We have a problem, America. It’s called excess of democracy, and it sounds like this: Whichever candidate gets the most votes going into the GOP presidential convention should win, even if he doesn’t have a majority. If he isn’t crowned the nominee, then the election has been stolen, the game is rigged, and the American voters have been robbed of their voice.
But that’s not what little “r” republicanism looks like. That’s big “D” democracy, and that’s bad for America.
When I was on Sean Hannity radio recently, it came as a surprise to Donald Trump spokesman, Michael Cohen, that Americans don’t choose our presidential candidates by direct vote. When I explained to him that we live in a representative republic and not a democracy, and that delegates are chosen to elect the presidential candidate, he seemed stunned.
“Oh,” he said, “so we don’t live in a democracy? Right.” No, Mr. Cohen, we don’t. We don’t choose our presidential candidates directly. They are chosen indirectly. He and others reacted with scorn, calling the system we have unfair. Others described it as byzantine and archaic.
Our liberties are not determined by the fickle passions of the majority but by the steady rule of law.
Such a ridiculous reaction is born of either willful deception or outright ignorance. Both are dangerous. It also reveals something else—an unhealthy fixation on the presidency that distracts people from the balance of powers that makes our nation a stable and free society.
When people say our president should be elected directly by the people with a simple plurality of the votes, they’re rejecting the republican system of government established by our founders. The framers of the Constitution soundly rejected the concept of a pure democracy where the people elect leaders directly. Such a system would lead to mob rule where the rights of the minority are crushed by the will of the majority.
As Ben Franklin said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” Is that the kind of country we want to live in? The founders certainly didn’t, and they rejected it. They understood that a representative republic rooted in constitutional law is best. Our liberties are not determined by the fickle passions of the majority but by the steady rule of law. Under our system, a single sheep is armed with the Constitution to face off two ravenous wolves.
The beauty of American republicanism is that it is a balance of powers, a carefully constructed system in which the will of the people carries with it elective power and yet it is balanced with the stability of informed representation.
This is best seen in the way we elect our leaders. When we elect members to the House of Representatives and the Senate (since 1913), we do it directly. We all go vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins. There are no delegates, no legislatures, no electors involved—just the people and their vote. This is the most purely democratic process we have in our system of government.
This is a fact people forget during a presidential election. When they say, “What about the will of the people?” as they look forward to a convention where delegates will decide who will be president, they are forgetting that we do have a process in which the will of the people is expressed in a direct way—in the House and the Senate. But this is not the case with the presidency.
When we elect a president, we do it indirectly. Delegates are chosen at precinct levels (the details and locations are different from state to state). Those delegates, according to various and changing rules, vote for a candidate based on both the popular vote in their states and their own knowledge and conscience.
If there is no majority candidate on the first vote at the convention, most delegates either on the second or third vote are free to maintain or switch their votes, according to the convention rules. When a majority candidate is chosen, that person becomes the party’s nominee.
It is obvious that delegates must switch their votes if there is no candidate with a majority after the first vote. A candidate cannot be chosen to be a nominee unless he has the majority, otherwise he does not represent the majority of Republican voters and will not truly represent the party when he goes into the general election.
To get to that point, delegates need to make a decision based on their knowledge. This process is mirrored in the general election with the electoral college, which is why George Bush became president and not Al Gore even though Gore had the plurality of the popular vote (48.4 percent).
Our current obsession with the presidency as being the most important election and the one that attracts the most voters has caused people to forget that this office is the least democratic. If people really want to exercise their will, they need to do it through their state representatives and senators. The office of the presidency is a different matter.
Why is that? Why did the framers decide to balance our system with both popular/direct elections and indirect elections? The main reason is they understood the dangers of a pure democracy. If we were to make the election of the president direct, abandoning the delegate and elector system, all of the offices—legislative and executive—would be by popular vote. This would be an “excess of democracy.”
“The difference most relied on, between the American and other republics, consists in the principle of representation.”
At the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts, warned about the evils of this excess, saying people should not directly choose their president (or senators) not because they are bad people who “lack virtue,” but because they “are the dupes of pretended patriots.”
“In Massachusetts,” he said, “it had been fully confirmed by experience that [the voters] are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.”
Gerry wasn’t calling the voters stupid. He was recognizing the fact that groups of people on a grand scale can be manipulated through propaganda and emotional messaging. To guard against this, the framers decided to select delegates not as proxies but as representatives. Chosen by their peers at the local level, delegates are supposed to be more informed, aware of the process, and committed to obeying the rules. Their role is to bring stability to the process.
James Madison explains why this is necessary in Federalist 63:
There are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.
In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?
America is a perfect blend of stability and liberty, he said. “The difference most relied on, between the American and other republics, consists in the principle of representation.”
To critics who complained that such a system would produce an aristocracy (an argument which led to the eventual direct election of senators), Madison replied: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power; that there are numerous instances of the former as well as of the latter; and that the former, rather than the latter, are apparently most to be apprehended by the United States.”
Yes, there are abuses of power by officials indirectly elected, but there are abuses of liberty too, by people led by emotion and lacking the necessary information they need to elect worthy men as leaders of our nation.
Of those delegates selected to elect the president (and senators, at the time), John Jay wrote in Federalist 64:
As the select assemblies for choosing the President, as well as the State legislatures who appoint the senators, will in general be composed of the most enlightened and respectable citizens, there is reason to presume that their attention and their votes will be directed to those men only who have become the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence.
Delegates are not just chosen on a whim. Most are from the grassroots, good and honest people who want to serve their country in the best way they know how. They work hard to stay informed and vote according to principle and their conscience. They do not ignore the will of the people, but it is their duty—when unbound in their voting—to bring their knowledge and “enlightened” understanding to bear when they choose a candidate.
While not perfect, this is a balanced system that brings about the most liberty and stability for the country. It’s true that delegates can become corrupted with power—each process has its risks. But this is why we have a system composed of both indirect and direct elections.
We already lost a stabilizing force in our political system when state legislatures stopped electing senators (legislators who themselves were chosen directly by the people). It would be a devastating blow if the same thing happened to the presidency.
Like it or not, when people act as a group—en masse—they are easily swayed by passion instead of reason; they can be seduced by the “artful misrepresentations of interested men.” It is when we are in a smaller space, in our homes, towns, and cities, that we are more reasoned and controlled.
This is where democracy thrives, and it’s where we elect our representatives directly. But on a national scale, when we elect a single man for a powerful office, the passion, if not the will, of the people must be tempered with reason. Only through this process will our individual rights and liberties remain secure.
D.C. McAllister is a journalist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a contributor to Conservative Review and a senior Contributor to The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter @McAllisterDen.