With Super Tuesday coming up, Americans are reflecting on the Republican presidential campaign: Has the fighting among candidates been normal? Is the presidential campaign process too long? How important are debates? Reflecting on these questions can be put into better context by looking at the evolution of the presidential selection process.
Since the early 20th century, it has been democratized, erasing many of the systemic checks on statesmanship. This change seems to have fueled demagoguery and empowered the executive branch, centralizing political power, which our Founders intended to guard against. Strengthening political parties may offer protection against such behavior.
The Founders’ Concept of Presidential Selection
The Founders knew that both personal ambition and demagoguery are dangerous in an executive if left uncontrolled. Personal ambition diminishes wise decision making and tends toward infringement of others’ rights. Demagoguery arises from popular leadership, or leadership driven primarily by public opinion, and undermines the prudence of statesmanship. Consequently, the founding generation attempted to create an electoral process that would prevent both.
The Constitution provided one check through the electoral system, by stipulating that presidential electors are to be chosen by state legislatures rather than directly by the people. Before the 17th Amendment in 1913, Senators were also elected in this manner. The purpose in both cases was to add a moderating layer between the people and the officials they elected. The protective layer not only filtered out extreme and impulsive public passions, but expanded the electoral base, requiring that any aspirant be acceptable to all regions.
Another check was the balance of power divided by three co-equal branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Congress, which represents the people in the House of Representatives and the states in the Senate, provides a counterweight to the executive.
However, there was an additional procedure the Founders exercised in selecting presidential candidates that they incorrectly anticipated would continue. In the early years of the republic, candidates were selected informally by the consent of elected officials at the time. In addition to public service and character, selection was based upon adherence to principle, not necessarily on stance on or advocacy of a particular issue. Through this process, George Washington was unanimously selected to be the first President.
Martin Van Buren’s Solution
The selection system held decently well for the founding generation (albeit Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1801 broke with the tradition in some respects). But by the 1820s, it was clear the system was coming apart. Few possessed the leadership and awe of the founding generation, and situations were arising where Presidents were being elected by the House (1801 and 1824), as no candidate received a majority through normal electoral channels. A new mechanism was needed to ensure statesmanship and to avoid contests going to the House.
Martin Van Buren aggressively advocated for vibrant political parties to be that mechanism. Although parties had been around since the beginning, they were relatively weak. Strong ones delineated principles and platforms from which presidential candidates could be drawn.
Furthermore, they served as a buffer to both demagoguery and personal ambition: A candidate had to prove himself a worthy statesman and adhere to party principles before the party selected him for candidacy. If a candidate wanted to appeal to the public on an issue, he had to first negotiate with party leaders to receive their support, or else the party could abandon him.
Progressives Democratize the System
Woodrow Wilson, who became President in 1913, had an entirely different concept of the presidency. He argued that the Constitution is “not a mere lawyers’ document: it is a vehicle of life, and its spirit is always the spirit of the age.” In other words, he said the Constitution is not absolute, but pliable to the zeitgeist of public opinion.
He believed a political party should be built around a visionary executive rather than an executive be built around a political party, and that the election process needed to be more “democratic” to truly represent the will of the people. In this progressive tradition, receiving a popular mandate from the people would allow a President to enact sweeping changes that the people wanted.
In addition to the 17th Amendment, which allowed Senators to be directly elected by the people, Wilson pushed for nationwide presidential primaries, where candidates appealed directly to the public. This undid many of the checks within the system.
Once primaries caught on, Wilson’s goal was achieved: The President received a popular mandate from the American public to implement a policy agenda. The visionary executive became connected to the powerful centralizing figure of the modern state. The change in the process thus undermined principled statesmanship by urging candidates to win public opinion.
This tradition has more or less continued through today. Vigorous campaigning and debating provide a public spotlight for candidates to present issues, demagogue, and engage in public flattery, all to win public opinion and receive endorsement for their policy agenda. It’s not surprising, then, that the Republican candidates have taken full advantage of this process.
One possible way to moderate these behaviors may be to re-strengthen political parties. Doing so may help shape ideas and principles as well as develop candidates for office, as parties did in earlier years.
In sum, progressive thought starting in the early 20th century democratized the electoral system, thereby encouraging presidential aspirants to demagogue to win public opinion. This has increasingly driven candidates into the public spotlight, which partly explains the process we’ve witnessed in the Republican camp today. The deeper lesson is that democratization of the electoral process has deteriorated a check on presidential statesmanship. Strengthening political parties may moderate demagoguery and elevate statesmanship once again.