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Amid the 2016 presidential campaign, tension rises over an enduring political question: ‘Who is the party?’

REUTERS/Nick Oxford
We can hope that 2016 will be the year the Republicans and Democrats take the next step toward democracy by making the people and not the leadership the definition of who is the party.

Although neither prevailed in Minnesota, Super Tuesday was good for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The overall winners nationally, they amassed a lot of delegates in their quests for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. Yet their candidacies, in different ways, are demonstrating an important fact about contemporary American party politics: It remains elitist and anti-democratic.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

Trump is the anti-establishment candidate, Clinton the pick of the party elites. Both the leadership of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) think they are serving as the guardians of orthodoxy against the insurgents, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders respectively. The committee leaders think they are the party and that they have the right to decide who gets the nomination through an invisible primary. Many political scientists, especially those who support strong parties, also agree. But should that be so?

Historically, “Who is the party?” has been a contested issue in American politics. Early on in the 19th century, before universal franchise, party elites picked candidates in the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms. There was no democracy — no primaries or caucuses, no people’s choice. The party was the personal property or domain of its elites. But as franchise expanded and parties opened up, presidential candidate selection changed. It morphed from backrooms to conventions. But conventions still represented an elite — party regulars and insiders who made the choices. Enter the rise of primaries and caucuses in the 1960s.

A setback in ’68, and another move forward

Primaries and caucuses were a major move forward, democratizing the party selection of presidential candidates. In theory open to the party faithful to vote, they were a huge step forward. But in 1968 when insurgent Sen. Eugene McCarthy challenged the presumed Democratic Party nominee President Lyndon Johnson and the Chicago Democratic National Convention virtually ignored him and those who supported McCarthy, that showed how closed the DNC remained. As a result, the McGovern-Fraser Commission proposed more reforms to open up that party. It was yet again another leap toward redefining the party to mean not just the elites but perhaps more average voters, but including women, the young, and people of color. Republicans, too, opened up their party more, and together the two parties expanded caucuses and primaries as a way to enrich and expanded participation. But now the 2016 elections demonstrate the limits of party democracy.

Consider first the Democrats. Prior to Super Tuesday, Clinton had only a modest lead over Sanders in pledged delegates. Yet she had an enormous advantage with superdelegates in the invisible primary. These are individuals who are not selected by the people in primaries and caucuses – they are party leaders and elected officials. In 2008 Clinton and Obama battled over them, and now in 2016 Clinton’s ultimate advantage may lie with them. Their existence may be enough to give her a lock on the nomination in simply a matter of a couple of weeks. These delegates serve effectively as anti-democratic checks upon the people attending caucuses and primaries, potentially thwarting majority rule or biasing the presidential selection process from the get-go. They are analogous to the electors and the Electoral College, serving as an outdated feature of a political system once elite-driven and hardly democratic. 

Clinton’s probable party nomination through superdelegates is increasingly seen by a new generation of voters – mostly the millennials – as illegitimate and anti-democratic. Clinton may win this way, but it does the Democratic Party no good. It appears to disenfranchise a new generation of party members and, moreover, it forestalls the ability of the Democratic Party to evolve to reflect the preferences of a new generation. It is effectively reactionary party politics freezing the party in the mind of its leaders.

A displeased Republican leadership

Trump’s challenge is fascinating as rumors circulate that the Republican orthodoxy is displeased with his probable nomination. Efforts to back Rubio as the alternative, or stories of how perhaps party leaders are signaling to GOP candidates that they can distance themself from Trump show that the party leaders think they know what is best for the party. Yes, his rhetoric is awful, but there is one thing good about Trump: He is possibly facilitating needed party change. The Republican Party needs to evolve; it faces a demographic time bomb ready to explode; and its policy positions are often out of sync with those found in public-opinion polls. Yet mainstream Republicans want to deny this need to evolve. And since the Republicans do not have superdelegates, it may be easier for that party to change than for the Democrats to do so. The stance of the RNC leadership thus is bad long-term politics, and also a sign of how noncommittal that party, too, is toward real democracy.

We can hope that 2016 will be the year the Republicans and Democrats take the next step toward democracy by making the people and not the leadership the definition of who is the party. Party leadership should not stand in the way of change; they need to let the people – the real party – decide what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat and not themselves. A party that is truly strong is one that is democratic and listens to its people and not just to its invisible leaders.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take


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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/02/2016 - 09:30 am.

    The Republican (r)evolution

    Salon had a nice article today about the Republicans. While Trump has harnessed the votes of the middle class people that vote Republican, racist though many of them are, Since the time of Reagan and trickle-down economics the Republican elites have been pushing the idea that tax cuts for the wealthy are good for the middle class. All that has really done is balloon the deficit, pinch off benefits, and cause stagnate wages. The Salon article points out the great increase in national wealth and how it is going to the rich while the middle class share stagnates. The one good thing about the Trump phenomenon is that he has helped lead those middle class Republicans to see that they have been voting against their own self interest. The Republican elites used the tea party to try to gain power but they have lost control. While I would never vote for a bigot like Trump I am happy to see him upset the traditional Republican power base and people like the Kochs and the ot6her puppet masters behind Rubio.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2016 - 10:06 am.

