Behind Sanders unrest: Is the US democratic enough?

Both sides of the political spectrum see a rallying toward more direct voter decisionmaking and less filtering of electoral processes by political elites.

Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders react May 14 as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California speaks during the Nevada State Democratic Party’s convention in Las Vegas.

For all their passion for the über-progressive policies and communitarian worldview of Bernie Sanders, this week many of his supporters have begun to rage instead against the Democratic nominating machine.

The presidential candidate’s supporters are decrying a nominating process that to them seems outmoded at best, if not hopelessly undemocratic and corrupt.

Many Democratic Party regulars may call this sour grapes from the side that’s about to lose. Hillary Clinton is on track for winning the party’s nomination in a close but fair fight, they say.

But the protests on behalf of Senator Sanders may be something different and more significant – a flare-up that’s part of a broad and persistent strain in American thought, toward more direct voter control and less filtering of electoral processes by political elites. It’s an impetus that appears to be growing on both sides of the political spectrum, even though it runs counter to the caution that America’s founders had about direct democracy.

After all, just weeks ago it was Republican Donald Trump lamenting a “rigged” system that, at that time, appeared to be threatening his shot at a presidential nomination. Now, Sanders has attributed his narrow loss in Kentucky this week to the states “closed primary” rules that barred independent voters – the same complaint he made about New York and others in April.

And his supporters caused a chair-throwing fracas at the Nevada Democratic Convention in Las Vegas last week after bitter arguments over convention rules, contested voice votes, and the necessary qualifications of delegates.

“There's this idea across the country that full democratization is in all respects a good thing, that when people speak they should automatically be responded to,” says Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “But that’s not what the founders thought, that’s not what the party elders have always thought, and it’s certainly not the way the system is set up.”

‘A rallying cry’

From the white working class voters who flocked to Mr. Trump’s huge rallies to the Millennials so energized by the rumpled democratic socialist from Vermont, there have been cries to make elections more open to voters themselves, at the same time stripping establishment leaders of their electoral clout. It remains to be seen how the parties will respond.

“Rules are the rules,” says Professor Zaino. “There may be an argument that they should be changed – but to say that it is ‘rigged’ at this point, I don’t think that’s a winning argument. But it certainly is now a rallying cry.”

For Jeremy Kaufman, a young entrepreneur and software designer living in Brooklyn, the system may not be rigged in the pernicious sense of the word, but it hardly gives voters like him an equal voice in the process.

“The word should really be – well, it’s like there’s a Democratic hierarchy, and they think they know what’s best,” Mr. Kaufman says. “So it's rigged in the sense that this is always the way the Democratic Party been doing it for 20, 30, 50 years, with the base not always knowing how things are run.”

“And now they don’t know how to handle a loud and aggressive group of people who want things to be different, and who are finally seeing the way in which things have been for a very long time,” he continues.

Lara Wechsler, a court stenographer for the New York City court system, agrees. She is appalled by the system of “superdelegates” (not bound by a state’s voters) that has given Mrs. Clinton an advantage in this election.

“I am also very angry at the Democratic establishment,” she says. “So angry that almost all Democratic politicians are supporting Clinton, and therefore not even representing, even if in a lesser proportion, the Sanders contingent.”

“I mean, when you got like 98 percent of the politicians, city council people, mayors, party leaders, all just all going to Clinton when such a large part of the population is for Sanders – in some states he wins overwhelmingly and then the politicians that represent us don't at all? – it makes me not trust them at all,” Ms. Wechsler continues. “Now, it would be hard for me to say that if, say, 60 percent of the Democratic politicians in NYC supported Clinton and 40 percent supported Sanders – or even just 70-30. But it is like 98 percent to 2 percent? Forgetaboutit.”

Points of contention

Sanders is behind Clinton in both total votes and in delegates tied to the state-level primary outcomes. But he has remained competitive enough, winning some primaries and losing others, to stir questions about whether he’s the victim of a system stacked against insurgents.

In addition to the Clinton-inclined superdelegates, a top concern riling the Sanders camp is the closed primary; in closed primaries, political independents cannot participate. Another contentious issue is the onerous registration rules that make it hard for first-time voters to participate in closed-primary states like New York.

The nominating-process controversy in both parties is part of a larger pattern in American politics.  In an era of viral news via Facebook, citizen-decided ballot initiatives, and real-time reporting of vote counts, many voters expect politics to be about one person, one vote, period. Currents of unrest over the economy and political dysfunction in Washington have only added to the tendency of voters to distrust anything that looks like establishment fingers weighing on the electoral scales.

All this contrasts with some longstanding features of presidential politics.

America’s Constitution carefully balanced the virtues of representative democracy alongside safeguards against mob-rule majoritarianism. United States political parties, though they evolved along their own tracks, have shown a comparable tension over the roles of masses and party insiders.

As a result, from the delegate-based nominations to the Electoral College in general elections, voters technically select proxies to choose the US president. And when the parties crafted reforms several decades ago to put new emphasis on primary elections to choose nominees, they also calculated that party leaders should retain some clout – notably in the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system.

By waging “outsider” campaigns and galvanizing many first-time voters, Trump and Sanders may be adding to the pressure for change.

Falling into line or not?

How the Sanders drama will unfold looks highly uncertain. Many Democrats worry that the rancor could spill over into the national convention in Philadelphia this summer.

“For a while we were saying that this election is similar to what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went through in 2008,” Zaino says. “Clinton’s supporters were very frustrated as the race came to an end.… But the real fear for the Democratic party at this point is that Sanders is either going to move this party forward, or he is going to set it on fire.”

Many election observers believe vitriol from the Sanders camp will eventually subside. For one thing, the kind of young voters behind the vocal “Bernie or Bust” movement remain the demographic with the lower turnout and less political clout.   

“The Democrats have a lot of different ways of making a coalition,” says Matt Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “The Democrats behind Hillary Clinton are going to have a coalition of African Americans, I think they’re going to have an enormous percentage of the Latino vote, and then obviously Hillary has women.”

“And then the sort of limousine liberals now supporting Sanders, they’re smart enough and rich enough, so they’re not going to abandon Hillary Clinton and pave the way for Donald Trump,” Professor Hale continues. “The kids might, the young people. But there’s a bigger pool it seems to me for Hillary to build a broad coalition.”

Facebook meets voter unrest

But the 2016 election could mark a change in thinking about the process, especially for Democrats.

Part of the reason, suggests Brooklyn entrepreneur Kaufman, is that social media has revolutionized how young people engage politics.

“If you look at the way the election has played out – this is really the first social media election,” he says. “Obama had the first social media election in the sense that there was a lot of ‘marketing,’ and the ability to connect with people was easier. But people didn’t feel they had the same voice that they did eight years ago that they do now.”

“Right now we’re at a hyper-voice state with social media,” Kaufman says, “So people feel like they have a lot of power to share their experiences.”

Anti-establishment anger has been upending the Republican party for years, both with the emergence of the tea party seven years ago and the unforeseen rise of Donald Trump this year. And though Democrats have mostly maintained their broad-based coalitions during this time, the “Bernie or Bust” movement could portend a similar populist revolt from the progressive wing of the party.

“His supporters don’t at all seem concerned about the fate of the Democratic Party,” says Zaino. “They’re more concerned about the fate of the movement, and that is different from what we’ve seen before.”

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