One of the great unresolved, and probably unresolvable, questions in American public life is what is meant by “elite”. To a large extent, this question is unanswerable by its definition: elites are always just the other, a useful tool, and thus inherently malleable, a shifter specter always in the shadows. It has been applied to the very wealthy, the political class, snooty college students, rampaging Harvard professors, union bosses, outspoken leaders of minority groups, and practically every other collection of people in America, no matter how insignificant, except for probably working-class whites, aka, “real Americans.”
A clear distillation of this was in the lead-up to the 1972 campaign. After the chaos and tumult of 1968, where Hubert Humphrey, who didn’t enter a single primary, was awarded the Democratic nomination, only to barely lose to Nixon, the party decided they had to reform. The McGovern Commission was tasked to overhaul the process, which shaped the primary system we know today. This was explicitly designed to cut the legs out from under party bosses like Richard Daley and labor leaders like George Meany, the quintessential politicians in the smokey room, deciding what was best for everyone.
On the surface, of course, this was right and good. The people should have more of a say, and not the jowly elites of a dying era. But to this, Daley and Meany could (and did) easily respond: what elections have you won? You radicals, you elite college students, have never won anything. We rose to power because we know how to win elections by giving people what they want and representing them. Being able to have ghost voters and ward heelers is all well and good, but unless you have a platform that makes people want to vote for you, you’re going to lose. They made the claim that they were the ones who represented the most people.
The disaster of 72, in which McGovern, one of the finest public servants America has ever produced, got trounced by the venal band of criminals in the Nixon administration, made the party reform the still-nascent primary system, by creating a system of superdelegates, whose votes were unbound by any piddling election, and who could more or less swing a nomination by themselves. It represents the return of the Establishment.
This system, and the primary idea in general, is coming to a head this year thanks to the insurgency of Bernie Sanders and the insurgent lunacy of Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, the idea of a lack of democracy in the system is exemplified by this Charles Blow column, in which he argues that the Democrats do not practice democracy, cleverly titling it “The (un)Democratic Party”, which is very, very clever.
He cites as his first example superdelegates, which he argues tilt the balance of an election by announcing in advance who the elites have chosen, and therefore giving momentum and media coverage to the establishment pick. This makes a certain amount of sense, of course. Bernie, it is assumed, can’t overtake Hillary because of superdelegate math, which means Hillary is already being treated as the nominee. But Blow also thinks that caucuses are undemocratic, because only those with enough time and passion can do them. The young radicals who support Bernie, for example, who are a contradictory elite.
There are two weird arguments here. The first is that being jazzed to votes makes you an elite, and is therefore somewhat sketchy. It’s the establishment argument used to undercut a genuine passion for Bernie. The second is that superdelegates are completely unresponsive to popular passions or electoral persuasion, a notion disproven in the last open primary on the Democratic side. Obama supporters were terrified that Clinton superdelegates would give her the nomination, but they switched over when it became clear that Obama was the choice of the majority of voters.
Because that’s the thing with superdelegates, or the Daley/Meany branch. They are very, very concerned with winning elections, which means putting their support behind the candidate they think gives them the best shot. Of course there is corruption and incest and greed in the selection, and they aren’t going to be right all of the time, either. But that’s part of having a party system. The party wants to pick a candidate it thinks can win, and the primary process is designed to give them an idea of how to do that. It isn’t designed to bind them to the passion of a minority. It makes it incumbent upon the lesser-known candidate prove they can appeal to the most people, which is what Obama did in 2008, and Howard Dean failed to do in 2004.
The Republican are figuring this out now. The “Stop Trump” movement is being assailed by people as anti-Republican as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan as being the only thing worse than Trump getting the nomination. The anti-democratic measures being taken by party elites to change the rules so that they can possibly deny him the nomination are seen as a subversion of popular will, and to an extent, that is true. But to a greater extent, that is the absolute right of a political party.
Trump is winning some 30% of the GOP voters over, and is pretty much despised by everyone else in the country. He has almost zero chance at winning because he only appeals to a very small slice of the people. A party isn’t bound to a suicide pact because of a loud minority.
(Of course, that we got here is the fault of the GOP, which has no center and has destroyed itself, peddling insanity for decades. This is fine by me, but doesn’t change the central argument.)
I don’t think it is in the best interest of the GOP to Stop Trump. If they nominate, say, Paul Ryan, the party will tear itself to shreds even more than it has done. Trump and Cruz combined represent the majority of their voters, and there would be a revolt. Giving the nomination to Cruz would alienate the Trump people and they’d still lose huge, with a “true conservative”. Their best bet is to let Trump go down in flames, say that they were hijacked by a billionaire madman (without talking about why said madman appealed to their voters), do everything they can to obstruct Hillary, and try again in four years.
But that’s just the smart play here. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be bound to do it. We have a fairly-recent notion that the will of the people who vote in primaries is sacrosanct, and that to deny them their choice is elitist and antidemocratic. It isn’t. The candidates picked in the primary are chosen because they pass a test and prove they can appeal to people in Iowa and California and South Carolina. If a party legitimately doesn’t think that they can win a general election- that is to say, if they don’t think a majority of people want to vote for them- then it isn’t undemocratic to try to tilt the scales to someone who can win.
There are a million things wrong with our democracy, perhaps fatally wrong. A party using whatever method necessary to pick a candidate who can best represent their interest and win is not in the top 50%.