      Well, if they are looking for Trump to address their economic grievances, they’ll be sadly disappointed again…


      The folks at the Tax Policy Center have spurned my advice to spend more time with their families, instead spending their holiday weekends beavering away on an analysis of Donald Trump’s tax plan. And the important news is that it’s bigger, more energetic, and altogether more taxerrific than Jeb Bush’s weak-tea excuse for a tax plan. Bush would increase the national debt by 28 percentage points over the next decade. Trump kills it with a 39 point increase in red ink. Bush raises the federal deficit by $1 trillion in 2026. Trump goes big and increases it by $1.6 trillion. Bush’s plan costs $6.8 trillion over ten years. Trump’s plan clocks in at a budget-busting $9.5 trillion. And Bush reduces the tax rate of the super-rich by a meager 7.6 percent. Trump buries him by slashing tax rates for the Wall Street set by 12.5 percent.

      Once again, Bush has brought a knife to a gun fight, and Trump has slapped him silly. This is why Trump is a winner. Merry Christmas, billionaires!

      (end quote)

      And you thought Trump was interested in the little people !

      It’s not economics that people are interested in, it really is about reinforcing the sensibilities of Nixon’s southern strategy.

      • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/02/2016 - 10:40 am.

        I wasn’t aware that Trump had….

        any kind of actual plan of any kind for anything. The point though is that the rubes are waking up to how they have been flim flammed since the time of Reagan and voodoo economics. Read the Salon article.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2016 - 10:22 am.

    The key phrase of this election cycle for the Republicans is “political correctness”.

    The more a candidate adheres to political correctness, the worse they do with this slice of the population.

    Trump’s entire entertainment persona is built around “saying it like it is”. This is what he is selling in this election–but with a key difference, it is echoing the view of the disenchanted white population that feels that their lives have been diminished by various brown peoples. Now, I’m pretty sure that Trump has never felt that his economic prospects, or his way of life and or the quality of life in his neighborhood has ever been threatened by the presence of others–so there is an essential phoniness in his candidacy.

    But the mode of his election is to blow a whistle, not a dog whistle, and tell his followers to be “loud and proud”. The dog whistle used by the other candidates is no longer a sufficient incentive–it has been blown so many time to so little effect, that the Trump whistle now seems to be the authentic direction to move into. It’s politics of the “other”.

    This will result in destruction, not strengthening of the Republican party–if not from disgust of racially tolerant conservative, but from the simple demographic changes that are happening in the US and world.

  3. Submitted by Keith Kuckler on 03/02/2016 - 10:26 am.

    Democrats use race as well

    All summer as Hillary failed to gain traction on her ideas and plans, Bernie continually stuck to his overarching message. When Clinton found that she was loosing to Bernie on economic issues, she and Bill went back to their old standby, race and gender inequality. Now, they may have been able to make a viable case on those issues when talking about Donald Trump, it was grossly unfair and dishonest to paint Bernie Sanders as someone who has not fought for the rights of minorities and women. It really was sad to see John Lewis make his ill considered comment about Bernie, only to have to backtrack a few days later. In some candidates in both parties inject race into the campaign.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/02/2016 - 01:15 pm.

      Not only that, but

      …Bill Clinton helped enact criminal justice reform that put hundreds of thousands of the sons and grandsons of that same demographic that now votes for his wife (and indirectly, for him); and

      …helped enact welfare reform that took untold billions out of the pockets of the poor, and significantly, this same demographic; and

      …helped enact trade legislation that exported millions of jobs outside the U.S., with enormous negative effect on both poor and middle class persons.

      All the love shown the Clintons by the black electorate is absolutely baffling to me. With friends like this, WHO NEEDS ENEMIES??

      This is another dimension of the exquisite dishonesty of the whole Clinton ethic. Bernie Sanders can be trusted; Hilary Clinton cannot.

      And as regards the Super-Delegate scam, which allows the “elect” to give the finger to the rank and file Democratic voters and pick their personal favorite regardless of any Democratic voting process: it’s not simply undemocratic, it’s out-and-out corrupt.

      This same corrupt Super-Delegate system is the lynchpin to the Clinton campaign. Without all those Super-Delegate votes Mrs. Clinton has been courting all these years, take a look at the delegate count and you’ll see it’s much more of a contest. This kind of system is made to order for the Clinton value system.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/02/2016 - 01:37 pm.


        Nothing better than when white people tell black people how and why they should vote.

        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/02/2016 - 02:33 pm.

          Maybe Blacksplaining is more to your liking.

