Is the Democratic Party Becoming Too Democratic?
Seth Masket is director of the Center on American Politics and a professor in the Department of Political Science. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2004. Masket's areas of research and expertise focuses on American political parties at the local, state and national level. Masket has published two books and has a weekly on-line column with Pacific Standard and is a founder and regular contributor to Vox.com's Mischiefs of Faction blog.
Over the weekend, the Democratic Unity Reform Commission issued recommendations aimed at giving power back to the party’s “grass-roots.” The recommendations would cut back the number of so-called superdelegates by 60 percent, in an effort to loosen elite control over the presidential nomination process and make the party more democratic.
These recommendations illustrate the types of reforms we often see connected to democracy within parties. But these reforms are actually difficult to define and implement across many states. Part of the reason it’s difficult to make a party internally democratic is that this is the wrong way to think about parties.
The concept of democracy within a political party is tricky. As with many other institutions, parties have become more democratically run over time. Important decisions like nominations and platform stances used to be made by bosses and convention delegates; now they’re largely determined by rank-and-file voters in primaries and caucuses. The logic of running things more democratically is that people tend to have more faith in the resulting decisions — those choices are more legitimate.
Like just about any other institution, a party requires legitimacy to operate. It makes many decisions on behalf of its members and operates the complex caucuses, primaries, conventions and other machinery that boil down dozens of candidates into just one nominee. Similarly, it tries to weigh the many wide-ranging views of its members into a coherent platform. For it to do these things and still get roughly half the votes of the American electorate, people have to have some faith that its actions are done in good faith.
But parties have come under considerable strain in this area in recent years. Americans now see them as the nation’s most corrupt institutions. This is actually dangerous for the nation, as democracies without functional parties are often tumultuous and short-lived.
Part of the problem for parties is our insistence that they be run democratically. That turns out not to be a very realistic concept. Yes, we can hold elections within parties, but 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. As the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider once said, democracy is to be found between the parties, not within them.
Casting doubts about a party’s legitimacy — in particular picking a presidential nominee — can have real electoral consequences. In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted Hillary Clinton’s contributions from well-heeled donors, and particularly her strong support among the party’s superdelegates, as signals that the nomination contest had been fixed for her and that the only way for the Democratic Party to be a truly democraticparty would be to nominate Mr. Sanders.
By the spring of 2016, democratic legitimacy was the overwhelming rationale of his campaign. In the general election, 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.
This also happened in 1924, when Democrats held a famously divisive convention that spanned two weeks and 103 ballots. William Gibbs McAdoo of California fought to a nomination stalemate against Gov. Al Smith of New York, a favorite of the Tammany Hall organization.
McAdoo ran a deeply populist campaign aimed at maximizing his apparent democratic legitimacy. He ran in over a dozen primaries, a very rare approach at that time. He held numerous rallies among his supporters and claimed their mandate for leadership, all the while warning about the “sinister forces” trying to undermine his nomination.
During the convention, after the 77th ballot, he gave a rousing speech to his delegates, claiming, “I feel that I have to carry out the mandate of the people,” arguing that his candidacy symbolized democracy itself. Remarkably, in a contest between a Catholic New Yorker (Smith) and a Klan sympathizer (McAdoo), internal party democracy had become the defining issue of the campaign.
But this argument, however dramatic, wasn’t enough for McAdoo to win nomination. Unable to secure the necessary two-thirds of delegates, he and Smith eventually bowed out and made way for John W. Davis of West Virginia. Democrats divided, and they lost in a rout to Calvin Coolidge that fall.
Today, Democrats are undergoing some deep — and valid — soul-searching. The unity commission came with no shortage of internal division.
But it’s what happens when a party insists on being too democratic and when candidates use democratic appeals as a cudgel to undermine their opponents. Yes, Democrats did well in recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere, but those victories papered over very serious rifts that could affect it during the next presidential election cycle.
Tensions between party factions don’t have to result in lasting hostilities. As a candidate in 2004, Howard Dean made similar claims to grass-roots support and a bid financed by small donors. But Mr. Dean exited the nomination contest early on, endorsing the presumptive nominee John Kerry by the end of March.
Parties have something of a dual purpose — they need to win elections but also find a way to channel the different voices within their coalitions. Sometimes those goals mesh well and at other times they’re in tension.
The belief that parties should be internally democratic, which has gained wider acceptance over time and, with the reform commission, is likely accelerating, has altered the way parties balance those two objectives. Candidates who lose the nomination can protest on democratic grounds and gain traction in doing so.
But there’s a real danger in taking this path. It undermines both the nominee and the party, both immediately and in the long run. And it undermines one of the necessary, if difficult, aspects of democracy: conceding gracefully when you lose.