The Democrats versus democracy

February 23, 2016

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, explains how the party that claims to represent workers has been set up to make sure they have no power.

EARLIER THIS month, Hillary Clinton lost the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary to Vermont Sen. and self-described socialist Bernie Sanders by a landslide margin.

But when the New Hampshire delegates to the party's nominating convention this summer were tallied up, Clinton and Sanders came away with 15 each.

How could Clinton lose by more than 20 percentage points and still get as many delegates pledged to support her as Sanders? The answer: Most of the Democratic Party "superdelegates" in the state, including Gov. Maggie Hassan and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen--announced that they are supporting Clinton.

So even though Sanders won almost twice as many delegates as Clinton among those awarded based on the election results, the support of the superdelegates pulled Clinton into a tie in the state where she was trounced at the ballot box.

This is further evidence of a fact of politics, not just in the U.S., but around the world: Just because an organization has "democratic" in its name doesn't mean it functions according to even basic concepts of democracy.

Above: Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley at the 1968 Democratic convention; below: Modern-day party leaders (left to right) Harry Reid, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton
Above: Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley at the 1968 Democratic convention; below: Modern-day party leaders (left to right) Harry Reid, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton

The "superdelegates" are a group of more than 700 Democratic officeholders (including all Democratic governors and members of Congress), Democratic National Committee members, union officials, lower-level party apparatchiks and miscellaneous members of the Democratic infrastructure (fundraisers, consultants, pollsters and the like) who collectively occupy one in every six or seven delegate seats at the Democratic National Convention.

At the convention, the superdelegates cast votes alongside those won by the candidates through competing in the party's caucuses and primaries.

That makes it possible for one candidate to arrive at the convention with a majority of pledged delegates, only to have the nomination handed to another based on the vote of the superdelegates.

THE SUPERDELEGATES are a product of the Democratic Party machine's backlash against an opening up in the 1960s. The Democrats experienced a fiasco at their convention in Chicago in 1968, when the party bosses, led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the presidential candidate, despite Humphrey not competing in a single party primary.

To appease disgruntled liberals, the party afterward appointed a commission, led by Sen. George McGovern and Rep. Donald Fraser, to draw up rules for selecting convention delegates that enforced affirmative action and required that they be chosen in primaries or caucuses, rather than by party leaders.

Under those rules, the next two Democratic conventions chose one candidate (McGovern) who lost in an historic landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972 and another (Jimmy Carter) who won, but came to Washington as an "outsider." In 1972, much of the party establishment refused to support McGovern on the grounds that he was too liberal. And much of Carter's weak presidency was consumed with squabbles between the White House and the Democratic insiders in Congress.

Once Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the party bosses struck back with new rules intended to place themselves more fully at the center of the process of selecting a presidential nominee. They realized they couldn't go back to the days when all-important matters were decided the infamous "smoke-filled backrooms"--so they went only part of the way back, arriving at the superdelegate system.

A Wall Street Journal article cited Tad Devine, "a Democratic strategist who helped write the rules," as explaining, "The idea was to encourage the party's officeholders to attend the convention and provide a firewall in case someone unelectable--say, a Huey Long populist or Norman Thomas socialist--swept the primaries."

That citing of Devine is ironic because Devine today is one of Bernie Sanders' main advisers--and probably his chief liaison to the Democratic Party itself. We can only speculate if he would describe Sanders as a "Norman Thomas socialist." But even if his views on the superdelegate system have changed, his comment speaks to a question that goes beyond just the party rules.

Devine is a corporate lawyer who has worked as an adviser and political operative in numerous Democratic campaigns since the early 1980s. Even if he's "feeling the Bern" now, there are thousands more people just like him who staff the Democratic Party apparatus at all levels. Many move between the corporate, non-profit and government sectors with ease.

When a Democratic administration takes over in a city, a state, a house of Congress or the White House, that layer of people like Devine expect political appointments, jobs, government contracts and lobbying gigs, not to mention positions as media commentators. It's likewise with the Republicans when their party takes office.

To the extent that a party establishment exists in either the Democrats or Republicans, these are its most committed apparatchiks. But they are, to a certain extent, merely "hired hands." Beyond them lie other institutions and networks, overwhelmingly funded with corporate money, that shape the political environment in which they operate.

