The rise of extremist politicians across Europe and in the United States has stirred a growing conversation about the efficacy of democracy. Will it fail? Is Trump a sign that democracy inevitably descends into mob rule, as Socrates warned? The pessimists who answer yes to these questions assume that a more democratic system has propelled extremist candidates, and likewise that a less democratic system will prevent their rise. Yet, at least in the US, the inverse appears true: the rise of Trump can be attributed to barriers to a more pure democracy within the nomination process. The nomination process paved the way for Trump’s victory in three senses: first, in that it’s dominated by only two parties, which feels undemocratic to voters; second, in its convoluted process, which also feels undemocratic; and third, in the rules themselves that ended up favoring Trump.
The most obstructive barrier to a more democratic primary is the two-party system. A choice only between the Republican and Democratic parties leaves a crop of voters with certain policy preferences unrepresented and feeling voiceless, like their country is ruled by distant elites rather than their own. Indeed, according to a recent study cited in an Atlantic article, people who feel voiceless in government were 86 per cent more likely to support Trump. Likewise, an NBC report highlighted last month the growing divide between the GOP’s leadership and its ‘rank and file’.
Trump’s run for the presidency has uncovered these feelings and this gap between Republican elites and many Republican-identifying voters, as he targeted the Republican working class. These are the voters that have realized that the free-market economic policies, like those that contributed to the closing the Carrier Corporation factories this year in Indiana, do not directly benefit them. This pro-labour, anti-trade group has turned to Trump, a candidate labeled as not a ‘true Republican’. Trump has exploited this dynamic, forcing voters who are pro-labour to choose him; supporters of Trump, after all, say their number one concern this election is the jobs and the economy, not immigration or any of the other inflammatory topics Trump has incorporated. If not for the constraining strength of the two-party system, perhaps another, third party candidate who represented these voters could have emerged, a candidate with all the economic appeal but none of the antics or racism.
Relatedly, the complications of the current primary system contribute to the reasons people support him. Its complications and inconsistencies make it easy for Trump to call the system ‘rigged’, reinforcing the narrative of himself as an ‘outsider’, the unlikely ‘antiestablishment’ candidate that the people love. Indeed, the Republican National Committee’s process is non-uniform and complicated; each state writes its own convention rules, leaving some states winner ‘winner take all’ for delegates and others are proportional. (Though they have not been as burned by it, the Democrats have a similar free for all.) Also, the delegate system by which votes determine delegates who then vote for the candidate, and often are not bound to actually do so, distances voters from their candidates. They ask, why can’t my vote just be a direct vote for a candidate? Trump slammed the delegate system this past spring, calling it ‘rigged’ and ‘corrupt’, capitalizing on the idea that this system is undemocratic, which only heightened his support as an anti-establishment, extremist candidate.
Ironically, this complicated primary system actually benefitted Trump. He won delegates at a rate 1.22 times the amount of actual votes he received, a more skewed rate than any other candidate. Trump was able to gain the advantage because of these convoluted convention rules. The stars aligned for him in a way, as his close-margin wins happened to be the winner-take-all states like South Carolina, where he won 50 delegates after winning less than a third of the vote. Further, the amount of delegates that each state receives is based heavily on total state population, which, according to FiveThirtyEight, means that Republicans living in mostly ‘blue’ states have more voter ‘say’ than those living in predominantly ‘red’ states. A truly democratic primary process would be one in which the rules are consistent among states and each voter has an equal say; the delegate system would be revised or retired, allowing voters voices to be more directly heard and counted more equally.
Before 1972, the nomination process was hardly democratic. Candidates were chosen by party leaders without any consultation of the populace. Yet, the process could still be more direct and a more accurate representation of who the nation’s makeup. Some have blamed the reformation of this process for the rise of Trump, implying that a less popular process would bar candidates like him from election. Andrew Sullivan writes ‘the barriers to popular will…are now almost nonexistent’. Clearly, though, voters feel otherwise. If this election has demonstrated anything, it’s that a more opaque, elite decision would only add fuel to the fire, aggravating the very forces that brought Trump to power in the first place. No, the solution must be to travel down the other direction, to work to make the primary process a more inclusive, equal process for all involved.
Therefore, it naturally follows that the need for more democracy in the race for the presidency extends to the general election. Like with the primaries, the electoral college feels overcomplicated and undemocratic. For instance, the system awards unequal voting power to states, favouring the ones with smaller populations. Like delegates, electors are the ones who actually vote for the candidates, technically unbound to the people they represent, and each state has its own voting rules, which can result in systematic problems like Florida’s use of the now-notorious butterfly ballots in 2000. Also like its primary prologue, the electoral college reinforces the two-party system, as its overwhelming ‘winner-take-all’ system often makes voting for an unlikely third-party like giving a vote to the least-favoured candidate.
Given the antiestablishment sentiment of this election season on both sides of the aisle, it’s clear that the people are demanding more, not less, democracy when it comes to choosing candidates. It’s time that the parties and policy-makers embrace this popular desire to choose and revise the electoral system, especially since doing so would likely prevent, not propel, extremist candidates like Trump.