If you don't understand why Bernie Sanders and the half of American Democrats who support him are pushing hard for a contested convention, you don't understand anything about either the man or the movement he heads. That's fine if you're a Clinton supporter -- it's not your job to agree with or even pay much attention to anyone but your favored candidate -- but if you're a member of the media, it's unforgivable.
So start doing your job.
2016 is not 2008, and only the tens of millions of Americans who support either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders seem to understand that. The media is still, to be frank, clueless. It's not that Trump and Sanders are in any sense aligned politically; it's that these two wildly different men, and their diametrically opposed movements, are a product of the same paradigm shift. 2008 was a horse-race--easy for media types to understand--but 2016 is a movement election whose underlying paradigm is a seismic shift away from anything we've seen in America previously.
That shift, in a single word, is (small-c) reconstruction.
Americans have come to accept, in large numbers, that our political and economic systems are broken. They understand that brokenness so intimately that, to them, the breakage is not in the process of occurring but has already occurred. They're now stuck looking at the pieces. But what deconstruction disables, reconstruction permits: hope. Imagination. Innovation. Courage. Grand narratives. In other words, 2016 is a time when we can fundamentally reimagine our core political and economic structures.
Everything is on the table now, as it always is in any time when the diagram of America appears to us as an "exploded" instruction manual in which each part is briefly positioned away from all the others -- the better for us to examine them one at a time. Where the Trumpets and Sanders folks align are that both are "angry optimists"; they're angry at what they're seeing in our country's systems, but optimistic about what a new day for those same systems might look like.
We can rethink super-delegates now. And closed primaries. And party registration in the first instance.
We can rethink how campaigns are funded, whether it's through the example of Sanders -- who funds his campaign without super-PACs -- or the example of Trump, who simply speaks clearly enough to the things that matter to certain Americans (admittedly, not me) that he gets all the "earned" media he wants without paying a dime.
We can rethink the value of debates versus town halls, rallies, or other public-event formats.
We can rethink what it is our two major political parties are supposed to be doing -- their very reason for existence.
We can rethink how decisions made by the media, apparently perpetually invisible to them, are, in the view of the rest of us, a giant finger being placed on the scales of American democracy.
Which is why the 40 percent of Democrats who say they won't vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 is not the same 40 percent of Clintonite Democrats who said they wouldn't vote for Obama in 2008.
I'm not a #BernieOrBust Democrat, but what I'm hearing from the thousands of Sanders supporters on my Twitter feed is that voting for Hillary Clinton feels, to them, like being in the moment of a glorious and generatively radical reconstruction and deciding, instead, to pack a bag lunch with a tuna fish sandwich inside. It's beyond deflating -- it feels like a betrayal of something so organic and fundamental it transcends politics.
Call it this: what sort of America we will have in 2117.
Not 2017 -- 2117.
What we're deeding to all our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids.
The brutish, cynical sycophants Clinton has surrounded herself with -- yet another strike against her judgment -- don't understand the paradigm shift and therefore don't understand Sanders or his supporters. They think a pragmatic argument about what needs to happen in America in 2017 or 2018 will work; it won't, because when you believe the country is slowly dismantling itself an incremental reformation that moves slower than the pace of the dismantling is senseless. You can disagree with approaching politics from a hundred-year ("movement") rather than four-year ("horse-race") perspective, but don't call people who think otherwise stupid.
Nor should you think for a moment they're all white, or all young, or even all liberals.
No more than we should assume -- particularly after what we saw in the New York GOP primary -- that all Trump supporters are white, or old, or male, or far Right.
What distinguishes us now, as Americans, is not political parties or even (as some suggest) where we lodge our feelings of animus -- if we have any -- but rather our sense of time. How far into the dissolution of the planet's climate are we? Into the dissolution of our country's moral center? Into the breakdown of our systems: criminal justice, political, free-market? That's where the Clintonites and their pals in the media aren't earning their respective professional keeps; they spend all day talking to themselves, sometimes in panels on CNN and sometimes in pressers in battleground states, in a way that implies that 2016 is 2008 is 2004 is 2000 is 1996 is 1992.
Which is where Sanders' view of super-delegates and an open Democratic Convention comes in.