In the book The Party Decides, Marty Cohen and his colleagues argue that the two pro-corporate parties need to be understood as not just elected officials, but also "religious organizations, civil rights groups...organizers, fundraisers, pollsters and media specialists" and even "citizen activists who join the political fray as weekend warriors."

THE POINT here is that "the party," broadly defined like this, organizes a number of interests that, while invested in the Democrats winning elections, are also biased to taking as few risks as possible to achieve that. So when union leaderships or a Congressional Black Caucus PAC that is stuffed with corporate lobbyists announce their endorsement of Hillary Clinton without consulting their memberships or bases of political support, they are simply showing a bias to preserving the status quo.

In fact, very few of the leaders of liberal organizations who back Clinton can say why they prefer her policies over those of Sanders, who has been a far more consistent progressive advocate throughout his career.

If they're backing Clinton because they think she's "electable," we have to ask why. And here's where corporate money and influence raise their heads.

The first thing to consider here is who even becomes a "viable" candidate. In national elections, where the costs run into the billions, corporate money exceeds money from labor unions or average voters by orders of magnitude. Given that, it's a rare politician who emerges who would seriously challenge corporate policies or control of the economy.

The two main political parties are conduits of corporate and individual wealth. They perform the function of officially nominating candidates, providing the label under which they run, and an easy identification for voters to use when they choose between them. But before they get the party stamp of approval, candidates have already won the "money primary," signifying that Corporate America has signed off on them. As Thomas Ferguson argues in his book Golden Rule, "[P]arties are more accurately analyzed as blocs of major investors who coalesce to advance candidates representing their interests."

Secondly, what political policies are considered "viable"? These are also policies that have been cleared by corporate power--hatched in the nonprofit think tanks they fund, if not written by corporate lobbyists themselves.

One particularly crude example of this was former Big Pharma lobbyist Liz Fowler, who helped to write the Affordable Care Act as a chief adviser to Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus of Montana, then helped administer it as an official at Obama's Health and Human Services Department--and then departed government for a post with Johnson & Johnson.

Given that, consider Bernie Sanders' support for single-payer health care. There's nothing inherently impossible or "un-American" about creating one. Quasi-single-payer systems already exist for the elderly and veterans--they're called Medicare and the VA.

But good luck finding more than a handful of experts who would testify in Congress in favor of single-payer. That's because most health-care experts are products of the privately controlled health care industry that funds research organizations, university institutes and lobbying organizations--and one of their main tenets is that single-payer health care is beyond the pale.

Then there's the mainstream media, which, we should not forget, are capitalist enterprises dedicated far more to retailing "conventional wisdom" than covering what is actually happening in the political world. It's remarkable that Sanders has gained the support and general visibility he has given that the media--not known for promoting "socialism"--virtually ignored him all last year.

SO THE Democratic Party's superdelegates are only one tool in the corporate and political establishment's toolkit for thwarting a popular will that might demand more change than the establishment is prepared to allow. By shaping the political environment and leaning on well-developed networks dedicated to maintaining the pro-corporate status quo, this elite have many ways to keep control--superdelegates are only one of them.

And if their manipulation of funding and party rules don't work, corporations and their Democratic Party lackeys can always withdraw support from a rebel candidate who somehow defies them and gets nominated. Ultimately, the party apparatus prefers for the rebel to go down to defeat rather than use the party to advance an anti-corporate agenda.

The classic example of this was the Democrats' all-out war against Upton Sinclair, the long-time socialist writer who won the party's nomination for governor of California in the midst of the Great Depression in 1934, running on a progressive platform and the slogan "End Poverty in California."

The Democratic establishment, from President Franklin Roosevelt on down, funded a red-baiting scare campaign against Sinclair, created a fake third party to siphon votes from him, and ultimately guaranteed re-election for the Republican Gov. Frank Merriam.

Despite the enthusiasm of his supporters, his success at raising money based on small donations--and even winning more votes than Clinton in the early primary races so far--Bernie Sanders is still operating at a huge disadvantage to Hillary Clinton. No wonder so many people think the political system is rigged.

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