On Organizer’s View of Small-D Democracy

This is going to be a difficult piece to write, and to begin it, I have to make a diversion. The New York Times is reporting this morning that John Kasich and Ted Cruz have hatched a strategic plan to collude in their efforts to deny Donald Trump the nomination. When Trump saw this reporting he issued a press release, and what he had to say had a lot of validity to it, and I am sure that it will strike a lot of people as just the plain truth of the matter.

In a lengthy press release sent out Sunday evening, the Republican presidential frontrunner slammed his fellow candidates over their plan to divvy up the remaining nominating states to try to keep Trump from picking up the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination.

“It is sad that two grown politicians have to collude against one person who has only been a politician for 10 months in order to try and stop that person from getting the Republican nomination,” Trump said in his statement.

Labeling the pact a “horrible act of desperation,” Trump attempted to undermine the two candidates’ electoral legitimacy, painting both as political insiders attempting to subvert the popular vote.

Trump noted that he had won millions more votes than both Cruz and Kasich. The Ohio governor has won only his home state and has secured fewer delegates than Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who dropped out of the presidential race in March.

“Collusion is often illegal in many other industries and yet these two Washington insiders have had to revert to collusion in order to stay alive,” Trump said. “They are mathematically dead and this act only shows, as puppets of donors and special interests, how truly weak they and their campaigns are.”

He continued: “When two candidates who have no path to victory get together to stop a candidate who is expanding the party by millions of voters (all of whom will drop out if I am not in the race), it is yet another example of everything that is wrong in Washington and our political system.”

The stated premise here is that the people who showed up to participate in the Republican caucuses and primaries have showed a clear preference for Trump as is demonstrated by both Trump’s substantial lead in the pledged delegate count and in his strong advantage in estimates of the popular vote. The unstated premise is that the people who actually run the Republican Party on a year-in, year-out basis–the officeholders, the RNC committee members, the county executives, the local leaders who typically are selected to serve as delegates–they should not have the ultimate say in who they’ll choose to lead them.

If the people who actually constitute the Republican Party, who raise the money and organize the events and hash out the strategy and the platform…if those people overrule the verdict of the broader electorate that votes in Republican primaries, then there is something horribly corrupt or undemocratic about that. It’s not just illegitimate for them to do this, or even to attempt to do this, but it’s bordering on criminal, and it’s un-American and unpatriotic.

I agree that most people will feel this way, but I think they’re wrong. And, to the extent that I am sympathetic to their argument, it’s entirely because of something extraneous to internal Republican politics. I agree that the de facto two-party system so advantages the two major parties over third parties, that it strips the broader public of choice and gives them some right to expect a say on how both majors select their nominees.

This is all a long way of introducing my critique of a very fine piece that David Atkins wrote over the weekend at the Washington Monthly on how to fix our nominating process so that it seems fairer, more logical, more democratic, and in ways that might even help the parties reverse the tide of folks who are leaving party membership to become independents.

Atkins begins with an argument in favor of abandoning the caucus system entirely because they are “artifact(s) of simpler times and smaller populations” that “disenfranchise large numbers of voters and allow for significant manipulation by state and local machine politics.” My immediate problem with this is that it supposes that anyone is “enfranchised” to vote in an internal party election. This isn’t true legally or constitutionally, as I can set up a party right now, invite only people I’ve personally vetted, and set up any rules I want about how we’ll select our leadership or office-seekers. It might be that I figure that the best way to grow my party is to have the loosest possible requirements for membership, or even to allow anyone who shows up to vote on how we run our party. It might be that I don’t want some random sample of the broader electorate to dictate those kind of managerial decisions for me. No one has a right to come in and dictate to us what we’re going to do, or to tell us that we’re a bunch of crooks if we don’t submit to their preferences. Maybe we will elect our own delegates in closed internal meetings because we only trust committed people who we know personally, and who have helped us organize the party and clearly share our values.

A political party can choose its nominee any way it wants, and you, as a citizen, have no rights in the matter. This isn’t an argument in favor of caucuses. It’s an argument that parties should only abandon caucuses for strategic reasons, not because they disenfranchise people.

Atkins’ next suggestion is that both parties “mandate semi-open primaries.” What he means is that, having gone to an all-primary system, the two majors should allow anyone to vote in them, even if they were previously unaffiliated with the party in any way. As long as someone is willing to become a Democrat or a Republican (even if only for Election Day), then they should get a ballot. Thankfully, Atkins doesn’t argue that people have the right to show up on Election Day, declare themselves a member of your party, and get a ballot. But he does see this as a legitimate expectation. And it’s not really a legitimate expectation. Parties are under no obligation to hold any primary at all, so how can the public have a right to participate in them? As a matter of strategy, it may well be true that the two majors should move to semi-open primaries with same-day registration. Or maybe they should just have a general election and let even people who also voted in the other major’s primary to participate. They can do whatever they want, and it’s all equally “legitimate.”

Atkins’s third suggestion is a bit tangential to what I’m writing about, but I’ll note it anyway. He wants to basically throw the 50 states into a random generator and come up with a primary schedule that way. If the resulting schedule is too tilted toward one region or favors too much one demographic, it can be tinkered with. But we shouldn’t allow there to be favored states that always go first, or regions (like the South this time around) that dominate by clustering their primaries at the front end. There are practical reasons why this reform would be difficult to implement, but I have no objection to it in principle except, again, that parties can do whatever they want, and if we had a regional party based in New England, I wouldn’t expect them to submit to a primary calendar that made Arizona the first contest.

