t this moment, members of the Republican Party’s Rules Committee are considering possible rules changes that would allow delegates to vote according to their own conscience*, even if that runs contrary to the wishes of the voters in their state’s primary. This change is targeted largely at preventing Trump, who was able to parlay a plurality of primary voters into a majority of delegates despite having a record-low share of the popular vote, but it has much to recommend it even without the context of preventing an unqualified candidate from becoming the party’s nominee.
Shocking as it may be to most modern Americans, the chief advantage of changing the rules to allow delegates to vote according to their own conscience is that it recognizes that the people’s representatives should not be bound to the will of the people.
To most readers, that probably sounds horrifying. What are representatives to do, if not the will of the people? Isn’t that why we elect representatives?
As a matter of fact, no, that’s not why we elect representatives. To begin with, as is pointed out using a historical example here, the will of the majority is not decisive in matters of right and wrong. In recognition of that fact, a republic, rather than relying on direct democracy, in which the will of the majority is supreme, filters the will of the people through elected representatives who, it is hoped, will be able to correct any errors in judgement made by the people. In short, we elect representatives precisely for the reason that they will not be bound to the will of the people.
Very few politicians have ever said this—it’s hardly the sort of thing constituents like to hear—but Edmund Burke, the renowned political philosopher and statesman (best known for the quote “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”), was one of the few who was perfectly honest with his constituents. In one of his early speeches as a Member of Parliament, he said
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 unbiassed 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.
The true betrayal would not be if a representative refused to bow to the will of the people, but if he refused to follow his own good judgement. Sacrificing the wisdom of the representative to the will of the people would do nothing more than replace a republican form of governance with the direct democracy the Founding Fathers rightfully abhorred. This would be unwise in the extreme: there’s a reason that the most successful civil governments, from ancient Israel to the United Kingdom to the US, have been republican.
The Republican Party, although not itself a part of civil government, is based on the same ideas. Although many state parties have clouded the issue by binding delegates to the results of the popular vote, the national party’s “government” remains republican in nature, for the same good reasons that led the authors of the Constitution to create a Republic. Binding the delegates to a popular vote isn’t just inconvenient in this particular case, it is an obstacle to how the system is intended to operate. The Rules Committee, and then the full convention, should vote to respect the wisdom of Edmund Burke, and allow the delegates selected by the people as their representatives to exercise their own judgement in selecting a nominee.
*Arguably delegates are already allowed to vote however they like—courts have already ruled that there can be no legal penalties—but this rule change would make that explicit, and clear up any ambiguity.