The Trump campaign and the leadership of the Republican National Committee are working hard to pressure delegates to vote for Trump. The race is over, they say. The voters have rendered their judgment. Delegates do not have the right to nullify this verdict. Now is the time to rally around Trump and unify the party.
Trump and the RNC leadership are wrong. The delegates should feel free to vote their consciences, and the rules and history of the Republican National Convention support their right to do so. In a separate entry, I will focus on the rules and the history of the convention, while here I will examine the moral responsibilities of convention delegates.
The claims of the Trump boosters ultimately boil down to: Because this is a democracy, the people have spoken, and delegates are morally obliged to follow their instructions, regardless of what their consciences claim. This thinking is faulty. In truth, the people have not really spoken, and, even if they had, this is not actually a democracy. Let’s take each point in turn.
First, Trump did not win a majority of the vote. He claimed slightly less than 45 percent of the primary vote, which is less than any presumptive nominee in the modern era. People can have a legitimate debate about the moral demands attending a majority vote—but Trump scored a plurality victory, and an unimpressive one at that.
The truth is that there is not much of a moral sanction for a plurality victory. The winner of such a contest cannot be said to represent the people. If anything, the people as a whole rendered no verdict on the question presented to them. Granted, this first-past-the-post approach to elections is common in our country, but its use is not universal. First-past-the-post is employed not because it is moral, but merely because it is convenient. Declaring that a plurality winner is the victor does not require a costly second round of voting, and it typically favors the two major parties (which happen to write the election laws!).
There are other ways to organize the vote, and they are just as legitimate. Importantly, the constitutional system to elect the president is not first-past-the-post. A candidate must win an outright majority of electors, otherwise the House of Representatives makes the final determination.
What Trump really won is a majority of pledged delegates, so he is not asserting moral sanction but alegal sanction—and a specious one at that. Trump and the RNC are ultimately not relying upon the principle of majority rule, but the fact that the RNC laws call for a first-past-the-post system. But in fact, they do not. That will be the subject of my next essay.
Second, it is true that in a democracy, the people rule—but our system is not a democracy. It is a representative republic. Of course, the people play an important role in our system—as the Declaration of Independence argues, all political power flows ultimately from the people. But the Founding Fathers rejected the notion of vox populi, vox dei. The people were prone to make mistakes and could often form self-interested factions that were dangerous to the welfare of the whole community.
Our system of government employs a vast array of checks and balances to channel the demands of the people into public policy that works for the benefit of all. Crucially, the first line of constitutional defense is the principle of representation. As James Madison writes in Federalist 10, one advantage of a representative republic over direct democracy is that representation may
refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.
This is an important point. The duty of a representative is not simply to reflect public opinion, but to find a way to “refine and enlarge” it, by aggregating the often selfish and ill-informed views of the people into a final judgment that serves their true interests. Trump supporters will denounce this as “elitism,” but they are arguing against the Constitution they claim to revere. This is a bedrock principle of our republic.
Edmund Burke expands on this idea in the Address to the Electors of Bristol, where he rejects the notion that voters may instruct him on how to vote in Parliament:
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Burke’s situation is remarkably similar to that faced by anti-Trump delegates in Cleveland. They have been instructed by voters back home to support Trump, but they think this a bad idea. Burke’s answer is: you are obliged to do what you know in your heart is right. Each person’s conscience is a gift from God, and obedience to it is the only true way to serve the people. Nobody should want a representative willing to sacrifice his judgment on the altar of public opinion.Political philosophers have since labeled this theory the delegate theory of representation. How felicitous!
Ultimately, delegates to the Republican National Convention should follow the lead of Madison and Burke. If they think Trump is the right choice, that is fine. But if they do not, they should not feel morally bound to vote for him. Their responsibility above all else is to the wellbeing of the Republican party—not just in 2016, but beyond. If their consciences are telling them that Trump is detrimental to the GOP, they have a duty to follow that instinct.