The Man of the People: Part VI - Trust Busting
By Scott Lipkowitz
History is usually considered to have two main purposes: to teach us how stuff works, and to teach us where we've come from. Over the past five posts I have attempted, through the use of snapshots of key moments in United States presidential history, to explain how the presidency was conceived, how election to the office was detailed, and how, in response to the different electoral crises these first two conditions created, national parties, conventions, primaries, and super-delegates came into being. Those first five posts have succeeded - I hope - in answering, however incompletely, the how and the where. Yet, there are several other purposes behind the study of history which are of equal relevance to the how and the where; one of the most important being history as natural experiment.
Now of course before we can apply any hypothesis or draw any conclusion from the preceding natural experiments, the limitations of what I have presented to you must be acknowledged. The political, economic, social, and cultural contexts are far more complex and nuanced, and the characters more interesting, more multi-dimensional, than any brief, blog-length description can do them credit. However, there are important observations which we can draw; and which might prove beneficial if we ever want to get off the merry-go-round we seem to be trapped on. Here then, heavily seasoned with my own opinions, are some questions we should be asking, and some outcomes we should be seeking.
First and foremost is the question of whether or not the President truly is, as John Dickinson wanted he or she to be, a "man of the people." I would argue that it is hard to answer that in the affirmative. Even from the start -whether it was for cynical reasons, or considerations of the technologically and geographically induced ignorance of the body politic - the average citizen's ability to sway the selection of the President was considerably small. Not only was the option of having their voices heard left up to the states to decide; but much of the original intent of the electoral college was to remove the burden of choice from the citizenry almost entirely. Even where the citizenry could vote for electors, it was assumed that they were voting for knowledgeable men who could, from their better vantage point, make a well informed decision about who was fit to serve as chief executive on the behalf of the general population. The average citizen was expected to bow to the wisdom of more learned men.
Ultimately the founders opted for this seemingly convoluted system because, unlike our history textbooks make them out to be, they were humans, faced with real world problems. Ideology may have eventually underpinned the Revolution; but pragmatism, and a sober reflection of both the internal and external situation drove the creation of the federal government, and shaped the presidency and its selection process. Article II and the Electoral College were part of a plan that was born out of the political climate of the late 18th century; but, as World War I German general Helmut von Moltke once said, "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." The enemy in this case was the actual implementation of Article II and its provisions. As we have discussed at length, everything that followed was the result of political problem solving by humans bent on maintaining, securing, or acquiring the power of the presidential office; all because the original plan did not stand up to political, and human realities.
What then does this tell us about humans seeking power in a republic? One conclusion to draw is that those seeking power will try to find whatever means necessary to obtain it; highlighting the rule of the people or discarding it as the current political moment necessitates. As we have seen, popular movements for increased citizen participation in the selection of presidential candidates were driven by the needs of individual politicians, or parties, to maintain or obtain the presidency; not out of some zeal for democratic values - despite what Theodore Roosevelt and others might have proclaimed in public. This does not mean, however, that there is some vast political conspiracy to tell the public one thing while doing the complete opposite. All of us look out for our own interests, and take actions, whether consciously or not, to further those interests; it makes no difference if we are a farmer, baker, operative of a political party, or presidential candidate.
Once we begin to take on board the fact that the problems of our presidential nominating process - like all of our problems really - are the result of the way in which humans respond to varying situations and problems, we might be able to tailor our institutions to control for the more negative consequences. The founders were intimately concerned with this fact, the entire Constitution is a compromise aimed at maintaining stability in the face of human foibles and conflicts of interest; and while they tried to build a system to contain the influences of factions, collusion, and patronage, they were realistic in their acknowledgment that they probably would not be able to predict every possible dire consequence of their actions. This is why, in Article V of the Constitution, a system for making changes to, or amending, the Constitution was built in.
Aside from explicitly prohibiting any Amendment from removing the equality of Senatorial representation from any state, Article V does not limit what Amendments or changes may be made. In the aftermath of the first real presidential election crisis of 1800, the Twelfth Amendment was adopted in an attempt to remedy the unforeseen problem resulting from an unclear delineation between presidential and vice-presidential candidates. A total of 27 Amendments have been implemented - the most recent in 1992 - of which several deal with the presidency. None, however, deal with the mode of presidential nomination. If we, the public, so desired, we could push for changes to the Constitution that would, unlike internal party rules, be legally binding, and which might place the presidential nominating process once and for all in the hands of the general public. Of course there is one extreme speed break on constitutional reform: the two major political parties.
