Power to the Organizers

It’s a bit of conundrum, at least for me. If Hillary Clinton says that she wants to represent the folks who are working multiple jobs, including the third shift, and who don’t have paid days off to devote to attending a Democratic caucus, I can see why it irritates her that there are a lot of states that hold caucuses and that she typically loses badly in those states. Her voters are disproportionately excluded from the caucuses, but they find it much easier to get to the polls to cast a quick vote in a primary. Unless they live in upstate New York where the polls don’t open until noon today, Clinton’s supporters will be better represented today than they were in, say, Wyoming.

Yet, it’s Bernie Sanders who’s supposed to be the real working man’s candidate. He’s the one fighting for the underclass instead giving speeches to Wall Street executives, right? So, those third shift voters are naturally his, right? And he’s the one who is talking about how victory only comes in high turnout elections.

So, why does he do the best in the lowest turnout elections?

Well, you tell me, the caucuses attract the most committed members of the party. If you look up the definition of a caucus in the dictionary, it says right there that they are “meeting(s) of the members of a legislative body who are members of a particular political party, to select candidates or decide policy.” A caucus is supposed to be made up of lifelong Democrats and the party establishment, which is precisely why Bernie Sanders is the candidate of choice in caucuses. Right?

Wrong?

Yeah, there’s something wrong with that last bit, isn’t there?

But then you tell me that Hillary Clinton does even better in primaries if the primaries are closed to anyone who isn’t a registered Democrat. And that’s a little confusing, since we’ve already established that Bernie Sanders does best among hardcore Democrats.

Oh, but then you tell me that these are only the elitist hardcore Democrats who have spare time for caucuses. Regular folks, hard-working multiple-third-shift-job Democrats, they’re in Clinton’s camp. For Sanders to win in a (relatively) high-turnout primary, he needs independents who have little to no commitment or history with the Democratic Party, and who certainly haven’t worked as organizers within the party. A closed primary, like the one today in New York and the one next week in Pennsylvania, disadvantages Sanders and disenfranchises a lot of his supporters.

You can make some or all of these observations, depending on which candidate you’re shilling for, but then you get to the next level and tell me the whole thing is rigged and undemocratic and broken.

So here’s what’s happening: Our political system is profoundly broken, and although many of us have understood that for years, this has been the year that fact became unavoidable. Both political parties are struggling through transparently rigged primary campaigns that have made that ludicrous process look more outdated than ever. Nobody cares about the Democratic vote in Wyoming and it’s not going to matter, but when Bernie Sanders dominates the caucuses in that empty, dusty and Republican-dominated state and wins seven of its 18 delegates, doesn’t that sum up the whole damn thing?

So, now the caucus system favors Hillary because of arcane rules and something called “superdelegates.” Even worse, in a state like Wyoming, Clinton benefited from a dirty trick that allowed those third-shift-multiple-job Democrats to use an absentee ballot. How undemocratic is that?

The conundrum is whether it’s a better system to let committed organizers and party officials have the responsibility for fighting over the leadership of their party, or it’s a better system to have fifty-something different elections, with different rules and different turnout models, and pretend that the ultimate decision rests with the voter who does nothing to build or maintain the party.

People have the constitutional right to vote in the general election, but the party decides who gets to vote in their caucuses and primaries. They get to decide if the vote has more than an advisory role in their deliberations.

You can tell me that this is a rigged system, except it was precisely this system that allowed Barack Obama to overcome the institutional advantages the Clintons had in 2008, when holdovers from Bill’s presidency dominated the DNC and many state and county level positions. And it’s precisely this system that is allowing Sanders to pick up so many delegates in caucus states (Wyoming notwithstanding). Even the party’s proportional allocation of delegates is helping the anti-Establishment candidate in this race, because Sanders is almost guaranteed to get close to 40% of the delegates in every state. That means neither candidate can knock the other one out, and pretty much assures that a modestly strong campaign in a two-person race will be able to go all the way to June.

It’s one thing to debate how the rules that currently exist help or hurt each candidate, but it should be clear by now that the undemocratic aspects of the system cut in multiple ways, sometimes giving Sanders a big boost and sometimes tilting the scales heavily to Clinton. It’s been commonly observed that the black vote favors Clinton, but less often noted that the underclass (more broadly defined) also supports Hillary Clinton. If Bernie Sanders is a low-commitment Democratic Johnny Come Lately, it’s the most ideological Democrats who are his biggest supporters, as well as the ones who have spare time to attend county caucuses or comment on blogs. The low-commitment Democrats in the actual electorate heavily favor Clinton.

Maybe it’s a conundrum why voters don’t vote the way we expect them to, but my conundrum has to do with figuring out the best system for selecting a nominee to a major party. In my opinion, you have a constitutional right to vote among party nominees, but if you want real influence beyond that, you have to get involved.

And that means that we’re always going to have a system where the people with time to get involved have disproportionate influence and can be called the “elite” or “the Establishment.” I’m not convinced this is a bad thing. I’m much more concerned about money distorting our system than dedicated citizens distorting it.

Maybe it’s my background as an organizer, but I want a system built by organizers rather than people who just write checks or show up once every two years for however long it takes them to cast a single vote.

And I don’t think this system disfavors outsiders if the outsiders are good (and early) organizers. I do think it disfavors anyone who thinks they can take over an entire power structure without winning over a substantial part of that power structure to their side, but that’s part of what organizing is all about. Without that kind of organizing, you’re relying on magic, and I don’t believe in magicians.

If our system is really profoundly broken, it’s largely because one side of it has abandoned reason and is now actively working to break it. But it’s also because, even though we will always have elites and elites will always run the government no matter who wins an election, our elites have been doing a terrible job in recent years.

It makes no sense to try to devise a system where politically disorganized and uncommitted people will run our federal government just so we can say that The Establishment has been pushed out. What we need is a better Establishment. Personally, I’ve seen advances in this respect on the left and in the media since I started blogging eleven years ago, but it’s hard to notice when the right has basically put on a suicide vest and is constantly threatening to blow the whole thing up.

I’ll listen to any thoughtful ideas about how to improve the nominating process, but most of the complaints I hear seem misplaced or naive. No one hands power to anyone without a fight, and you have to understand power in order to get any of it.

And that just doesn’t seem like a flaw in the system to me.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.