Super Tuesday: Tocqueville’s democratic dream… or nightmare?

With Super Tuesday less than a week away, it seems that the entire United States is fixated on this presidential primary season. This was the precise objective of the southern Democrats who first engineered Super Tuesday in 1988—with so many states (11 this year) holding their primaries on the same day, candidates would not be able to cater their message to pander to local constituents, thus leaning a little more to the right in Texas, and a little more to the left in New York. Rather, candidates would have to hit a pitch that spoke to all Americans—northern and southern, urban and rural, parochial and cosmopolitan.

On first blush, it would seem that by balancing countervailing interests, Super Tuesday is an ingenious check against the potential for subverting democracy that increases with the size and diversity of a republic. But, does Super Tuesday’s national test truly strive towards a purer form of democratic participation, or does it undermine it by subverting local factions?


Striking a balance of powers between regional factions

Even before the US Constitution was ratified there were widespread fears that rival local interests would tear the country apart. In The Federalist Papers, no. 10, James Madison assured Americans that rather than a liability, the large size and diversity of the young United States would be an asset as it would serve to neutralize factious interests. Through vigorous civic participation, all regions of the country could make their interests heard on the national stage, while at the same time no one group could overwhelm minority interests. In many ways, Super Tuesday seems to be the modern fulfillment of Madison’s democratic dream.

By 1835, when French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville published his observations of Democracy in America, contentious partisan elections had become deeply embedded in the democratic process. Tocqueville was wary of both an overly centralized state that impinged on civil liberties (“democratic despotism”), as well as the “tyranny of the majority”, in which minority opinion was obliterated by an all-powerful majority that encouraged ideological conformity and stifled democratic debate. Tocqueville celebrated the American antidote to the “tyranny of the majority”—the autonomous development of local societies that represented diverse civil interests. In these groups, citizens could voice their opinions, participate in open debate, and align themselves toward common goals. In Tocqueville’s view, democracy is fundamentally rooted in local citizen participation.

The title page of Democracy In America, and an 1850 portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

But how can or should these local groups best impact the democratic process at the national level? Would Tocqueville view Super Tuesday’s national test as a subversion of democratic will, or as an opportunity for marginalized localities to wield greater influence in national politics?


A test for democratic elections

We might look to modern theorists for help in responding to this question. Yale University political scientist Robert A. Dahl offers a metric for assessing the effectiveness of democracies. In Democracy and Its Critics , he argues that the central goal of a democracy is to equally value each of its citizens’ interests. This is achieved by creating political institutions and procedures that promote effective, equal, and inclusive participation, allowing citizens control over the political agenda, and extending “enlightened understanding” to honor their interests through civil liberties such as the freedoms of speech and assembly.

Democracy and Its Critics, and Robert A. Dahl in the classroom (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

According to Dahl’s criteria, an election is only truly democratic if it is free, fair, and competitive, as well as informed by uncensored channels of information that facilitate independent decision-making. The current controversies in the United States regarding state voter registration laws, gerrymandering, and campaign finance contributions, as well as the theatrical nature of the media’s attention to the election, indicate that despite Super Tuesday’s aims to rise above parochial politics and appeal to a national electorate, it is still “poly-archical” rather than democratic.


Regional rivalries undermine national unity

In assessing the shortcomings of American democracy, it is useful to incorporate a non-Western perspective on the obstacles that impede democracy. In particular, the difficulty of developing democratic systems in post-colonial Africa offers a useful comparison, given the United States’ history of apartheid and its former colonial status.

In Citizen and Subject, Columbia University’s Mahmood Mamdani argues that under colonial rule in Uganda and South Africa, different systems of government were imposed on rural and urban areas so that urban Africans were recognized as citizens but rural residents were treated as subjects. This fostered a deep divide that national independence has not been able to transcend.

Citizen and Subject, and its author Mahmood Mamdani (Credit: Mahmood Mamdani)

Mamdani contends that the ongoing disconnect between modernized urban areas and traditional rural ones pits these regions against one another, discourages national unity, and ultimately stands in the way of creating a coherent democracy.


Exploiting regional rivalries for political rent

While the experience of post-colonial liberation in Africa differs greatly from that of the United States, it nevertheless offers historical lessons that may shed light on impediments to democratic participation in the US. In particular, the urban/rural disconnect that Mamdani describes has its analog in the United State. Not only is there a divide between cities and small towns—what former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin liked to call “Main Street vs. Wall Street”—but also between different regions: the east and west coasts and the Midwest, the north and the south, Texas and everywhere else. In some cases, these divisions are jocular and in others deeply antagonistic. But this regional pride is often assimilated into US citizens’ identities.

We recently saw this erupt in the presidential primaries when Republican candidate Ted Cruz chided his rival Donald Trump for having “New York values”. The implication being that New York values are not shared by most Americans—or that they are not American values, at all. This suggests that regional factions are indeed a formidable obstacle to democracy in America and that a primary system that minimizes local interests in favor of a national stage may indeed be a necessary solution to balance them. Whether or not Super Tuesday 2016 will achieve this noble end remains to be seen.