by Jacqueline Salit
A wise man once said “Those who make the rules, rule.” Today, we wonder whether the current rules of voting and governing can deliver any kind of progress.
An important rules question was on the ballot in Maine earlier this month and the voters delivered a clear message. After a hard-fought campaign against a brutal opposition, the voters passed Question 1 by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.
This was a mass veto of the state legislature’s attempt to turn back the will of the voters. In 2016, Maine voters enacted a rules change which established Ranked Choice Voting as the statewide method for casting ballots. When the voters get to make the decision, the rules become fairer. When the parties make the decision, it goes the other way.
This summer, the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee took its own bull by the horns and adopted a new rule for presidential candidates: a loyalty oath. The new rule states: “At the time a presidential candidate announces their candidacy publicly, they must publicly affirm that they are a Democrat.” Furthermore, any candidate must “run and serve as a member of the Democratic Party.” Translation: the DNC believes it is time to tighten the party’s grip on its presidential nominating process in preparation for 2020.
The media is interpreting it as a hit against Bernie Sanders, who runs for office in his home state of Vermont as an independent but who has repeatedly and unequivocally declared his loyalty to the Democratic Party. Yahoo News columnist Hunter Walker wrote that “the new rule change would seem to be a slap in the face and a potential roadblock” to a Sanders run in 2020. And Nick Brana, the leader of the Movement for a People’s Party—Bernie backers who went independent after the 2016 election—believes the rule is intended to shut out progressive candidates.
I’m not so sure that Bernie is the sole target or, frankly, even the main target. And I’m not convinced that progressives, as defined by the MPP, are the main target either. Here’s why.
The DNC has one singular arm-twisting objective. It wants the Democratic Party to foster a Blue Wave in 2018 and 2020 such that it can restore itself to power in the name of saving the country from Donald Trump. If progressive voters can be marshaled to that cause, the DNC cares little about whether they champion single- payer health reform, free college tuition, the extension of Dodd-Frank or a taxation policy that readjusts the corporate tax rate to 35 percent from the GOP’s newly enacted 21 percent. The Democratic Party is expert at bringing its left wing to heel! No, what the DNC fears is that the rise of independent voters and the conflicts inside the party will lead to political defections at the top and an independent exodus at the bottom. Preventing that scenario is Job #1.
It was no surprise, then, that while voters in Maine were installing a process that could allow independent candidacies to flourish, the DNC was busy laying down the law to quash any kind of independent rebellion. In 2016, young and restless supporters of Bernie Sanders who were registered to vote as independents were shut out in closed primary states, including Pennsylvania, Florida, New York and Arizona. Sanders backers joined with independent voters and open primaries reformers to protest the exclusion. Even Bernie was forced by the ensuing political squall to weigh in for open primaries. While the DNC could have ordered its state affiliates to comply, the party was unmoved.
Though it allowed a Unity Reform Commission to discuss primary and Superdelegate reform (elected officials who get delegate status without running), the DNC has its eye on the prize. For this, it cooked up a self-empowering loyalty oath that can be used to police its field of 2020 presidential candidates and guarantee that no one will run and lose in a Democratic primary and then break away to continue running as an independent. Authoritarianism is alive and well. Move over Donald Trump.
Back in 1984, I wrote a cover story for the now-defunct National Alliance newspaper called, “Democrats Play by White Rules.” It was an expose of how the DNC fixed the party rules that year to deprive Jesse Jackson of a delegate bloc at the Democratic Convention commensurate with his popular vote in the primaries. Worse still, the DNC chair somehow managed to sequester Jackson and his campaign manager, Richard Hatcher (the former mayor of Gary, Ind.) in a hotel room while the rules vote went against them in a ballroom downstairs. As a result, the Rainbow movement limped into the Democratic Convention in San Francisco under- represented and on the defensive.
At the Convention, I was part of a small cabal of Jackson supporters in San Francisco who gathered in the wee hours to strategize a delegate walkout in protest of the party’s mistreatment of Jackson. The plot fizzled before daybreak. A year later, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan conducted a poll that showed that 57 percent of Jackson voters would have supported him if he’d walked out of the convention and continued his campaign as an independent. That move, had it happened, would have launched a Black and Independent Alliance on a national scale and dramatically altered the current power position of African-Americans and independents, both of whom are now subject to severe political marginalization. This alliance is a nightmare scenario for the Democratic Party. I remember those missed opportunities with some regret but came to believe more and more strongly as the years passed—as Lenora Fulani, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, all independent presidential candidates, battled the rules of ballot access, debates and fundraising that perpetuate top down control by the parties—that the wise man was right. Those who make the rules rule.
Just last month, party leaders ran a hysterical propaganda campaign to denounce the nonpartisan open primary system in California in the run-up to recent voting there. This included branding the state’s nonpartisan Top Two system a “jungle primary.” This was to denote a kind of lawlessness that the partisans—both Democrats and Republicans—insist comes with any election they don’t control. Translation: If we can’t control the outcome, it should be against the law.
Of course, the Chicken Littles had to eat some crow the day after the election, as the sky didn’t fall and the voters sent multi-party choices to the general election. All quiet on the western front, for now. The anti-democracy detractors will be back. And just as the voters pushed back in Maine, the democracy movement will have to push back at every turn.
Jackie Salit is president of IndependentVoting.org, a US strategy and organizing center for independents, with chapters in 40 states. Since 2005, she has hosted a bi-annual national conference for independents. This column was first published by the Independent Voter Network.