First, the basic mechanics of the thing: because Democratic super-delegates remain unpledged until the Democratic National Convention, any Democratic candidate wishing to clinch the Democratic nomination prior to the Convention -- a privilege, not a right -- is forced to do so via pledged delegates alone.
This seeming paradox is of course no paradox at all: super-delegates are supposed to wield no power or influence over the Democratic nominating process until the Party's summer convention.
That's why even a moderately strong primary candidate would be expected to be able to win without them. Indeed, it only takes 58.8 percent of the pledged delegates to get to this year's "clinch" mark -- 2,383 delegates -- which any clear front-runner worth his or her salt should be able to accrue with relative ease.
Right now Clinton has 54 percent of the pledged delegates earned in primaries and caucuses (1,432) and Sanders 46 percent (1,219).
In other words, it's a single-digit race that's been tightening in the national polls for well over a month now. The current average of national polls has Clinton up on Sanders by less than 2 percent.
So -- likely in vain -- Clinton and Sanders are both trying their best to get to 2,383 pledged delegates by the last voting day of the primary season (a day, June 14th, still almost two months off) not only so that super-delegates will become immaterial at the Democratic National Convention but also so that their respective victories would be seen as decisive -- and democratic.
Nobody wants to win the Democratic nomination using undemocratically appointed super-delegates as a necessary crutch. It's not just embarrassing for the candidate, it's infuriating to the base at large -- which broadly disapproves of the super-delegate system -- and suggests a front-runner too weak to win a nomination outright. In decades past we would have said that a campaign this close almost demands a unity ticket; in years past -- like, say, 2008 -- we would have said that a campaign this close demands that one of the candidates become President and the other the second-most powerful person in government, the Secretary of State.
Of course, the Democratic Party is always hoping no race gets close enough for a unity ticket to become necessary, let alone for the nomination to be decided by Party elders.
And yet that's exactly what's going to happen in the Democratic race this year, as neither Sanders nor Clinton has any realistic chance of clinching the Democratic Party's nomination via voted-upon delegates alone. Clinton would need to win 67.9 of the remaining 1,400 pledged delegates to do so, and Bernie Sanders would need to win 83.1 percent of these delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination exclusively via the will of actual voters. Both of these targets are, if not statistically impossible, so beyond the capacity of these two candidates in what is -- nationally and state-by-state -- at worst a tied race and at best a race favoring one candidate or the other 55 percent to 45 percent that continued discussion of a pledged-delegate-only clinch is without purpose.
In a race like this one, the only way to avoid waiting until the Democratic National Convention and seeing how the super-delegates vote on the first ballot is for one of the candidates to concede. It's what Hillary Clinton, in the midst of a horse-race against an ideologically near-identical opponent, did in 2008, and it's now what she's hoping Bernie Sanders will do on June 14th should his 213-delegate deficit (possibly a bit higher, depending upon a last few delegate allocations) not be erased sometime between now and that date.
Here's the problem: the worst possible thing for Hillary Clinton would be for Sanders to concede on June 14th if that's not what his supporters want him to do.
Which makes Jennifer Palmieri's post-New York claim that Sanders' campaign is "destructive" to the Democratic Party and the nation an indication that she'd be an excellent press secretary in 1992, but has no idea whatsoever what's happening in this decade.
If Sanders supporters believe Sanders deserves the right to make his pitch directly to super-delegates at the convention in Philadelphia, it behooves Clinton to give him no grief for doing so -- as the alternative is that Clinton, by insisting on a concession from a candidate whose supporters don't want him to concede until he must, will lose a substantial bloc of Sanders voters in the fall. Moreover, demanding a concession from your opponent when you yourself have failed to secure the number of pledged delegates (2,383) that would have made such a concession immaterial -- and, yes, it is a failure of sorts for a front-runner to have to go begging to super-delegates for a nomination, as it was for now-President Obama in 2008 -- is a bad look on anyone. On Mrs. Clinton, who would in this scenario be relying on undemocratic super-delegates to secure her nomination, it would be particularly horrid.
It would, in fact, only highlight the relative weakness of her position as a nominee-to-be.
