This hasn't been a good year for faith in the American primary system.
As candidates press on through the long slog to their respective political conventions this summer, voters are feeling disaffected. There's good reason for that.
While millions of people and a sizable percentage of analysts see the 2016 primaries as a repudiation of the political status quo, elites in both major parties have been pulling strings to make sure their respective nominations go to their preferred candidates, not the unconventional candidacies of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Voters are understandably miffed.
On the Democratic side, Sanders has put together a string of impressive victories, taking seven of the last eight primary states. He's gained on rival Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the pledged delegate count, and the latest national polls in aggregate show Sanders just one percentage point behind Clinton, with 45.8 percent support among registered voters to her 46.8 percent.
And yet, the Vermont senator hasn't made a dent in the superdelegate count. As of April 11, Sanders has just 31 superdelegates to Clinton's 469.
As The New York Times noted in an April 9 story, voters aren't happy about that, and it's easy to understand why. From their perspective, it seems as though their votes are a meaningless drop in the bucket compared to the will of party elites, who seem hellbent on handing the nomination to Clinton.
Things are arguably worse on the Republican side, where party kingmakers have finally -- and reluctantly -- solidified behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the most successful challenger to Trump's dominance in the primaries. Republican leaders aren't even pretending to respect the voters anymore. It's become an all-out effort to dump as much money and resources as possible into the effort to defeat Trump, the will of the electorate be damned.
“It’s people who are in charge keeping their friends in power,” Tom Carroll, a 32-year-old union plumber, told the Times. “In other countries, we pay to fix their election systems and they get their fingers colored with fingerprint ink when they vote. What’s the point of everyone voting if the delegates are going to do what they want?”
In a way, it's a shame, since the primary system has served American politics well in the past. People might scratch their heads and wonder why states like New Hampshire and Iowa become so important at the start of presidential campaigns, but the primary schedule operates almost like a tiered system. The key early states are small, allowing campaigns to test the waters -- and allowing the lesser-funded candidates a shot at building momentum -- before moving on to large states that require significant spending and more complex campaign strategies.
The staggered schedule also ensures that every state gets its moment in the sun. It's a chance for voters to speak their minds, both literally and in the voting booths. It's a crucial step toward developing the policy narrative and establishing a priority pecking order. Candidates who really listen to voters and heed their advice can fine-tune their messages, and get a better understanding of what Americans are concerned about.
At least, that's the idea; whether famously narcissistic candidates like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Hillary Clinton actually listen to what voters tell them is a matter of opinion. Yet in every election since the dawn of YouTube, there's been a moment -- or moments -- when encounters with voters throw candidates off script and provide rare, telling glimpses of their real personalities.
Whether it's Clinton jabbing her finger angrily at an environmental activist, or former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush getting red-faced and flustered at a voter's probing question, those are crucial moments that help voters decide who to support. Primaries force the candidates to get out, interact with real people, and once in a while, inadvertently provide honest answers to questions.
Still, there's something rotten in the system.
“Our presidents, our congressmen, anyone in Washington, should not be decided by anyone but the public,” Jordan Float, a 25-year-old nursing assistant and Sanders campaign volunteer, told the Times.
And that's the rub.
The problem isn't so much the process, as it is the undue influence of a handful of kingmakers, moneymen and party bigwigs who, like all elites throughout history, think they know better than regular people. They're so worried about the "wrong" candidates winning that they're not even making a secret of their desire to disregard millions of voters and the primary system.
That's not how democracy works, and nothing could be further from the spirit of American politics.
The primary system has proven itself resilient and enlightening. It's not perfect, but nothing is. Perhaps the biggest lesson, once the dust settles from the 2016 contests, is that voters need to take back the process, and kick the fat cats out of both parties' respective big tents.