Atkins’s fourth suggestion is to bind pledged delegates to the preferences of the people they represent. He doesn’t go into this in great detail, but it’s problematic that some delegates are supposed to represent a single congressional district, others an entire state, others the national committees, and others only themselves. Here I think there should be some truth in advertising so people don’t feel defrauded. If you run as a Trump delegate and get elected, you should stick with Trump. But maybe delegates simply should not promise to support anyone in the first place. If we’re going to get a bit idealistic here, I’d rather delegates run to be leaders of their communities and to represent their communities. If people understood from the get-go that the way we select party nominees is that delegates make the decision, the election wouldn’t take the form of beauty contests like the Iowa caucuses with all the misleading coverage about who “won” and who has the “momentum.” Candidates would get involved locally and build organizations that would hold local meetings to try to win over the support of its engaged citizenry. The end result would be closer to elections for the House of Representatives, and the nominees would ultimately be selected more like the way we elect the Speaker of the House. The truth is, this is already much more the case than people realize, but my system would be more transparent and honest, and give people a real shot of getting involved when and where their influence could actually make a difference.

In any case, I agree that people should understand the mechanism of how nominees are elected and they shouldn’t be deceived. With correct knowledge, people will at least know how to meaningfully participate. Whether they can get the time off from work or the day care they need to participate is another matter, but one that is ultimately up to the parties to facilitate (if they want to).

Atkins’s last suggestion runs afoul of all these principles of mine, because he wants candidates to be able to select their own delegates. The problem here is that its the party, not the candidates, that should be allowed to pick its own voters. This should be obvious. If you’re running to be the leader of the party, you have to win over the party’s voting leadership, and if that party’s voting leadership is selected at least partially by the people you’ve invited to participate, that doesn’t change a thing. The delegates are sent as representatives to a convention (or party meeting) where the platform will be crafted, party rules will be hashed out, and all kinds of organizational decisions will be made. Those representatives are entrusted to use their judgment on all kinds of things. That’s how our democracy works in Congress, and that’s how it works in party conventions. The most important thing those representatives will decide is who will be their presidential and vice-presidential nominees, but those decisions aren’t really different in kind from them voting on any other item that comes up on the agenda. In all of these cases, the decision-making responsibility has been delegated to them by the people who elected them, and no candidate should be allowed to select the delegates outside of a process where the people have agreed specifically to be represented by them.

To be clear, if the party itself delegates responsibility for selecting voters at the convention to some subset of the electorate, then it’s up that subset to delegate the responsibility by electing the candidates who they want to represent them at the convention.

Now, I anticipate that a lot of people will object that what I am describing isn’t democratic at all. It’s a recipe for a small group of political insiders to dictate control so that the final result is that the general electorate is given just two viable choices for president, neither of whom they’ve necessarily had any role or influence in selecting.

First of all, this is the system we already have and have always had, and recent reforms (as is becoming very clear) have not changed that. So, what I’m describing isn’t so much a change in the system as a change in how we think about the system. I want people to understand what’s really going on because that empowers them.

Second, I don’t think we should aspire to an unrealistic system where political (party) organizing doesn’t confer decisive political advantages. Everyone has the right to pass a verdict on what the political organizers of various parties have done. That’s what the general election is for. But actual party building is based on actual ideas and takes work and leadership and (yes) money. It’s up to people to come together and organize to make change, and no one should expect that change to come simply by casting a single vote in November, or even April.

To use Bernie Sanders as an example, he’s already proven that the money can be raised from ordinary people to compete with corporate donors and five or six-figure donations from millionaires and billionaires. Where he failed wasn’t in attracting people to his ideas and getting them to commit sufficient time and money. Where he failed was to get organized early enough, locally enough, and broadly enough that his people became the leadership of the party before he ever had to ask for their support. That’s not all on him, by the way, because we really do have an entrenched two-party system that makes it hard to break in from the outside. This made Sanders’s task more difficult because it required him to run as hard at the inside game as he ran the outside one, and he either wasn’t capable or (more likely) simply didn’t want to make the same kind of accommodations to the party that Barack Obama was willing and able to make.

What he succeeded at, however, was demonstrating how one of the most important pieces can be accomplished, which is getting the money you need to compete in a national election. In a way, he at least partially delegitimized one of his main critiques of the system, which is that money necessarily corrupts it and makes it impossible for regular folks to get a fair shake. Well, Sanders has money, too, and someone else in the future might be able to use the same sources of money to figure out how to get regular folks a fairer shake. Maybe they’ll succeed in taking over the Democratic Party. Maybe they’ll figure out how to start a successful third party that can supplant the Democratic Party.

Maybe that third party will have caucuses, or maybe they’ll have semi-open primaries, or maybe they’ll rely on a Committee of Seventy. It really doesn’t matter.

What I do know, though, is that whenever the workingman’s revolution comes, its ideas won’t be crafted by the general electorate in November. Their ideas will be ratified in November.

And that’s how it should be.

As for the leaders of the Republican Party, if they want to let Donald Trump be their nominee out of some misplaced deference to the will of the people, then they’ve already lost control of their party and it stands for nothing. They’ll have to get organized on creating a new party, and this time they better be a little more exacting about who they let pick their leadership.

Martin Longman

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