The DNC Doesn’t Owe You Anything

I just want to expand upon a point I made snarkily on Twitter that’s gotten some attention and heat. I said:

BREAKING: Secret emails reveal that many in DNC did not like non-Democrat, anti-DNC candidate Sanders, preferred actual Democrat.

WikiLeaks (which probably needs a whole other post to complain about) released private email correspondences from the Democratic National Committee showing that, shock of shocks, the DNC really did favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

Well no shit.

There is nothing wrong with a political party’s operation preferring one candidate over another, especially if one candidate would be a terrible choice for nominee. Especially if that terrible choice also happens to have been a Democrat for about five minutes. Especially when that terrible choice seems to loathe the very party he wants to nominate him.

The DNC would be full of suicidal lunatics if they didn’t prefer one over the other when the choice is so stark. If it were a choice between, for example, John Kerry and Joe Biden, there would be little reason for there to be any kind of consternation over who might get nominated. Neither of those candidates oppose the party itself in any meaningful way, and both would have comparable electoral prospects. But Clinton versus Sanders is easy. If you are in the DNC, and you’re not a lunatic, you prefer the former Secretary of State and First Lady who’s mind-blowingly qualified and has been fighting for and winning Democratic objectives for decades. You don’t choose the batty old socialist from Vermont who has accomplished little in office, who has accused the party of all manner of crimes and corruption, and who isn’t even really a Democrat to begin with. Because, again, we’re assuming they’re not lunatics.

Ah, you might retort, as many have in various forms, So it’s okay that the party cheated and denied the voters their true choice???

Stop it, I say, you sound crazy.

First, there’s no reason to believe anyone cheated anything, and asserting as much is just conspiracy mongering. And there would have been no reason to “cheat” anyway, because Clinton — at all times throughout this entire campaign, without any exception of which I am aware — was the more popular candidate. Thus, she won the most votes, and also thus, won the most pledged delegates. So the voters actually got their choice. Just because you might not like that choice doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Second (and I feel like I’m beating this drum to death), political parties are not the government, and they have no obligation to choose the candidates they field for office by election. None. The DNC doesn’t owe you an election, or a voice, or any role in its nomination process whatsoever — especially if you’re not even a Democrat. They’ve chosen to go about it a certain way that includes a mix of statewide popular elections and the judgment of some party leaders. But any political party could decide tomorrow that they will choose candidates by random lottery, by a series of duels, by high score at Crossy Road, or — and I know this sounds nuts — by a bunch of party leaders getting together to hash out which candidate would best advance the causes of the party and have the best chance of getting elected. Insane, right?

This is to say that if the DNC did put their thumb on the scale for Clinton somewhere, that’s entirely within their right to do so. But it’s also true that there’s little evidence that they did any meaningful thumbing. The scheduling of the early debates on Saturday nights was stupid and transparent, and actually kind of cowardly, but it wasn’t evil or undemocratic or anything like that.

The DNC’s obligation is to further the Democratic Party. That’s what they owe you, the best shot for Democrats to be elected to office. They are not obligated to appease a loud and hostile constituency, or even to honor small-D democratic principles. They need to help Democrats who believe in Democrat things get elected. That’s it.

My only wish is that they were better at it.

Presidential Primaries Might Be a Terrible Idea


Political parties aren’t the government, even though the Democrats and Republicans have so entirely weaved their parties into the machinery of government and the electoral system. Constitutionally, the two major parties are no more “official” than the Natural Law Party or the Rent is Too Damn High Party. They are nongovernmental associations that organize to field candidates for public office around the shared positions and values of whatever coalition of interests they can cobble together.

As such, they can choose the candidates they’ll run for office any way they like. Right now, the two major parties base these decisions largely on constituents’ votes in primary elections and caucuses, run through a very porous filter of delegate allocation. But if they chose, they could have party bosses choose candidates in smoke-filled rooms. They could even draw straws to see who would run for what, or have prospective candidates engage in medieval combat. It’s up to them.

The primary system we have now is relatively new, and on its face, the idea that the constituents of a party would choose a presidential candidate by (more or less) a popular vote seems like a good idea. It feels, if nothing else, fair. This is a democracy, and so we’ll pick our candidates democratically.

We take this for granted as the wisest and most morally correct method. We can see this whenever the prospect of something that might contradict the popular verdict arises, like superdelegates in the Democratic Party, the specter of a brokered convention, or when the particular rules of a given primary or caucus seem less than straightforward. People’s hackles are raised, and there is much crowing about the right to vote and the subverting of democracy.

But of course, we do not have a constitutional right to vote for party nominees. (Indeed, we don’t even have a constitutional right to vote at all, but that’s another discussion.) Candidacies aren’t political offices. It may be cynical or underhanded for a party to subvert the will of its primary voters, but it’s not against the law or a violation of representative democracy.

