and rhetoric. And he would take his place at the head of the new administrative state, staffed by expert civil servants largely shielded, by presidential leadership (as well as civil-service due process protections), from any electoral connection of their own to voters.

A sufficiently forceful and charismatic president could overcome the separation of powers. The executive branch would be liberated by presidential leadership and enhanced by public administration, becoming the essential center of the national government as a whole—which would also erode federalism and convert the states by degrees into administrative units of a centralized system.

Within the government, the administrators displaced the career politicians as the true “establishment.” In the electoral arena, the amateurs who volunteer for the personal campaigns of presidential candidates in the primaries came to displace the professionals and “regulars” who once had made up the party establishment. But even those volunteers, and the battalions of paid consultants, strategists, and itinerant staffers of campaigns, don’t determine the presidential nominations of the parties. Nor do the delegates to the parties’ national conventions, except in a formal sense. They are the agents, the mere functionaries, of the primary voters.

In short, the establishment created under Van Buren’s system is dead—and the power it possessed has been broken in pieces and distributed in several places. The bureaucrats wield the power once held by the patronage-dispensing bosses; the consultants, strategists, super PACs, donors, and bundlers influence candidates and voters alike, but control nothing; the lobbyists and members of Congress take their turns at the trough filled by the overspending of our bloated government. But the voters choose each party’s nominee, as well as choosing between them in the general election. The determinant of their choices is each candidate’s success or failure in appealing to their interests, passions, beliefs, hopes, and fears.

The New System’s Present-Day Consequences

Two centuries after the founders attempted to tame executive power, bridle ambition, and open up a distance between presidents and the public, the present system has closed that gap, rewarded raw ambition, and unleashed executive power.

The proof that there is no establishment with power to dispose of a major party’s nomination is that candidates can openly run “against the establishment” with impunity, and even with a fair shot at being nominated. Jimmy Carter did it in 1976, and it wasn’t being “anti-establishment” but being manifestly unprepared and temperamentally unsuited to the office that defeated Pat Buchanan.

Yet notwithstanding his even worse temperament, the only surprise about Donald Trump’s so-far-successful campaign is that it has taken four decades for something like it to emerge. The institutional conditions have long been in place, and could have been exploited by, say, Ross Perot if a timely opportunity to make his run inside one of the parties rather than outside them had presented itself. For the parties have thrust away control of their own fates with both hands, as vigorously as possible, by the empowerment of primary voters.

The question is not “Why Trump now?” but rather “Why not a Trump before now?” Perhaps some residual self-respect on the part of primary voters has driven them, up to now, to seek experience, knowledge of public policy, character, and responsibility in their candidates. The Trump phenomenon suggests that in a significant proportion of the (nominally) Republican electorate, this self-respect has decayed considerably.

A similar observation might be made about the even larger number of Bernie Sanders voters in the (nominally) Democratic electorate. But at least Sanders is a man with a track record in political life; if his prescriptions for our contemporary predicaments are risibly detached from reality, at least he has the sound of an ordinary politician about him—if an extreme one. His ideology is consistent and comprehensible, representing familiar trends in Democratic Party thinking, simply pushed beyond what many would have assumed were the natural limits of the “socialism” the party could espouse.

Trump is another phenomenon altogether. The great economist Thomas Sowell, in the now-famous National Review symposium “Against Trump,” likened him to Hitler. Ordinarily this kind of comparison is condemned as the reductio ad Hitlerum, the old joke being that the first person in a debate to invoke Hitler loses the argument. But Sowell was referring to the kind of appeal Trump seems to have for his supporters—a comparison to Mussolini, or to Juan Peron or some other lesser despot, would have sufficed as well. The thread uniting them is that they are all “strong man” demagogues, railing against largely imaginary enemies whose real-life stand-ins are by no means guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, because actually no one is guilty of them—the crimes themselves are imaginary.

But to a segment of aggrieved voters who are caught up in the gears of an economy unfriendly to their interests, and who see the luster of their country’s greatness dimming, a hoarsely shouted condemnation of the whole professional political class as losers and betrayers has struck a nerve. For these voters, so far it has not mattered that Trump is a man of low character and a sordid history of flirting with the political class he lambastes; a man with no evident knowledge on any subject of either domestic or foreign policy, and no sign yet of any interest in learning; and a man whose expressed views, when they are intelligible at all, are a mass of self-contradictions. He fights (he says), he wins (he claims), and he will make America great again (he promises). That is all, and for some considerable number of voters, apparently that is enough.

Obama Paved the Way for Trump

Many have remarked that Barack Obama “created” or is somehow responsible for the Donald Trump phenomenon. There is something to this. Obama rose rapidly, almost too rapidly to be believed, to the presidency after an undistinguished career in the Illinois state legislature while pursuing a day job as a “community organizer” and moonlighting teaching law school. He rose on the wings of his rhetoric, a pastiche of uplift and moralizing, and he benefited, of course, from his adroit use and non-use of his race.

Obama was, in his way, the sunnier version of the ambitious demagogue whom the founders feared, and against whose election they—and Van Buren—sought to safeguard the country through complex screening and constraining mechanisms. As president, he has turned, in his frustration at the loss of his party’s control of Congress, to ambitious overreaching in his use of executive power. His argument is never that the Constitution authorizes his latest gambit (he leaves that unhappy task to his beleaguered lawyers in the courts), but that he has an electoral mandate to act that a recalcitrant Congress cannot be permitted to obstruct—sounding like a kind of Wilsonian presidential id.

With Donald Trump, however, we encounter a much darker id, somehow both anarchic and dictatorial all at once. He has no eloquence, only outbursts; no ideology, only ambition; no plans and white papers, only wild improvisations. If he is nominated, he bids fair to destroy one of our country’s two major parties. If he is elected, he will probably only destroy himself, if we are lucky.

Time to reread Plato and Aristotle on democracy. Time to reacquaint ourselves with the founders’ careful thinking on the constitutional constraint of ambition. Time to think about all the good that an actual party establishment can do. Its benefits now appear to outweigh its defects.

Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.

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