Founders such as Madison and Hamilton may have been kept awake at night by the destructive potential and horrific inevitability of factions, but it seemed that only Eldridge Gerry, out of all the assembled delegates to the Constitutional Convention, was able to foresee the terrible potential for national political organizations to game, and then control, the system. As we have seen, the major parties became the political equivalent of the late 19th and early 20th century monopolies which the progressive era tried to unravel. What Gerry correctly saw as their ultimate insidious advantage was their ability to create a broad loyalty that transcended the common good while at the same time positioning themselves as the ultimate protectors of the common welfare. The fact that today, when asked about voting for a third party, most voters will either say that they can not because it is not legal (false) or, more likely, that they would be "throwing their vote away," is evidence of just how thorough the two political parties have ingrained the aforementioned idea into our minds. While the parties are not the government, in that they are not required by its founding documents, they have managed to place a stranglehold on its levers and institutions; including at the state level, where any hope of reforming the presidential primary system would have to gain traction.
This is why any notion that holding open primaries - where all eligible voters, and not just those affiliated with a political party, may vote in a primary - is not a viable solution. Democrats and Republicans control the state legislatures who help craft primary election laws, and like any good monopoly, they're not interested in relinquishing their control of the market. Every step they have taken has been out of political necessity, not ideology, and even if every state held an open primary, tools such as super delegates would continue to be implemented in novel ways in order to ensure that the party's prime objective, winning, is not overshadowed by the "will of the people." Again, not a conspiracy, simply they way in which humans react to obstacles in their path.
A potential beneficial lesson we might draw then, would be to support a diversity of political parties and opinions so that no one or two parties could monopolize the system. Just as Standard Oil and U.S. Steel were broken up, and occasional monopoly suits are brought against the likes of Apple or Microsoft, so too do the political parties need to be exposed to the competition of the free-market. After all, what is more American than that? We would riot if we only had a choice of two breakfast cereals, why then are we content with only two choices for president? Voting for the 3rd, 4th, 5th parties, etc. will not end the problem of machine politics - every party will inevitably have a centralized machine structure - but it would force them to compete on the open market of political ideas; and if one of those ideas was the adoption of a Constitutional amendment to overhaul the primary and convention systems so that no party machinery could outweigh the voice of the individual citizen, then it might stand a decent chance of sneaking past the gatekeepers.
Finally, there is one last issue with our presidential nominating system that has less to do with the political parties, primaries, or super delegates, and more to do with the fact that the way in which we view the presidency and its role has dramatically changed since George Washington first took the oath of office in 1789. Initially intended to simply be the long arm of Congressional will, the modern presidency looks more like an elected monarch with a parliament waiting to give or deny its consent. We now look to the President, and not, as the framers initially intended, to Congress for domestic and international leadership. Of course this may be the legacy of thousands of years of monarchical rule, that members of complex human societies inevitably drift towards the guiding hand of a single powerful individual; but it might also be symptomatic of a deeper problem. Life is complex and the issues which face us are no less complicated that they were thousands of years ago. It may be no wonder then that we yearn for a strong man or woman who will remove from us the burden of having to grapple with these issues. Modern Americans seem prone to this sort of thinking - from weight loss pills to solving every economic hardship through tax cuts - and perhaps the growth of the elected monarch that is the presidency is to be expected. Certainly some founders, Benjamin Franklin being one of them, believed it would be the nation's ultimate destiny. Allowing this sort of thinking to continue however, is to abdicate our responsibilities as citizens living under a participatory government.
The preamble of the Constitution describes its intent as the formation of a "more perfect union." This is what, as a nation, we have been striving for since inception, and must continue to do so now. Humans have achieved a dominance on this planet because we are generalists, adapting whatever tools we have at hand to serve whatever problem or situation we find ourselves in. The Constitution is merely a political tool, and while some of its adaptations and offshoot inventions have not always worked for the common benefit, that does not mean that it can not be made to do so in the future. Baron de Montesquieu, the French philosopher of the 18th century, whose work The Spirit of the Laws heavily influenced the framers of the Constitution, believed that there was no "right" answer to government, that each form of government and its laws should be "adapted 'to the people for whom they are framed.'" The current presidential primary and election cycle has brought this issue to the fore. Our institutions may no longer be adapted to the people over which they rule. Armed with the knowledge of the history of their creation, perhaps it is time to actively alter and change them. Perhaps it is time for the innovations of political machines to be undone by the innovations of the citizens of this republic.
The United States Constitution.1787. https://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/constitution/
Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution (Inventing the American Constitution). Mariner Books. 2002.
Bok, Hilary, "Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta