Feudal Democracy

Feudal Democracy

If democracy does not prevail in August, the Democrats will not prevail in November.


"The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic nineteenth-century treatise Democracy in America. "But from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through." In a nation where 5 percent of senators are doing the jobs their fathers did, and 40 percent of the people have lived with only one or two families–Bush and Clinton–in the White House, it’s time for an extreme makeover.

True, over the past couple of months people have had the chance to vote and, among Democrats, have been doing so in record numbers. In South Carolina, Barack Obama received more votes than the entire Democratic field in 2004. But while Democrats have become energized by the elections, the party leaders have become enervated with democracy.

The notion that this race might be settled democratically increasingly appears more a question of pragmatism than a point of principle. If the primaries are not sufficiently decisive, it seems that the nomination will be brokered by the "elders." Superdelegates are slowly ceding their authority to a handful of super-duperdelegates. Al Gore and former Senate majority leader George Mitchell are the two "elder statesmen" most often touted with sufficient standing to fix whatever democracy might happen to break.

So after all the brouhaha about this being a historic election that has drawn the young and disaffected into the process and broken the mold in terms of race and gender, the outcome may now be determined in a more feudal manner. Old white guys ruling on what’s best for the family.

The trouble with this Democratic aristocracy, like all aristocracies, is that it is woefully out of touch with the demands of those for whom it purports to speak. Put more simply, nobody really seems to take much notice of them.

In this election cycle endorsements do not seem to have made the slightest difference. Obama bagged support from Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and Governor Deval Patrick, only to lose the state by 15 percent. No number of Kennedy heirs could make a difference in California or New York. Linda Sánchez, the Congresswoman from California’s 39th District, endorsed Obama, but only 29 percent of her constituents backed him. Conversely, Maxine Waters, from California’s 35th District, supported Hillary Clinton, but 59 percent of her constituents went for Obama.

This doesn’t mean that these people are entirely without influence or power; simply that when it comes to taking advice about how to vote, most voters don’t turn to the Democratic Party elite. The Tammany Hall days when party chieftains wielded machines that could distribute votes at will and whim are long gone. America’s political class has neither the credibility nor the clout to pull it off. Indeed, if anything, the pull is going in the other direction. Several black Congressmen who have already endorsed Hillary are feeling the heat back home and from colleagues. Now that Obama’s candidacy is clearly viable, they fear going down in history as having blocked a black President and are openly discussing shifting their superdelegate vote. Now that’s principled leadership!

This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the rules. Take Texas. It takes thirty-seven pages to explain its selection process, and it still doesn’t make sense. Two-thirds of the 228 delegates are chosen according to the vote in thirty-one districts. The rest are drawn from caucuses held on the same night. The number of delegates assigned to each district is determined by how many voters in that district voted Democratic in the last presidential and gubernatorial elections. The number varies from two to eight and heavily favors African-American districts over Latino ones–as if we didn’t have enough to deal with.

Any electoral process in the Western world where you still don’t know who’s won two weeks after the polls are closed clearly does not work. At the time of this writing, according to CNN, 6 percent of California’s pledged delegates had still not been allocated. So long as these are the rules, of course, everyone just has to deal with them as best they can. But the longer this race goes on, the more it seems as though the real function of the primaries is for the candidates to present themselves and win by acclaim. The actual elections appear to have been devised as an afterthought.

But in a race where the delegate count actually matters–which hasn’t been the case for some time–the only way to resolve it is a Sopranos-style sit-down, where the heavies divvy up the spoils. If it comes to this, the Democrats could find themselves snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

"In the endgame," said one of the world’s best-ever chess players, José Raúl Capablanca, "don’t think in terms of moves but in terms of plans." As we approach this endgame, each side is trying any number of moves, from reviving Michigan and Florida to flipping superdelegates and pledged delegates. But ultimately the plan is to beat the Republicans in November. Democrats simply cannot do that with a candidate who has no democratic legitimacy. The only way you get that is by giving the nomination to the candidate who wins the most delegates.

This should not be difficult. Polls consistently show that most Democrats are divided evenly but not bitterly. They would be happy with either candidate as their nominee. That will no longer be the case if the victor emerges from Denver in August with the same level of credibility as George W. Bush did from Florida in 2000.

A debacle of that magnitude would gift-wrap the presidency for the Republicans. After all, if Democratic voters didn’t choose their candidate, why should the country at large? This is not an argument for a candidate but for a principle. Moreover, it is one of those rare moments when the progressive principle makes electoral sense. If democracy does not prevail in August, then the Democrats will not prevail in November.

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