Democrats need more democracy, not less

The Democratic Party’s problem isn’t that it’s too democratic. It’s that it’s not democratic enough, yet.

SOURCECampaign for America's Future
Image credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr

Two political scientists wrote a recent op-ed in the New York Times, which ran under the headline, “Is the Democratic Party Becoming Too Democratic?” It’s an interesting thought. Unfortunately, the commentary appears to cherry-pick facts and figures to reinforce the ideological and personal biases of its authors, Julia Azari and Seth Masket.

Their argument is weak on the science and wrong on the merits – that is, to the extent that a coherent argument can be teased out of their commentary. But the authors’ provocative question deserves a fair hearing.

Azari and Masket cite a recent recommendation from the Democratic Unity Reform Commission, which proposed reducing the Democratic Party’s total number of unelected “superdelegates.”

“These recommendations illustrate the types of reforms we often see connected to democracy within parties,” they write. “But these reforms are actually difficult to define and implement across many states.”

Are they really so hard to define or implement?  They defined one such reform themselves, and it only took them half a sentence to do it: “cut back the number of so-called superdelegates by 60 percent.” That would be easy enough to implement, too. What, then, is their real objection?

Against democracy

Azari and Masket correctly note that “parties have become more democratically run over time,” and therefore “people tend to have more faith in the resulting decisions.” Nominations are, in their words, “more legitimate.”

Who could object to that? Azari and Masket, apparently. They write:

“Part of the problem for parties is our insistence that they be run democratically. That turns out not to be a very realistic concept … party leaders will always have vastly more information about candidates – their strengths and flaws, their ability to govern and work with Congress, their backing among various interest groups and coalitions – than voters and caucusgoers do. That information is useful, even vital, to the task of picking a good nominee.”

There’s a striking lack of precision in their use of the word “realistic” here. Their actual complaint is not that intra-party democracy is unrealistic, since they offer no practical reason why it can’t be implemented. Their real argument is that it’s a bad idea. In their view, voters aren’t as good at picking winners as party leaders are.

Smith vs. McAdoo

To judge the accuracy of that claim, it would be useful to review the electoral success rate of Democratic leaders in recent decades. But Azari and Masket don’t do that, preferring instead to make an ungainly comparison with William Gibbs McAdoo’s 1924 primary race against Al Smith. We’re told that McAdoo attributed his deadlock with Smith to “sinister forces.” He also presented himself as destined to carry out “the mandate of the people.” (What candidate hasn’t?)

The deadlocked party eventually chose a dark-horse candidate, John W. Davis, as its nominee. According to Azari and Masket, McAdoo’s self-assumed mantle of democratic legitimacy doomed the party’s chances in November.

McAdoo was no rebel. Yes, he ran in a number of primaries, although few delegates were chosen that way. But he was a party insider himself, a former Treasury Secretary who presided over the formation of the Federal Reserve and married President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter.

And Davis was not chosen democratically, but by a convention of party insiders – on the 103rd ballot, no less! His defeat doesn’t support the argument made by Azari and Masket, it undercuts it.

The gathering that chose Davis was notoriously known as the “Klanbake” convention. It was named for the Ku Klux Klan’s powerful influence on the Democrats’ deliberations, and for a hate rally of the same name that was held nearby. There, tens of thousands of Klan members – including quite a few Democratic delegates – issued violent threats against black and Catholic Americans and burned the Catholic Al Smith in effigy.

Handpicked losers

That debacle, along with incumbent president Calvin Coolidge’s popularity, were decisive factors in the Democrats’ loss that year. What can we learn from more recent history?

The current system favors the choice of party leaders at all levels, giving their preferred candidates early access to donors, forums, and endorsements from well-known figures. How has the party fared? Democrats have lost two-thirds of statehouses, two-thirds of governorships, both houses of Congress, and the White House.

But then, insiders have been losing the presidency for decades. Party insider Hubert Humphrey lost in 1968. Insider Walter Mondale lost in 1984. Insider John Kerry lost in 2004. Insider Hillary Clinton lost the primary in 2008, and the general election in 2016.


And what about that word, “realistic”? Where have we heard that word used recently? Oh, right. It’s the word that party insiders used to dismiss Bernie Sanders and his supporters during the primary. Your campaign isn’t realistic, they would say, even when poll after poll showed Sanders performing better than Clinton against Donald Trump.

Are Azari and Masket embittered Clinton supporters, once again “relitigating” the 2016 primary?  It’s hard to say. But their op-ed quickly morphs from a nebulous cloud of generality to a razor-sharp pinprick against Sanders and his supporters, grossly mischaracterizing both in the process.