          Here are some of the same thoughts by black authors, not that it makes any difference to me, but from your comment, I guess it would make a difference to you:

          • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/02/2016 - 04:29 pm.

            No less condescending, for sure

            The funny thing about your links is they highlight Clinton’s support for the crime bill. The problem is that Sanders actually voted for it. Sanders has repeatedly lied about his record – on this, on guns, on his gay marriage opposition, on opposition to Obama, but seems to get a pass from a lot of people.

            I just assume that anyone who opposes Sanders just realizes how dishonest he actually is.

            • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/02/2016 - 08:38 pm.

              Your theses, that…

              1. Bernie Sanders has “lied” about all manner of things, a claim you have not supported with a single citation of any kind. Please indicate something – besides your own surmise – that there is any substance to this claim. Your time to expose Bernie Sanders as a fraud and liar is at hand, if you have anything to offer !! Do not delay, as those of us who regard him as a person of integrity don’t want to be duped !!

              2. In your opinion, the articles highlighted the mass incarcerations resulting from the Clintons’ support of the crime bill. In fact, those pieces spoke at least as much about the economic harm to blacks from the economic policies of the Clintons, as in “the fundamental threat to black dignity in the US is economic inequality.”

              Finally, you have not offered any defense of Mrs. Clinton on the points made by these black authors nor in my original comment. You are not alone in this, as the prevailing wisdom in the Clinton camp seems to be to say as little about this history as possible.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/02/2016 - 01:17 pm.

    Not to be harsh

    To the extent that middle class republican voters had realized that they’ve gotten ripped off, they’re simply too ignorant to figure out what to do about it. So they vote fore a personality they like and shoot themselves in the foot yet again.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/02/2016 - 01:21 pm.

    I think perhaps…

    This election cycle may reveal more clearly than ever the systemic flaws in the American system for selecting candidates. If Clinton and Trump both get the nod, we’ll be seeing a system that has selected the two most unpopular and dis-trusted candidates in the entire field. How can that be?

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/02/2016 - 06:36 pm.


      I’m with you on this, Paul. It’ll be some back alley fight to see, for sure, whether its dogs/cats, donkeys/elephants, foxes and rabbits, whatever nasty contest one might imagine.

      The cable channels will love it more than a hurricane, pipeline explosion or any other prime time disaster they might sell to us.

      Don’t know if this will be fun for rational people. It will be bloody, for sure.
      Maybe the nation needs some catharsis more than anything else right now.

  6. Submitted by David Kleppe on 03/02/2016 - 02:42 pm.

    The televized political zoo

    It was the media guru and scholarly savant Marshall McLuhan who declared that the media technologies that we create all but destroy the societies in which they occur. Such an overstatement does propose one thing for sure. Instantaneous electronic communications disrupt and destabilize our customs, manners, modes of thought, and sensory perceptions, i.e. images compete with words. No doubt the first indication of the power of TV to change our politics came in 1960 with the Nixon-Kennedy TV debates. In 2016 our political manners and our candidate strategies have entered the realm not only of real-time, but that of a reality TV quadrennial mini-series in which the angry rabble blog hostile invective at every turn. All this is part of the celebration of political incorrectness, a virtual riot and revolution of manners and customs. The Trump phenomena is all part of death of traditional values. Linear reasoning is out as the new media is re-tribalizing society as McLuhan warned.

  7. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 03/02/2016 - 10:15 pm.

    Super delegates

    I think the superdelegates have earned the right to participate in our national convention – here is the complete list of Democratic Party superdelegates, 2016
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Unpledged delegates represent about a sixth of the overall delegate count (approximately 4,766) {15%} and come from several categories of prominent Democratic Party members:
    • 20 distinguished party leaders (current and former presidents, vice-presidents, congressional leaders, and DNC chairs) (DPLs)
    • 20 Democratic governors (including territorial governors and the Mayor of the District of Columbia)
    • 46 Democratic members of the United States Senate (including Washington, DC shadow senators)
    • 193 Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives (including non-voting delegates)
    • 433 elected members of the Democratic National Committee (including the chairs and vice-chairs of each state’s Democratic Party)[2]
    Superdelegates are “unpledged” in the sense that they themselves decide which candidate to support.

    We need roots as well as wings, the young can get elected through the caucus convention system and learn the ropes.

    Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Franken, Klobuchar, Dayton, etc. deserve a vote at the Democratic National Convention.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/03/2016 - 07:57 am.

      Let ONLY the ex-presidents vote any ole way they like,

      …but ALL of the remainder you’ve listed should be bound to the Democratic result of the primary or caucus in the state which they represent.

      So yeah, let them have a vote – as long as it doesn’t corrupt the democratic principle behind our elections.

      I’m afraid your notion of “wings” and “roots” sounds like grasping at straws in seeking an excuse for the status quo in the Democratic party. There are obviously a good number of Democrats who think slavish devotion to the status quo is not good for the party nor the country.

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