More than a hundred members of the Bowdoin community packed Main Lounge April 7 to listen to “Sore Losers and Glass Ceilings: American Presidential Politics, and the Election of 2016,” the public lunchtime lecture delivered by Andrew Rudalevige, Bowdoin’s Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government.
Rudalevige spoke with College Writer and Multimedia Producer Tom Porter.
Listen to the interview (audio may take a few seconds to load):
Tom Porter: Who are the “sore losers” you talk about in your lecture?
Andrew Rudalevige: Over time it’s been people like Andrew Jackson, I talked about the progressive movement, the anti-war left in 1968, groups that have felt that they didn’t win the presidential nomination, and thus the election, because the rules of the game being stacked against them. And pretty consistently they make the same sort of arguments that the system is insular, unfair, illegitimate, not driven by the popular will, and so you have this cycle of changing the rules to try to open it up more, and not coincidentially into a system that will help them win.
TP: That has happened throughout history, has it? “Sore losers” have led to change in the nomination process?
AR: Right, if you were being more charitable you would say they were being activists, or political movements, my shorthand is meant to be a little provocative. But in the end I think yeah, it’s not on a 40-year cycle kind of basis, but I think over time, the people who drive change are those who are dissatisfied with the system.
TP: But as you mentioned, in many cases the change they brought about ending up helping them?
AR: Yes, of course, they’re no idiots! One of the questions was really about practicalities of the system, and what I said there was that parties are out to serve the country only incidentally: they’re there to get elected, that’s why parties exist and so they’re going to do kinds of things practically that help them win.
TP: Who might be the “sore losers” this time round? And what short-comings in the system might that highlight?
AR: I think there are two different short-comings, so I’ll pick two potential “sore losers.” One would be Donald Trump. Let’s say he gets plurality of the delegate votes (at the GOP convention) in Cleveland but does not get the majority he needs.
He could say “look you created a system where we had 17 candidates, and it’s impossible to gather a majority when you have that many candidates in the race, and I won the most votes to it’s only fair I get the nomination.” And so one possible way there is you could go less democratic, you could say there should be fewer people allowed into the system. But more likely it would be a push toward something like a national primary, where it’s not as dominated by the local state parties as the current system.
On the flip side is somebody like Bernie Sanders, who might be upset at the notion of super delegates, the idea that the democratic party in this case is exercising centralized control over 15 percent of the delegates, and therefore they’re all breaking to Secretary Clinton. Certainly if you read the Facebook feed you have many complaints about how this is undemocratic and illegimate and we should go back to a system where all the delegates are selected by popular vote, which would be quite close to the immediate system after 1968 which the democrats changed to stop exactly the spectre of what they see as a dangerously non-centrist candidate.
TP: And the glass ceilings in the lecture: we have a black president in the White House right now, possibly a female nominee, is that what you’re talking about?
AR: Yeah, I’m saying the system is now a lot more open than it was. The flip side is we can complain about the chaos of the system and the length and the money, the lack of participation and turnout, but on the other hand it’s such an open system that political entrepreneurs have an opening into that system, and so a talented political actor like Barack Obama can leapfrog people.
It’s not an apprenticeship system so much as an entrepreneurial system and that’s going to benefit entrepreneurs who are women, who are racial minorities. There’s a lot of opportunity there for that ceiling to be broken and that’s increasingly true over time as the system opens up.
Andrew Rudalevige’s talk was part of the Community Lecture Series, organized by the Association of Bowdoin Friends.
Click here to view Founding Principles, a series of short videos produced by Bowdoin College and narrated by Andrew Rudalevige, providing an introduction to the basic principles of American government.