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

A party that is truly strong is one that is democratic and listens to its people and not just to its invisible leaders.

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.
REUTERS/Nick Oxford

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.

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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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