The Downside of Democracy

A 1979 book on presidential selection inadvertently predicted the rise of Trump—and the weakness of a popular primary system.

Ben Brewer / Reuters

Predictions are dangerous business, especially in the hall of mirrors that American politics has become. Suffice it to say, no one called this U.S. presidential election cycle—not Trump, not Sanders, not any of it.

Except, perhaps, in a round-about way, a 1979 book about the presidential-primary system. James Ceaser, a University of Virginia professor, outlined the history and potential weaknesses of various nomination processes, including one that largely relies on popular primaries. Starting in the early 1970s, Democrats and Republicans began reforming their primary-election processes, transferring influence over nominations away from party leaders to voters. This kind of system is theoretically more democratic, but it also has weaknesses—some of which have been on display in 2016. When I spoke with a couple of conservative political-science professors about their field last month, one of them remarked, with just a hint of jealousy, “I expect Jim Ceaser to take a victory lap around the country saying I told you so.”

I spoke with Ceaser about Trump and the unintended effects of trying to make democracy more democratic. When I asked him if I could turn on my recorder, he said, “You’re not working for the CIA, are you?” This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity, but not by any government officials, to my knowledge.

Emma Green: What has changed in the three and a half decades since you published your book?

James Ceaser: Not very much. The ideas [for reform] were laid in the Progressive era: to take control over the nomination process from the party leaders and transfer it to a popular following within the party or even outside, in a primary. That was the fundamental transformation. It was finally implemented fully in 1972 when the majority of the delegates came to be chosen by primaries. Even in the non-primary states, the caucuses reflected public opinion.

It has gone through some modifications. There was lots of experimentation with things like the order of the primaries. There’s been experimentation with whether the primary should be winner-take-all or proportional.

But the essential change—the people are the source of the nomination—came in ’72.

Green: Has there been any push to walk that back, so there’s less influence from popular primaries on who gets the nomination?

Ceaser: There was some modification of that deliberately in the Democratic Party in the ’80s with the Hunt Commission—they felt they had gone too far in some ways. They pulled back a little bit and instituted these superdelegates, which was a way of making sure party officials would be at the convention. In a marginal case, where it was close, there would be enough of those to make a bit of a difference. That’s not quite the case this time, but it’s made a bit of difference—the fact that Hillary Clinton has got most of the superdelegates.

The difficulty of really walking it back substantially would be to ask the American people to have a different conception of what’s legitimate in the nomination. [The parties] would have to be willing to come out and say, “We’re no longer operating on the method of this full, open deliberation,” and take their chances about whether the American people would abandon the party.

Green: What are the downsides of a popular primary model?

Ceaser: The argument made when parties were established was fear of demagogy. It’s a vague word—sometimes one man’s demagogue is another man’s fate. But [it was fear of] popular appeals that emphasize emotion—in short, getting people elected who don’t have the qualifications that people think would be good for a statesman and leader.

When Woodrow Wilson proposed [a popular-vote nomination system], the idea was that the types of appeals made to the public would be high-minded, and we would have these very deliberative debates by great statesmen. The minute this got underway, though, people started believing more in propaganda, public relations, and advertising.

When you look at recent races, you notice something in play: people for whom running for the presidency is their entry into politics rather than the capstone of a career. Jesse Jackson, Pat Roberts, Pat Buchanan—these people, even if they didn’t win, they got pretty far. This is the antithesis of what some had in mind originally—this shouldn’t be an entry-level job.

“This shouldn’t be an entry-level job.”

Green: You lay out four goals that a selection system should ideally be able to achieve:

(1) It should promote candidates with presidential character,

(2) the accession to power should be seen as legitimate,

(3) the executive should have qualifications for the office, and

(4) “highly ambitious” people should be prevented from taking office.

Has this happened this election cycle? Why hasn’t our system been able to produce a nomination process that supports these goals?

Ceaser: This is the danger of this fully popular system. There’s a higher probability that you could get a demagogic result—it’s ripe for that. And lo and behold, that’s what we have. It’s the realization of the fear people had about this system.

There are disadvantages to a limited system, too—no system is perfect. It can become stale; it can protect too much of the status quo; it can fail to hear messages that are surging up. This is a point that has been made in both the Sanders and Trump phenomena—there is something the political class is missing that became clear in this primary process. So it’s not as if one has all the benefits and none of the disadvantages—it’s a mix.

The main concern going back to the founding period for presidential selection was, “Can we block this dangerous demagogue?” And in the 1820s, when we established political parties, they had the same concern: “Can we make it much less probable, by the institutions we set up, that this person can ever get to the presidency?”

