In Paradise Lost, John Milton gave Satan the gift of heroic eloquence in the service of pernicious ideas. Justifying his rebellion against God, Satan says, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” These words might carry the ring of brave defiance, but they are the governing principle of any tin-pot faction that prefers controlling a losing organization to being junior partners in a winning coalition.
Unknowingly, the Devil was articulating the principle that Jon Schwartz explained in a 2007 essay, “The Iron Law of Institutions.” As Schwartz wrote, “The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.”
The Iron Law of Institutions is on full display in the Democratic Party right now, as the party establishment contemplates using a brokered convention and superdelegates to snuff out Bernie Sanders’s bid for the nomination.
As The New York Times reports,
Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance. Since Mr. Sanders’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, The Times has interviewed 93 party officials—all of them superdelegates, who could have a say on the nominee at the convention—and found overwhelming opposition to handing the Vermont senator the nomination if he arrived with the most delegates but fell short of a majority.
Members of the establishment are willing to entertain a number of quite fanciful scenarios for stopping Sanders, including recruiting at the convention dark horse candidates who aren’t even running right now, such as Michelle Obama (to serve as a unifying vice-presidential candidate) and Sherrod Brown (as a presidential candidate). Michelle Obama has never expressed interest in running for any public office. Quite the contrary—everything we know about her indicates she would regard running for office with horror. Brown is an admirable progressive senator, but the fact that he didn’t enter the presidential race makes it hard to see him as worthy of a prize other contenders have actually worked for.
Congressman Don Beyer, a supporter of Pete Buttigieg, had even wilder suggestions. “At some point you could imagine saying, ‘Let’s go get Mark Warner, Chris Coons, Nancy Pelosi,’” Beyer told the Times. “Somebody that could win and we could all get behind and celebrate.”
Beyer’s remarks helpfully highlight how unhinged all the dreams of a brokered convention are. Imagine how Democratic voters would feel if the party establishment, after an election that absorbed millions of votes and donations over the course of a year, ended up anointing candidates who hadn’t even made the effort to run. There’s no reason to think that Nancy Pelosi, who is viewed favorably by only 39 percent of Americans and unfavorably by 52 percent of Americans, would be a better candidate than Bernie Sanders, who enjoys a net favorability that is usually about 10 points higher in most polls.
If the argument is that Bernie Sanders is so far to the left that he’ll face a George McGovern–style defeat, then won’t the imposition of Nancy Pelosi as presidential nominee have a similar effect? It’ll both alienate the voters who participated in the nomination process and fail to excite the broader electorate. The same principle applies to nonentities likes Warner and Coons.
The only reason to prefer Pelosi as a nominee is that the establishment doesn’t want to cede control of the party. If Sanders (or even Warren) were the nominee, the establishment would become the junior partner in a coalition with progressives. That’s the unthinkable prospect that is really behind talk of a brokered convention with superdelegate intervention.
For all the chatter about Bernie Sanders’s being unelectable, the party establishment is toying with outcomes that would produce a nominee much more likely to lose than Sanders. Clearly, electability isn’t the issue but rather party dominance.
The attempt to thwart the Sanders coalition is all the more self-defeating because it is likely to be temporary. Sanders is overwhelmingly the most popular Democratic presidential candidate among young Americans. In the Nevada caucus, he received 65 percent of the vote from voters age 17 to 29, with the next highest candidate, Pete Buttigieg, getting 11 percent of the vote. Among voters age 30 to 44, Sanders received 49 percent of the vote, trailed by Warren with 17 percent.
Looking at these numbers, it’s clear that a Sanders-type progressive will win the nomination at some point in the future, even if Sanders himself is thwarted this year. Older and more conservative voters are going to be a diminishing part of the Democratic coalition. Either in 2024 or 2028, someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be the nominee.
Democrats often accuse Republicans of trying to use every trick in the book, from gerrymandering to voter suppression, to stem the demographic tide that will doom their control of the country. And it’s certainly true that Republicans have gone to great—even unlawful—lengths to put a lid on the political participation of the young and people of color.
But the Democratic establishment is trying to do something similar inside their own party. The crucial difference is that Republicans try to suppress the rising generation because the GOP wants to hold on to power, while the Democrats are willing to limit the young even at the cost of losing power.
Milton’s Satan would understand the logic perfectly: Better to reign over a defeated party than to rule as a junior partner in a governing coalition.