Nom nom nom…America Does It Better (Worse?)

How the U.S. takes Tweedism to another level

“I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.” — Boss Tweed

Just as some animals are particularly prone to certain diseases, Madisonian (i.e. representative) democracy seems to be prone to Tweedism. Tweedism? It’s essentially a two-step process in which one group nominates candidates in the first stage, and another group elects in the second stage from among the choices produced by the first group. Two classes develop: a nominating class and the general electorate. Nominators are a small, unrepresentative group from the wider electorate. That nominating class determines the options from which voters must choose between in the general election. Professor Lawrence Lessig explains that, through this process, democracy becomes responsive to the “tweeds,” or nominating class.

One of the most obvious examples of Tweedism is the nominating committee for Hong Kong’s chief executive. The nominating committee is small: it accounts for only .024% of the population of Hong Kong. It is unrepresentative, and many fear that it is overwhelmed by pro-Beijing business and political influences. 1200 people determine the choices for candidates between which the Chinese in Hong Kong must elect their chief executive. This system is similar to others like that of Iran, in which a small (12 people out of 50 million citizens) Guardian Council permits which candidates can run in the election.

American history isn’t exactly free of this questionable shade of democracy. Lessig describes the Old South’s white primary. Non-white voters were not simply disenfranchised; they were legally prohibited from participating in the nomination process. That produced candidates, and therefore elected officials, who were responsive to the white primary voters and their values which were overrepresented to say the least.

Those examples are clear. A group of tweeds elects the choices. Then, everyone else elects the official from among those choices. When describing modern American politics, Prof. Lessig is forced to deviate from that clarity. The connection becomes metaphorical rather than literal and direct. Instead of a white primary, a green primary produces candidates who are responsive to a small, unrepresentative group of wealthy political patrons. Those rich citizens don’t directly assume sole electoral responsibility but influence the actual primary election. Still, there are other ways in which American elections reflect the corruption and inequality of Tweedism that maintain the literal electoral function of the nominating class. Several others identify more metaphorical nominating classes. That is because the United States has developed Tweedism into a new manifestation: what we may call polytweedism.

In modern American politics, there are several ways in which the nominating class divides itself in order to gain power and disenfranchise some group. There are cleavages even within the ranks of the tweeds. There are several configurations of the nominating class, but they all remain small, unrepresentative groups who determine the options with which the general electorate is presented. Those options are now even more limited than they have been because candidates must please all tweed groups. They no longer have to appease the wealthy OR the ideological extremists OR the elites; candidates must please all of these groups and more. That makes the result of the nominating process (for which there are fewer possibilities) even less representative of the general electorate, so they are even more dependent on the tweeds.

It is understood that, traditionally, candidates move closer to ideological extremes (but not too close) during primaries and return near the center during general elections. Recently, candidates have been moving farther and farther to the extremes without returning to the center. This phenomenon is the result of political participation, namely the fact that partisan extremists participate in primary elections (the electoral nomination procedure) while other, more moderate partisans don’t. Candidates must be sufficiently conservative or liberal in order to survive the nomination process. Elected officials then become more partisan and fundamentalist as they respond to the extremist tweeds.

In addition to the extreme primary, there is also a green primary (which Prof. Lessig discusses). Candidates need money in order to finance campaigns. That need makes them responsive to the wealthy donors who contribute to their campaigns. Those donors are few in number and do not represent the demographics, interests, or political positions of the general electorate.

During the current Republican presidential primary, candidates have tasted another group of Tweeds in some contests: the elite or machine primary. Most recently in Wyoming, delegates to the GOP National Convention (the electors of the party’s nominee) were chosen by the party machine rather than by popular vote. Donald Trump complained about Wyoming’s “rigged” system, but the same mechanics awarded Colorado’s delegates. As elaborated above, certain groups of tweeds prefer and produce certain kinds of candidates. Both of these contests favored U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Tweedism has become polytweedism. The polytweeds are producing increasingly limited options for general election candidates who are more responsive to the nominating class. What happens as this system progresses? After a certain point, a democracy that was responsive only to the tweeds may become simply unresponsive (i.e. dead). Can a polytweed democracy really be labeled a “democracy.” Can a “representative democracy” be allowed to have an unrepresentative nominating class. As the slice of society who “get[s] to do the nominating” gets smaller, so does our claim to democracy. In addition to the quote that began this article, Boss Tweed is known for a couple of others. In expressing his apathy toward newspaper articles about him, he said “My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” Blind the masses and respond to the tweeds; that sums up a lot of modern American candidates. Boss Tweed also said “The way to have power is to take it.” If an unrepresentative nominating class has too much power, then perhaps the electorate class should take notes.