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Populism Is Congress’s Next Big Threat

Donald TrumpDonald Trump
In this Jan. 28, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses with a ring given to him by a group of veterans during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph by Jae C. Hong—AP

Since the 1970s, American political parties have been weakened by reforms that democratized the nomination process and significantly reduced the control of traditional party elites. Among major democracies, only the United States allows rank-and-file voters to choose party nominees through primaries. Under normal circumstances, party elites have continued to influence the process informally by their mastery of campaign resources and money. But in a system structured around primaries, angry voters can override the judgment of party elites and execute a hostile takeover of the party at any time, which is exactly what happened with populist voters and the GOP during this past U.S. presidential election. Though they fell short in their attempt to nominate Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, the next presidential election could look a lot different.

The Democrats have a line of defense that was lacking on the Republican side: superdelegates. Prominent Democratic officeholders and members of the Democratic National Committee are voting members of the Democratic National Convention. In this electoral cycle, there were 712 superdelegates, approximately 15% of the 4,763 delegates at the national convention in Philadelphia, and nearly 33% of the delegates needed to secure the nomination. This provides an institutionalized role for party elites to influence the process, favoring establishment over populist candidates. Sanders only garnered 47 superdelegates to Clinton’s 609. Are superdelegates a Maginot Line erected to withstand a populist blitzkrieg?

The allusion to the defensive line of French forts intended to withstand a German assault in the 1930s is appropriate. As it turned out, the stationary French forces proved no match for the mobility of the German army during World War II, and the Democrats will be ill-served by placing too much reliance on their superdelegate system. Superdelegates may resist a mild populist current and shore up the prospects of a candidate favored by party elites, but it is doubtful they would make a firm stand against a populist favorite.

Superdelegates stuck with Clinton throughout the Democratic primaries because she won more popular votes in primaries than Sanders, and because she was clearly favored by African-American voters in southern primaries, a vital constituency for the Democratic Party. By the conclusion of the Democratic primaries, Clinton had won 339 more pledged delegates than Sanders and had 3.6 million more popular votes (16.8 million Democratic primary votes for Clinton; 13.2 million Democratic primary votes for Sanders). Her early lead among superdelegates may have made it more of an uphill struggle for Sanders to achieve credibility as an alternative, but Sanders nevertheless surmounted that challenge. In 2008, the superdelegate lead Clinton enjoyed in the early days of her primary campaign against Barack Obama had disappeared by the middle of the campaign, as it became clear that Obama had strong support among rank-and-file Democrats.

The superdelegate system is not only institutionally weak, but it is now on the chopping block. Sanders supporters unfairly blamed the superdelegate system for Clinton’s triumph over him. During the campaign, they insisted that superdelegates follow the will of the voters, and, after Clinton clinched the nomination, they demanded a post-election commission to dismantle the superdelegate system before 2020 as the price for their support of Clinton in the campaign. If Clinton had become president, there were grounds for hope that the Democratic establishment could have beaten back an attempt to further erode their control over the process, but with the Democratic establishment discredited by the loss to Donald Trump, the voices calling for further democratization are likely to prevail.


We have entered a new and dangerous age of populism. Populists succeed when they appeal to the passions of voters, rousing them through fear and anger to reject the messy compromises that are intrinsic to a politics of moderation, and to look for scapegoat targets upon which they can vent their frustrations. Populists of the rights have embraced nativism and populists of the left have targeted Wall Street and kindled class war. For more than a decade, populism has undermined Congress as an institution, leading to increased partisan polarization and representatives who find it difficult to seek compromises for fear of being challenged in primaries by partisan hardliners. Now, a populist outsider has captured the pinnacle of power in the American system: the presidency. Trump’s success will encourage other populists on the left and the right to find a path to power.

The Founding Fathers created the constitutional system as an alternative to “pure” or populist democracy, a form of government that would “admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction” (Federalist No. 10). Returning to this wisdom begins with finding ways to strengthen parties as institutions and conceding that the radical democratization of the U.S. political system will not provide remedies for the ills voters face.

Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.