"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!