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.
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?