In the year of the populist, endorsing strong political parties is not a popular opinion. But I’m convinced it’s necessary for the well-being of our democracy: through strong parties, we can diminish the appeal of demagogues like Donald Trump and potentially dangerous populist policies rooted in misinformation or in reaction to economic displacement.
Democracy, of course, is a good thing, but too much democracy, especially in candidate selection, can have unintended consequences. As Julia Azari notes, “elections can sometimes produces…illiberal outcomes” that “oppress minorities, violate religious freedom, advocate violent ends, or neglects civil liberties.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because at various points in this election, Trump has embraced many of these notions — from calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country to condoning violence at his rallies and a stated willingness to punish women who get abortions (which, regardless of opinion on the issue, is a civil right). The solution to demagogues like Trump is strong political parties.
Since the Progressive Era, parties have been losing legitimacy. Progressives endorsed an expansion of democracy, including the continued pseudo-democratization of the presidency (to borrow Robert Dahl’s phrase). But the pseudo-democratization of the presidency and especially presidential selection leads to problems. There’s a reason we want party officials to have a strong say in candidate selection: they have skin in the game. Party elites and elected officials rise and fall with the party; a popular party leaders lifts their position while an unpopular candidate atop the ticket could cause them to lose their office. As such, their decisions are premised not just on policy, but on electoral livelihood. In other words, they will support a candidate who both matches their ideological beliefs and will give the party the best opportunity at winning the general election (and thus boosting the party’s standing). We should want those individuals to have a strong say in primaries — they know politics best.
That’s just to defend superdelegates. Closed primaries are also necessary for a party’s well-being. Nominations are inherently partisan affairs — there’s a reason it’s called the “Democratic presidential nomination” or the “Republican presidential nomination.” Parties are selecting a nominee. And that nominee should reflect the wants of loyal partisans, those who have registered and affiliate with the party. This disenfranchises no one. In fact, it encourages voters to register with a party, thereby strengthening partisan loyalties and unifying a large number of voters around a single identification: a party. We can create strong political parties by encouraging people to register and affiliate with a party in order to participate in the primaries. (That said, barriers to joining parties and participating in these elections should be low. No states should require partisan affiliation months before the primary election).
Superdelegates and loyal partisans will elect a candidate best for the party. Usually, if not always, what’s best for the party will be what’s best for the country. Strong political parties want to win the general election; they want to take the presidency and control Congress. As such, its national representative should be an individual who appeals to swing voters and who can lead the party to a strong showing on election day.
Independent voters are not beholden to such wants. Independents — and they are not true independents, but rather closet partisans perhaps with ideologies further to the left or to the right of the two major parties — have no affiliation to a party and thus care little about the party’s electoral viability. They care about ideology and will infiltrate a party to back an insurgent candidate whose ideology closely aligns with their own; they don’t want strong political parties because parties would block a demagogic and altogether dangerous candidate who would hurt down-ticket races across the nation.
Take Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump rode a mischievous faction of partisan and independent voters to his plurality victory in the Republican nomination. Party elites decried his efforts and his policies — they realize he spells electoral disaster in November. But because the GOP is in a weak state trying to balance an increasing number of factions, because the field winnowed too late to produce a credible alternative to Trump, and because independent voters flooded the Republican primaries, a dangerous demagogue — the likes of which our Founders feared — emerged. Needless to say, a more controlled partisan process would not have resulted in Trump’s nomination.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is a far-left candidate relying on populist support. He is not a demagogue like Trump, but his candidacy does thrive on a faction of far-left independents corrupting a partisan affair. He trails huge with superdelegates — the party insiders who best understand politics and understand the electorate better than all but (perhaps) political scientists. Of course, should he emerge with a pledged delegate lead, the supers will follow, but their initial support (and blue-dog Democrat fears that Sanders will hurt down-ticket races) attest to Sanders’ electoral viability (or lack thereof). It’s also worth noting that while supers by and large backed Hillary Clinton in 2008, Barack Obama was urged to run by high-ranking Democratic senators. He was never considered a threat to Democratic victory. Sanders does not prove a threat to liberal democracy, but his ability to influence Democratic affairs through an independent coalition premised on ideological affiliation and not partisan loyalty (hence #BernieOrBust) shows that he and his supporters care not about the electoral and long-term viability of the Democratic Party.
Strengthening partisan structures through closed primaries and superdelegates result in candidates viable at the national scale and who boost party chances across the ballot. Strong parties prevent demagogues and populist infiltration. They reflect the wants, desires, and beliefs of political experts whose livelihood depends, in part, on nominating outcomes.
We should embrace strong political parties, not run from them.