SALT LAKE CITY, March 31, 2016 — Kirstin Powers recently wrote that the most devastating thing that could happen to the GOP would follow GOP “bigwigs” overruling the will of the people.
This mysterious “will of the people” is turning many people—most of whom don’t much care for the Republican Party—into quite the political philosophers.
But it’s a dangerous proposition, at best. “Fiction” would be a more appropriate term. Yet commentators for and against Trump bandy the phrase about as if it has some meaning.
How would one define the will of the people? Well, the French political theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau first described the idea with his discussion of the General Will.
The General Will was a nebulous concept that acted as a mechanism for exercising sovereignty. Rousseau was distrustful of representatives because they, in so many words, let the people off the hook. He wanted a polity that was self-critical and reflective. He also believed that the General Will was intrinsically right, since there was no other objective measure to judge policy.
Rousseau’s ideas are largely irrelevant in American primary elections, though. We are selecting representatives, and American democracy has been wary of the kind of radical democracy that Rousseau advocated.
Still, it is impossible to arrive at even the roughest approximation of the General Will, or so-called “will of the people.”
For starters, there is no “people” in the Rousseauian sense. He conceived of ideal states as small republics, with relatively homogenous peoples and economies—far different from the diverse and geographically vast United States.
Party primaries illustrate the difference perfectly. First, states all run their elections differently. Second, voting populations in various states are woefully misrepresentative of their more general populations.
But there are bigger problems with trying to pin down a “will of the people.”
Ask Joe Voter on Monday, for instance, what his opinion is and you might get a different answer than you got last Wednesday. This isn’t a problem of representative democracy, it is a fact of human nature and the reality that people change minds. It also explains why good government consists of so many deliberative speedbumps—the requirement to get majority support being the most obvious.
Consider, too, the uniquely American feature of presidential primaries that spread votes out across a six-month timespan. Arbitrary geographic lines determine which votes count and which do not. A Wisconsinite who thought Carly Fiorina was the best choice for president will not get the chance to register that opinion in any meaningful sense. If he lived a few miles south, in Iowa, he would have.
Some states allow Democrats to vote in Republican primaries, others do not. Does this dilute the will of the people? It might if those Democrats wanted to vote for John Kasich.
Moreover, under Republican Party rules, states such as North Carolina that voted for the GOP presidential candidate in the previous election get additional delegates, as do states with sitting Republican governors and Republican legislative houses and Republican members of Congress.
Does this mean the will of the people of Georgia should be calculated in a way different from the will of the people of Louisiana?
The complex rules gives greater weight to voters in states that help the party more. So a vote in deep red Utah or Oklahoma is worth more than Republican votes in Vermont or Hawaii. Such disproportionality isn’t to thwart democracy. It’s a way to make the party more effective and resistant to infiltration.
More important, it’s a way to reflect the federalist character of our presidential selection process. The party gives states the prerogative of how to select delegates. So the nominating process is really a decision by the states, just as the presidential election is.
In short, there is no “will of the people,” and certainly not one determining what political parties ought to be doing.
Instead, there is a messiness in how organizations decide what course to follow. This is why political associations—from the United States Senate to your local school’s PTA—formulate rules and procedures. Not to undermine the will of the people, but to make decisions precisely because there is not such a thing that can ever be discerned.
Kirstin Powers is very intelligent and a keen political observer, but no one could ever argue that she has the best interests of the GOP in mind when she writes.
The Grand Old Party, such as it is, does have its own interests in mind.
And it’s not to pay lip service to a figment of the imagination that has been dubbed “the will of the people.”