Instead, what Clinton could and should do in this situation is (a) say that Sanders should keep his own counsel on any concession, (b) not declare victory or name a VP nominee, and (c) simply win on the first ballot in Philadelphia. Besides crimping the pageantry of the convention somewhat -- forcing a post-first ballot VP rollout -- it's no skin off her back. While taking this position might annoy some of her supporters, who'd like to see her declare victory if she's leading by even one delegate (pledged or otherwise) after the D.C. primary, she needs to think strategically if she wants to reunify the Democratic Party.
And the only way to do that is to let Sanders expose just how broken the Party is.
Yes, that's the paradigm shift we're in: a paradoxical one in which you have to let something be revealed for all its weaknesses before you can reenergize it. You must allow deconstruction to be total before you can reconstruct hopefully and with solidarity across all factions of the Democratic Party.
Mind you, none of this will happen.
Clinton is surrounded, excuse me saying it, by idiots who only understand brute force and blind loyalty. They are smug, cynical, and without any principles besides their first one: win at any costs. It's a Republican ethos from way back, but it's the way (literally) Hillary was raised, so she and Bill fall back on it whenever they're embattled. That Republican ethos toward transparency (none of it) and competition (only if ruthless) is actually what Americans are reacting to when they say, in near-historic numbers, that they don't like Hillary.
But I'll leave off on that, as it's all way above the heads of her crew.
The point is, if he's the candidate he and most of America thinks he is, Bernie Sanders is not going to concede on June 14th.
In fact, he's not going to concede at all -- ever.
Even after Hillary Clinton (and the mainstream media) completely unnecessarily declares her victory on June 14th.
He will (in this hypothetical I'm drawing) simply lose on the first ballot in Philadelphia and then demand, on the strength of having about 50 percent of the Party behind him, that the Party abolish super-delegates.
That's right: Bernie is going for broke.
He's going to demand an end to super-delegates, closed primaries, arduous party registration regulations, long voting lines due to broken or old voting machines, confusing party registration forms and voting ballots, super-PACs, and much more.
Then he's going to tell Hillary that they can form a unity ticket if she (a) helps him enact these Party reforms and (b) agrees to support (and, as titular head of the Party, demand) his nomination to be Senate Minority Leader -- or, if November goes well, Senate Majority Leader.
Or, he'll do none of these things. He has every ability to change the course of his story. But the story as he's telling it now proceeds as I've described.
And because the story as Clinton is now describing it involves none of these things, I'll note where her own story ends: in November, with a Trump presidency. Because, contrary to the explicit advice of Mook and Brock and Palmieri, in fact Sanders supporters weren't joking around when they said that 2016 isn't 2008.
It wouldn't be the first cliff Hillary's inner circle has driven her off.
But if we play out the Sanders story as it's currently been written, Sanders, buoyed by his followers -- roughly half the Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters in America -- won't concede prior to the Democratic National Convention. Indeed, he and his surrogates have been saying precisely that for weeks now, and I've been saying it for weeks here, only it was largely scoffed at by the media until it became (as though they'd conceived of it themselves) the top topic of daily discourse on CNN after Trump's hair and anything his mouth produces.
So hearing this, the question many people will ask is, "So what's Sanders' understanding of super-delegates, and by what ethical standard does he judge his campaign's approach to them and everything else he feels an open convention could expose?"
This article attempts, among other things, to answer that question by looking at how super-delegates have been used thus far this election cycle.
In most respects, the usage of these Party-appointed super-voters in 2016 has been identical to their usage in 2008 and the elections before (dating back to 1984, when super-delegates were invented). The problem, of course, is that in both the Democratic and Republican parties an anti-establishment fervor has made processes that once went unquestioned seem the epitome of what's wrong in America.
Clinton and her supporters don't see the problem with super-delegates, in much the same way (Sanders supporters would argue) that they don't see the problem with our campaign finance system, our recklessly interventionist and financially crippling foreign policy, our approach to welfare and the criminal justice system, our healthcare system, or any other apparently broken system in the United States that Hillary Clinton promises to cautiously and in torturously small increments begin to fix or at least paper over. Asking Sanders supporters to either (a) admire the super-delegate system, or (b) swear fealty to it by doing nothing to undermine it is no different than saying -- in a clear, unambiguous tone -- that you've no idea what all the kids are so riled up about these days. In other words, the conversation over Sanders' approach to super-delegates is a microcosm for why, win or lose in July or in November, Secretary Clinton and her supporters will continue to be blind-sided daily by a movement and a common feeling and, yes, a paradigm shift they've done absolutely nothing to try to understand.
