The Catholic Case for Presidential Primary Reform


Recent news reports of a revolt within the RNC’s rules committee and a federal judge in Virginia who ruled that delegates cannot be compelled by law to vote against their conscience will give hope, however transient and illusory, to the #NeverTrump/#DumpTrump faction of the Republican Party. They shouldn’t. The voters have chosen Donald Trump and we all must now live with the consequences of that choice. Furthermore, any motion to #DumpTrump at the GOP Convention is unlikely to succeed and would be an imprudent and rash course of action that would be worse than the disease it aims to cure.  That said, as Catholics, we should nevertheless cheer this example of subsidiarity with the hope that reform of the presidential primary process can avert such a crisis in the future.

The idea that the major political parties should choose their nominees based on state-sponsored primary elections without requiring voters to register with a party (as is the case in many states) is very new. Open primaries allow the possibility for all sorts of mischief whether from state interference, media distortions, or from the ignorance of people who are not politically active. As St. Paul wrote, “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to be judged before the unjust, and not before the saints?” Active members of the political parties should decide who they will nominate. This prerogative should not be surrendered to the wider public who have little vested in the outcome.

Government by plebiscite is a fairly novel innovation in American politics, and not necessarily a good one. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that open primary elections were held in most states for the presidential race. The unseemly and corrupt reputation of the “smoke-filled back room” is an unfair deprecation of what is the very essence of a representative system of government. The modern caucuses, party canvasses, and state and local conventions to select delegates are open and public fora where engaged and politically active citizens can come together to honestly and candidly debate the issues of the day.

Europe’s experience with referenda such as the Brexit vote last month is instructive. When the result has not been what the political elites wanted, they either held another referendum until the predetermined outcome was validated, or ignored the result completely. We saw similar shenanigans in California with the Proposition 8 campaign which ended up being overturned by the fiat of a series of Governors and Attorneys General who were supported in their lawlessness by the courts on a technicality, even though it was a duly enacted amendment to the state constitution. Looking to the example of the Roman Republic, the founding fathers wisely sought to insulate the structures of our government from such vicissitudes of public opinion and the chicanery of willful executives.

With each layer of representative governance, power is more diffused and thus less dangerous to the people. The checks and balances of Federalism also purposefully slow political changes to give time for careful consideration and incremental evaluation of outcomes. In our Republic, all power flows from the people, but this power is no less dangerous if unchecked than the power of an absolute monarch. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, the royalist preacher Mather Byles famously quipped, “Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?” As James Madison wrote in The Federalist #55, arguing against pure democracy according to the model of Ancient Greece:

The truth is, that in all cases a certain number at least seems to be necessary to secure the benefits of free consultation and discussion, and to guard against too easy a combination for improper purposes; as, on the other hand, the number ought at most to be kept within a certain limit, in order to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude. In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.

In addition to the explicit check against populism of a representative republic, there is also inherent tension between local and national power in the Federalist system which provides further safeguards to our liberty. By a happy accident of history, our Constitution also happens to accord with the Catholic doctrine that political questions should be decided by the smallest aggregation of power that is practical for the matter at hand. The Gospel tells us, “But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother.” Tocqueville wrote at length about this decentralization of power in his magnum opus, Democracy in America:

…Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty. Transient passions, the interests of an hour, or the chance of circumstances may create the external forms of independence, but the despotic tendency which has been driven into the interior of the social system will sooner or later reappear on the surface.

In the first apportionment of congressional districts, each member of the House of Representatives had only about 30,000 constituents, but conversely all other power was distanced from the direct will of the people. County and municipal party committees are the closest thing we have today to that level of hyper-local representation to balance against the centralized and distant–and today, largely impotent–power of the national party committees. Placing more importance and real power in local party committees would heal much of the distrust between the base voters and the establishment in Washington, D.C.

Of course, such a change would need to be instituted no earlier than the next election cycle to have any legitimacy. To change the rules at the GOP Convention next week would taint an otherwise reasonable and fundamentally conservative approach to the nominating process with all of the historical baggage of favoritism, racism, oligarchy, and all the other corrupt excesses of 19th century politics. Much care would need to be taken to ensure a transparent and fair process that is not perverted into a rubber stamp for party bosses. To that end, several states have caucuses and local party conventions to choose their delegates which can serve as a model that could be followed by the national parties. Furthermore, it is in their interest to do so.

Instead of a tendency to move to a more compressed primary schedule with millions of votes being cast on an arbitrary date in March or April, moving back to a more representative system where delegates are chosen as individuals based on their position on the issues that are most relevant to voters would allow the party to be more responsive to local needs of the citizens they purport to represent. If we have learned anything from this election cycle, it is that a majority of Americans are sick and tired of an out-of-touch elite which does not seem to grasp the local and microeconomic implications of national party platform policy choices. However, it will take time to surmount all of the political, legislative, and judicial obstacles to such a change. To rush things now in direct opposition to the expressed will of the voters through what would almost certainly be a chaotic and improvised floor fight is counterproductive and foolhardy.

Of plebiscites, the saying is, “One man. One vote….One time,” which is to say, a nationwide popular poll tends to result in the tyranny of the majority and a slide into despotism. This fall, voters will choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of two populist demagogues on the ballot. Neither has any pretense of being a disinterested statesman who will uphold the constitution and defend our liberties. As long as the trend continues towards primary votes open to all regardless of party loyalty, paroxysms of rage fueled by cable news sound bytes, and national fundraising machines larger than the gross domestic product of many countries, we should expect more of the same in the future.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Joshua Bowman joined in full communion with the Catholic Church in 2010 after many years in the spiritual wilderness. He recently moved back to his beloved native Virginia from Columbus, Ohio with his growing family and writes on religion, politics, history, and geographical curiosities.

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