Green: You talk about the way party leaders fall into line around whatever the system produces. It’s been interesting to watch that over the last couple of weeks in particular as Trump has become the default Republican nominee.

How do you think the change from a system led by party elites to a system led by popular primaries has shaped these dynamics?

Ceaser: This is the system we have. They can’t stop this. The people have spoken. That’s a very powerful moral force in our society. That’s why a lot of them are falling in line.

They have other reasons, too—political reasons. They fear the opposite party more. They’re united in their distaste for Hillary Clinton. But it’s powerful—look, Trump is the winner. He won, fair and square.

“They can’t stop this. The people have spoken. That’s a very powerful moral force in our society.”

Green: Is the choice really between party bosses and Trump-like demagogues?

Ceaser: Those are the models of the two different systems we’ve had going back to the 1820s—something more party oriented, and something more popular oriented. You can mix them a little bit. For example, in the period of the Progressive Era up until the 1970s, you had some primaries—so you got to taste a little of what the people wanted—but the party still held control. You had a little bit of both. And that’s the superdelegate idea—you try to mix.

At this point in American history, the idea that the people should speak is awfully strong. There are a lot of people in Washington today saying, “Oh, let’s go back to closed system—not only in parties, but in Congress. Do things behind closed doors. To heck with transparency—it’s nonsense anyhow.” The problem they are going to run up against is, yeah, there are good arguments for what they say—but are the American people going to swallow this?

Green: Do candidates always question the system in the way that Sanders is doing now?

Ceaser: They will use that, because they know the underlying principle of legitimacy people tend to back is of popular choice.

[Sanders] hasn’t gotten a majority of the delegates selected by election. But if he did, you could imagine how this would be: He makes the argument that it’s rigged against him, and appeals to this idea of democracy as the more legitimate principle. Trump made the same argument right before Indiana, saying, “I’m going to get more delegates than anyone, no one is going to take this away from me, we will disrupt the convention,” things like that.

You also have two candidates who weren’t members of their party. That’s another extraordinary thing: The party used to say hey, we control this, we’re going to pick the one that we want. Now, a party at the national level is kind of like a public utility. They don’t have a basis even of limiting who the candidates are to their own party. Bernie Sanders is not a Democratic. He was a socialist. And Trump was really not a Republican. But they came in and rented a party because that’s the way the rules are set up.

Green: What do you mean by a public utility?

Ceaser: A party was a private organization that worked by its own rules and had its own purposes. It wasn’t obliged to run things according to popular majority rule of all the people, but maybe majority rule of all the party members—people who have been important in the party.

By “public utility,” in a way, I mean [they’re] running an election by some neutral rule—they’re just sort of running the election for the candidates. Anyone can walk in, and the party can’t really shape this very much. Parties decided to do this on their own. Usually it works out—most of the time, you’ve gotten good candidates out of it—but now it’s come to the point that they haven’t been able to say, “Well, we don’t want this person because he hasn’t been a member of the party.” You would think a party would be able to do that.

“A party at the national level is kind of like a public utility.”

Green: It’s sort of a Frankenstein effect—there was an intention of creating one kind of creature, but it didn’t really turn out this way.

Ceaser: That’s a fair characterization. If you go back to Woodrow Wilson and others, you have the high-minded, popular statesmen. Not the bosses—the best minds and leaders in the party vying against each other, putting forward their program and their ideas, and letting the mass of people in the party make the decision, not the party leaders. That was the idea—you’d have a high-minded debate, and the people would decide, it would be highly legitimate because there’s no stronger principal in a democracy than that the people should rule. Instead of forcing people to make deals behind the scenes and all that used to go on at conventions, they would articulate a program and the best person would win. That was the hope.

This system puts an emphasis on oratory—that’s what Woodrow Wilson had in mind. Even if you take it on that basis, what you’ve seen is a lot of public relations running these things, and money is playing a role. These factors have produced the Frankenstein effect.

Green: Do you think Libertarians or any other third party have a chance?

Ceaser: I think the [major] parties get a lot from this system now. It penalizes third parties and makes it very difficult. But as for a third party winning—it’s hard, but not impossible. Another reason that you haven’t had third parties: possible third-party candidates under the closed system just say, “What the heck? I’m not going to start a third party. I’m going to go into one of the major parties and take over and win.” They do this all the time in American politics—not just the presidency, but at other levels too. And most of these so-called third parties that we’ve had have mostly organized around an individual—say, Wallace in ’68.

The Libertarian Party has been around—they’ve been trying to build up an actual party over the long term, and the better they do, the more that would be a conceivable strategy. I just don’t think they’re anywhere near a majority of the American people.