Worse, Clinton's own use of super-delegates is a perfect metaphor for everything Sanders supporters hate about the status quo -- which is why, again, doing their utmost to enforce the collapse of the super-delegate system is a form of activism many Sanders supporters take for granted. And to be clear, "the collapse of the super-delegate system" doesn't look like a riot on the convention floor in Philadelphia -- as Clinton supporters would like to suggest, sounding a bit like business-owners who assure us that if the minimum wage even keeps pace with inflation every mom-and-pop store in America will instantaneously explode -- in fact it simply looks like, well, voting.
Specifically, a roll-call vote on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in late July, with super-delegates forced to do their jobs -- that is, remain open to new information and the persuasion of individual candidates until the moment they cast their votes, and to acknowledge that a political party isn't a horse-race in which 51 percent means the other half doesn't exist, but rather a family in which the values of the family need to be (broadly) shared for it to survive.
So, with that preamble, here's Sanders' five-point philosophy of super-delegates, which, however it seems now to the Clintons and their supporters, is finally about as "radical" as that tuna fish sandwich I mentioned above:
1. Super-delegates must not be used as a bludgeon in the lead-up to the primaries and caucuses.
This election cycle, Hillary Clinton made an extraordinary effort to "collect" super-delegates in advance of anyone casting a ballot, and she did so with one purpose in mind: to ensure no Democrat would run against her for the Presidency. Clinton's theory was that if she could amass a large enough "lead" of delegates seemingly -- yet, in fact, not at all -- officially pledged to vote for her, no one would be stupid enough to contest her ambitions when it came time for actual rank-and-file Americans to vote.
By December of 2015, many weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton had built a 351-delegate lead on her next-closest rival (Sanders). As the Clinton camp has routinely said this election season, anything greater than a 140-delegate lead puts the trailing candidate further behind than President Obama ever was in 2008, and anything greater than a 200-delegate lead is "insurmountable." So the clear message when these same folks built up a 351-delegate lead before any votes had been cast or counted was, "Our lead is insurmountable! Back off! No primaries this year!"
And so they did back off. And by "they" I mean any Democrats in America with an actual chance of beating Hillary Clinton.
And it wasn't just Joe Biden who was scared off. It was the entire Democratic bench of female, African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and LGBTQI+ politicians who might well have run against Clinton if she hadn't scored ten touchdowns and spiked the ball before the refs even blew the game's opening whistle.
Clinton saw this, and was much pleased.
And even when the clown car showed up with a few thoroughly unqualified Democrats who just wanted to grab some cheap headlines -- Chaffee, Webb, and O'Malley -- Clinton remained much pleased, because having them on-stage with her for a handful of carefully orchestrated "debates" would, much like Putin scoring twelve goals in a "hockey game," make it look like what was happening was a "primary."
Sure, had Clinton gotten her way and Sanders not come along it would have meant the Democratic Party getting no television news coverage while the Republicans were on television nightly; sure, it would have meant no one would have come out to vote in pointless "primaries" and "caucuses" that were merely Clinton coronations; sure, it would have meant that Clinton would not have been vetted as a presidential nominee post-Senate and post-State Department; sure, it would have meant that every voter in every state would essentially be as disenfranchised as a North Korean voter looking to cast an opposition ballot; but what of it? Clinton would spend her time building a massive war-chest for the fall election and pretending to campaign. A typical "campaign" day might look like this, say in a battle-ground state: fundraiser, fundraiser, fundraiser, two-minute press availability, fundraiser, photo-op, fundraiser.
Clinton would have destroyed the Party's chances in November for the sake of her own ambition.
Very, well, Nixonian.
Then someone who didn't get the message because he wasn't a member of the Democratic Party came along.
