Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

February 18, 2008

Superdelegates And The 17th Amendment

by Brad Warbiany

The Democratic Party is finding itself in a very strange position. They’re approaching a potential situation where neither of their candidates have enough elected delegates to secure the nomination, and the race will turn to the superdelegates to decide. Primary results can then be trumped by the say-so of the “party elites”. Thus, the party who complained that Al Gore “really won” the 2000 election due to the popular vote may nominate Hillary Clinton, who now looks unlikely to win the national Democrat popular vote or the elected delegate count.

The schadenfreude of watching the Democratic Party put into a position of acting undemocratically notwithstanding, this case is very interesting on its own merits. It has a parallel with our own Constitution and the 17th Amendment, and thus I find myself cheering on the “antidemocratic” forces within the party rather than those who would rely completely on the popular vote.

In the days of our Founding Fathers, “democracy” was a four-letter word. Democracy is mob rule, and unchecked democracy can lead down a very nasty road. America was never intended to be a democracy, it was intended to be a Republic strictly limited by the bounds of the Constitution, with democratic processes implemented to elect [some of] the leaders of that republic. Even so, our Founding Fathers chose against the direct election of Senators, because they wanted a counterbalance to the power of the democratically-elected House. Particularly, they are a check on the growth of central power, a way for the States to retain powers that 50%+1 of the members of the House of Representatives wanted to give to the central government.

The democratic party is designed in much the same way. Some delegates are elected popularly, and tasked with voting based on certain rules in accordance with what “the masses” want. On top of this are superdelegates, whose mandate is different: do what is best for the party. If the scenario plays out in the most interesting way, with Barack Obama leading in both the popular vote and the elected delegate count, there will be loud calls for the superdelegates to vote along the same lines as the popular vote.

The specific purpose of the superdelegates, however, is to be the brake on bad decisions of the popular vote if they believe it to be necessary. The superdelegates have a mandate, and if they believe that the popular vote is contrary to the goals of the party itself, they are obligated to follow their belief, not the popular vote. This is an unpopular position to take, of course, because we’ve been raised to believe that democracy is– in and of itself– a worthwhile end. Democracy, though, is a means and not an end. Democracy is only justified as a means if it reaches the “right” ends, and there is enough evidence throughout history to show that democracy often leads towards ugly, nasty results (slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow being a few clear examples).

All this doesn’t mean that I’m implying that the superdelegates, if the situation breaks such that Obama leads the popular vote and elected delegate count, shouldn’t vote for him. However, it is important that the superdelegates follow their conscience and do what they believe best for the party, not simply parrot the popular vote for its own sake. The superdelegates should view such things as the preferences revealed by the popular vote as only one aspect in their decision. Other crucial aspects to consider would be the questions of which candidate more closely lines up with core Democratic party policies and which is more likely to defeat the Republican in November. This calculation may cause their vote to line up with the leader of the popular vote and elected delegate count, or it may not. Either way, the superdelegates should not allow themselves to be railroaded into making a vote they don’t believe is the correct move for the party.

I pointed out quite a while ago that Libertarianism and Democracy are not mutually exclusive, but that it often lines up that way, as the incentives of government tend towards government power and away from individual liberty, and this is no different in a democratic form of government. Likewise, it must be pointed out that the Democratic Party has its own goals as an organization, and it is the obligation of members of the party to see that those goals are realized within the organizational rules they’ve enacted, even if it means that primary voters get overruled. Much as the original purpose of the Senate was to protect the interests and rights of States against those of the general populace, the superdelegates are tasked to protect the party from mistakes made by the Democratic primary voters. What that means for their nomination vote is up to their own conscience, and should not be subject to any constraints saying they must “follow the popular vote”.

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  • Adam Selene

    Some folks are beginning to speculate that the delegate deadlock may lead to Al Gore being brought in on the second ballot to “save” the Party. Now THAT would be interesting politics. And spell disaster for the Democrats too.

  • Mike O

    Good post. But I imagine that if Obama is significantly ahead after the last primary (or even some time before that) the superdelegates will see that it would be in the interests of the party to support him. It would be extremely hard to argue that the interests of the party would be served by overturning a significant lead in delegates, states and votes. What they shouldn’t do, of course, is feel obliged to vote for Clinton because of her husband’s standing in the party (he’s not the candidate after all), or because of the fear of retribution. I have a feeling they’re going to make the right choice (earlier than we think), if only to head off Hillary’s threat to fight to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates, which would really tear the party apart.

  • Flingcom

    Some folks are beginning to speculate that the delegate deadlock may lead to Al Gore being brought in on the second ballot to “save” the Party. Now THAT would be interesting politics. And spell disaster for the Democrats too.

  • gij718

    If the Obama wins the primary and populous vote and the super delegates award it to Hillary then they will have assured McCain the victory. The young, independant and African-Americans will probably stay home and there aren’t enough women to elect Hillary or who would support such a theft. Even Sen. Obama could not convince them to turn out for Hillary.

  • Wulf

    Good article, Brad. A month ago I was cynical enough that my comment here would be to amend something you said: The superdelegates should view such things as the preferences revealed by the popular vote as only one aspect in their decision. Other crucial aspects to consider would be…
    …pork, pork, and favors granted, such as Bill’s promise to bring in a million dollars at a fundraiser when that superdelegate is up for reelection back home.

    But now, I agree entirely with what gij718 says. The Democrats are the closest thing America has to a Populist Party, which means that yes, for the health of the party, they really do have to abide by the popular vote. To overturn that would be devastating to the future of the party. The young vote and the black vote would be gone. Superdelegates would have “selected not elected” banners following them for years.

    It would be healthier to let Obama lose to McCain in November than to have him lose to Clinton in August.

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