They assert that Sanders’ disloyalty led the party to defeat. After claiming that “democratic legitimacy was the overwhelming rationale of (Sanders’) campaign” – I suspect that Sanders and his supporters would disagree – they go on to state that “roughly one Sanders supporter in 10 ended up voting for Donald Trump, and many young voters defected for third-party candidates, possibly costing Mrs. Clinton the election in several key states.”

Their assertion is clear enough: Sanders challenged Clinton’s “democratic legitimacy,” thereby suppressing her vote among his supporters and giving the election to Trump.  This is a common canard among embittered Clintonites. But it is an unforced error for political scientists, who should have the analytical skill to test an assertion like that.

The Sanders loyalty test

It’s simple enough: All else being equal, if Sanders supporters deserted the Democratic Party in larger numbers last years than did those of losing candidates in previous primaries, the claim is true. Otherwise, it is false.

According to a survey analysis by political scientists Michael Henderson, Sunshine Hillygus and Trevor Thompson, 25 percent of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary voters went on to vote for John McCain in the general election. Only 10 percent of Sanders’ voters went for Trump.

In an interesting echo of the Democrats’ 1924 “Klanbake” debacle, Henderson, Hillygus, and Thompson found that negative attitudes about African Americans among Clinton voters influenced their 2008 defection rate. Even after adjusting for the Clinton voters’ racial attitudes, however, Sanders voters were markedly more likely to vote Democratic in 2016. If anything, Sanders and his supporters are to be commended for rising above the resentments of a hard-fought campaign.

If the goal was to provide meaningful context for the 2016 election outcome, the authors have failed. Judging by the comments in their article, however, they did succeed in whipping up hostility toward Sanders and his supporters.

The bipartisan fallacy

This sentence from Azari and Masket is striking: “As the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider once said, democracy is to be found between the parties, not within them.”

I will openly confess to a lack of familiarity with Schattschneider’s work. But I, like many Americans, am well aware of the markedly undemocratic uniformity of opinion that characterized “bipartisan” leadership in Washington for decades. On a range of issues – including Social Security, Wall Street reform, and military spending – voters were confronted with parties and candidates who, according to polling, failed to reflect the majority opinion.

A case in point: Barack Obama was asked in a 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, “Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?” The answer: “You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position.”

At the time, both Obama and Romney backed benefit cuts, despite polling which showed that cuts were deeply unpopular with voters across the political spectrum. That included two-thirds of Tea Party voters, who agreed that such cuts were “unacceptable.” According to some analyses, only gridlock prevented Obama and then House Speaker John Boehner from cutting a “grand bargain” that included Social Security cuts. a move that would have overridden the will of the voters.

Many things were to be found “between the parties” during the era of bipartisanship, including a shared fondness for hefty campaign contributions and post-political sinecures. Despite Schattschneider’s assertion, however, democracy was not one of them.

Democrats in distress

Azari and Masket fail to consider the fact that voters have more information available to them than they’ve ever had before (even if too many of them are willing to fall for “fake news”). They’re increasingly unlikely to passively accept candidates chosen by party leaders, especially once they learn how those choices are made.

Nor do the authors consider the unique role our democracy gives to the two primary political parties. As long as those parties enjoy a virtual lock on elected office, at least one of them should be responsive to the will of the people.

Clearly, something needs to change. Support for today’s less-than-democratic Democratic Party is at a 25-year low. More than half of Democratic voters say they support “movements within the Democratic Party to take it even further to the left and oppose the current Democratic leaders,” according to a recent Harvard-Harris poll.

Should the party’s own voters be ignored or overruled, perhaps as penance for the perceived sins of William Gibbs McAdoo? That probably won’t do much to boost turnout.

Tell ‘em Al sent you

That gets us to this telling misstatement. “For (a party) to … still get roughly half the votes of the American electorate,” Azari and Masket write, “people have to have some faith that its actions are done in good faith.”

It has been many years since any political party received “roughly half” of the electorate’s votes. Voter participation is so low in this country that the winning candidates, even in presidential years, receive something closer to 25-30 percent of the electorate’s vote. Even in last year’s dramatic and hard-fought election, voter participation barely exceeded 60 percent.

There are many reasons for that low figure, including the barriers to political participation thrown up by one of our two major parties. But much of the blame lies with the limited choices offered to voters.

Democrats would be wise to ignore Azari and Masket. They’d be better off following advice that has been attributed for decades to Al Smith, William Gibbs McAdoo’s old adversary. “All the ills of democracy,” Smith reportedly said, “can be cured by more democracy.”

The Democratic Party’s problem isn’t that it’s too democratic. It’s that it’s not democratic enough, yet.


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