And the very fact that Sanders declared and continued and ramped up his candidacy in the face of an "insurmountable" super-delegate lead was, apparently, the Senator's way of saying that super-delegates should never be used to -- or ever have the effect of -- ending a presidential nominating season before it's begun. Because doing so, his every campaign event implicitly opined, would disenfranchise every Democratic voter in America, destroy the Democratic Party's chances in a general election, and turn the process of nominating a Democrat for President every four years into nothing more than a Party coronation like the ones petty despots stage overseas. (To be clear, the comparison here is not between Clinton and a despot but between the Clinton camp's attitude toward elections and a despot's attitude toward elections -- a key difference, maybe.)
2. Super-delegates must not be recorded by the media as part of a Democratic candidate's tally, lest they influence voters' votes or even intimidate a voter from voting.
This part of Sanders' philosophy is merely Democratic National Committee policy -- as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Clinton supporter, has repeatedly told the media that super-delegates don't get added to anyone's count, indeed don't have to make up their mind about anything or keep their mind made up about anything, until the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention.
Why make this distinction? Why tell the media, as Wasserman Schultz did, to stop counting super-delegates as having been "earned" following primaries and caucuses in individual states?
It's pretty simple, actually: Sanders' (and Schultz's) theory, which has been richly borne out every day of the election cycle, is that reporting super-delegates as though they were (a) pledged delegates, and (b) attached to the primaries and caucuses in individual states not only creates a false narrative about super-delegates -- as super-delegates are neither pledged nor earned until the Democratic National Convention -- but also a false narrative about the course of the primary itself. They create the impression of a front-runner, of a "lead," of a certain type of institutional momentum that might not (perhaps this sounds familiar) be adequately reflective of actual sentiment on the ground.
How many Sanders votes stayed home in states across America because the media falsely reported Clinton's lead on the basis of both pledged and unpledged delegates? If Clinton thinks a delegate lead over 200 makes any opposition pointless, why is it so hard to think that millions of potential Sanders supporters might have agreed with her and stayed home once they saw her 351-delegate lead in late 2015? How many news stories about Bernie Sanders depended either explicitly or implicitly on this idea that the man was a crank and (really) just a pre-destined loser who's causing trouble for the inevitable nominee? How many news stories used Clinton's super-delegate lead as a proxy for the idea that Sanders was an "outsider" with no ties to the Democratic Party except (one supposes) voting with them in Congress nearly 100 percent of the time for the past twenty-five years?
What sort of hopelessness, sense of folly and self-delusion, or personal embarrassment did the super-delegate "math" -- all fuzzy and fake math, until Philadelphia -- engender in Sanders voters, particularly voters new to the electoral process, new to the Democratic Party, or simply new to civic engagement in general?
We'll never know.
What we do know is that it was all entirely unavoidable.
All the media had to do was listen to both Senator Sanders and the Democratic National Committee -- and ignore Secretary Clinton, who from the jump has not only benefited from the false narrative super-delegates generate but in ways large and small has embraced and even enforced it.
3. Super-delegates are morally obligated to find ways to democratize their own participation in the process.
Obviously the real goal for Bernie Sanders is eradicating super-delegates. But failing that -- and this isn't as prescriptive as it sounds -- there are many ways for super-delegates to become a reconstructive rather than destructive force in the Democratic nominating process. Here are some possibilities:
- Super-delegates could pledge themselves in advance to either personally vote for the winner of their home state or to work with other members of their state's super-delegate delegation to ensure that that delegation itself is a (proportional) mirror of the actual voting in their state.
Clinton opposes all of them.
Sanders supports all of them.
This is one reason that neither Clinton nor her supporters have any moral standing to question Sanders' position on super-delegates, as nothing he could do now would so substantially amend his moral clarity on the issue -- a clarity he's exhibited since mid-2015 -- that it would devolve to the muddy moral relativism Clinton has been wading in for even longer than this. Remember that she secured most of her super-delegates before any votes had been cast, before there was any popular-vote leader, before there was any leader in the pledged delegate count, before any debates, before any national case being made to voters by prospective presidential nominees for the Democrats.
4. If all of the above first principles are ignored due to a confluence of the Clintons and the establishments in media and politics, peacefully undermine the system in protest.
Every possible wrong -- and unethical -- decision that could be made with respect to the use of super-delegates in this election cycle has been made by the media, the Clinton camp, and the super-delegates themselves.
The Democratic super-delegates in 2016 chose who to support and announced their support at a time when:
- There was no "popular-vote leader."
- There was no "delegate-count leader."
- There was no popular vote.
- There was no delegate count.
- There had been few or no debates (depending on the super-delegate).
- The final field of candidates had not yet been set.
- The super-delegates had not held face-to-face meetings with any candidates other than the one they endorsed.
- The super-delegates had no polling from within their home state to guide or influence them.
- The "good of the Party" was unclear because the candidates had not yet aired their ideas to the voters.
- The likely GOP candidate was unknown, and indeed even the full slate of candidates for the GOP nomination was not known.
- Pending issues potentially affecting the electability of individual candidates had not been resolved (for instance, whatever happens with the federal investigation of Clinton, the mere fact of the investigation, or the possible indictment of a distant associate, could hurt her candidacy substantially in the fall).
Whatever ethical code an individual super-delegate might have claimed to have -- I'll go with the popular vote; I'll go with the pledged-delegate winner; I'll vote with my state; I'll vote for the good of the Party; I'll vote for the good of my country -- we can be certain that each and every one of the 359 super-delegates who endorsed Secretary Clinton in 2015 (and, yes, any of those who endorsed any other candidate, including Bernie Sanders) violated that ethical code. There is no reason to acknowledge or respect -- let alone honor -- those endorsements. They should, as a first principle, be treated as though they never happened.
Which is what Bernie Sanders is planning on doing.
And he's right to do it.
Meanwhile, whatever your view of how democracy should work -- with super-delegates or without them; via primaries or caucuses or a mix of both; in closed or open primaries; with weeks of early voting or no early voting at all -- you can agree, as a first principle, behind the "veil of ignorance", with the idea that super-delegates should not come into play in an election cycle until the moment they cast their vote at the Democratic National Convention.
Which is exactly how Bernie Sanders is proceeding.
Sanders and Clinton are both stuck with a system that requires them to get 2,383 delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination.
Neither has the ability to say, "Well, let's just make it 2,026." They could sit in Philadelphia for days or weeks smug in their mutual agreement that only 2,026 delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination for President and the result would be no nominee for the Democratic Party. So if in fact no one has clinched prior to Philadelphia, and super-delegates (a) should not begin their deliberations in earnest until all voters have voted and a full case has been made to the American people by each candidate -- and until any outstanding issues potentially affecting the electability of each candidate have been resolved -- and (b) shouldn't actually voice an opinion on the election until the moment they cast their vote at the Convention, everything Bernie Sanders is doing right now with respect to the presence and power of super-delegates is not just appropriate but entirely correct.
Nothing in the above analysis precludes a candidate from conceding should they not win the pledged delegate battle; Clinton had a right to do that in 2008, and Sanders has a right to do so now.
The question is whether Sanders genuflecting before a super-delegate system Clinton has abused from the first day of this campaign is better for the Democratic Party -- mind you, not "better for Bernie Sanders"; not "better for his supporters"; not even, in this respect, "better for America" -- than is challenging that system by enforcing the behaviors and procedures the Party should have itself adopted long ago.
I'm a Democrat, and I think super-delegates are undemocratic.
I think Senator Sanders has endured the corruption of the super-delegate system for almost a year now -- I think its deployment has weakened his support, polling, and actual electoral success from the jump, and I think few would disagree -- and see no dishonor whatsoever in the man who most was disadvantaged from the undemocratic nature of that system using his half-the-party support within the Democratic Party and majority support nationally (as in polls against Kasich, Cruz, or Trump) to begin the process of liberating the Party he has always voted with from a laundry-list of its seediest features.
Do I say this because I believe Sanders will win the super-delegate vote in Philadelphia?
Not really -- as I think what the super-delegates do will be predicated on whether Clinton loses many of the final primaries and caucuses and/or whether any element of the federal investigation into her email server becomes potentially damaging in a general election. If either of those events come to pass, I do think Sanders' electability arguments (compiled here) may sway large numbers of super-delegates.
But no matter what happens, an open convention opens up a conversation the Democrats -- and in a broader sense, America -- needs to have about its political system and the cultural paradigm we all live in as Americans.
Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).