In case you can’t tell, I’m no longer convinced that primaries are the best way to choose candidates for office. Even just confining the discussion to the presidency, it no longer seems self-evident, as it once did, that the two major political parties are doing anybody any favors (themselves or the American people) with the primary system as it is. I also don’t know if the alternatives are any better.

I used to work for the electoral reform organization FairVote, and wrote many thousands of words about ways in which the primary system could be improved, but those improvements always focused on increasing the democratic fairness of the primary system, including holding either a single National Primary Day or having a rotating calendar of primary elections, all to reduce the outsized influence of New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina on the process. As I write today, though, I’m not sure we should be having these elections at all.

Obviously, it’s this year’s election that’s making me lose faith in the system. The clearest example of primaries-as-shitshow is the GOP race, where an angry, violent, and happily ignorant band of racists is about to lift Donald Trump to the nomination. There is no way this is a good result, not for the Republicans, and not for the country as a whole, which will be subject to his idiocy and thuggery, and have to go through the motions of treating his candidacy with a show of seriousness. It’s abysmal. And if someone like Cruz were the other “popular” alternative among the GOP primary electorate, that’s no better. He’s a maniac, and such a maniac that even his own lunatic colleagues loathe him.

It’s not the same with the Democratic Party, but it’s still bad. Not because Bernie Sanders, if nominated, would be somehow be a disaster (though he would be far more likely to lose in my opinion). He’d be fine and perfectly respectable, and I’d be proud to vote for him, though I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s. But the fact that the choice of the Democratic Party’s nominee is being left largely up to Democratic voters, the supporters of the two candidates are incentivized to vilify the candidate they don’t support. If there were no primary contest being held, Bernie people and Hillary people would overlap, and everyone would be cool with each other, working together toward common goals, even if not all of those goals are shared in precisely equal measure. But since we’re subjecting them to a popular election, we have Bernie supporters trying to convince the world that Hillary Clinton, the likely nominee, is evil incarnate, a lying, heartless monster who must be destroyed, which of course damages her chances for the general election and overall poisons political discourse among the constituents of the only party that is, right now, serious about governing.

So imagine a scenario in which a presidential nominee is chosen by existing officeholders within a political party, and that’s it. All the party’s governors, Members of Congress, and heck, even the state legislators and mayors and whatnot, all get together, in person or virtually, and argue and debate until they hold a vote, and then pick their party nominees. It has at least the whiff of representative democracy in that all the stakeholders will have been themselves elected, but it avoids the mob-driven death march of the primary campaign.

Or maybe we still have primary elections, but as they have at times been, they are straw polls, beauty pageants, displays of strength and potential support among the grassroots. And after the entirely non-binding straw poll votes are held, the aforementioned party officials take that into account when making their decision.

Or maybe there’s something else that makes more sense. Maybe a board of directors of a party should just hash it out in a room, with or without the smoke. Maybe a randomly chosen “papal conclave” of party stakeholders should figure it out and draft a candidate. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that we have a problem with primary elections. They’re producing bad results, either in the candidates they annoint or the damage they do to a party. I can’t say I’m now wholly opposed to them in principle, but I can say that perhaps it’s time to at least consider that we should save all the democracy for Election Day itself.

The DNC’s Cowardice Kills the Lessig Campaign

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Lawrence Lessig ended his bid for the Democratic nomination for president today, and I don’t blame him in the least. Due to a last-minute change by the Democratic Party in the rules to qualify for the debates, Lessig was blocked. He accounced his decision to end the campaign in this video:

I’m heartbroken, and I think he is too. I had no illusions that he would be a serious contender for the nomination, but I desperately wanted him on that debate stage. Someone has to make the case for the The One Issue to Rule Them All, fundamental reform of the electoral system. Reform of the systems by which we fund elections, vote for officeholders, and design our legislative bodies really is at the very core of all the other challenges we’re unable to politically confront. But almost no one knows that, or at least they don’t think about it. Lessig, if nothing else, would have made at least a few of us think about it.

I’m heartbroken, too, by the cowardice of the Democratic National Committee. For some reason, they decided that it was in their interest to keep Lessig off of that debate stage. I can think of several reasons why, but all of them are so petty and pathetic, that I am loath to attribute them to the party that ostensibly represents my interests. But who are we kidding? One thing the Democrats have not been known for in many generations in courage. Could they really have been so afraid, or at least squeamish, about Lessig’s message? It’s a message that points out the pox on both houses, but it also offers the vaccine for that pox. I am embarrassed for, and of, the Democratic Party.

I’m disappointed at the Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley campaigns for not advocating on Lessig’s behalf. None of them had anything meaningful to lose by Lessig’s inclusion, certainly not Clinton. Lessig was running as a Democrat because he supports Democratic principles, and was not running to “take down” any of the other candidates. He wasn’t there to “get” them, but to be serve as a kind of conscience. Bernie Sanders is supposed to fill that role, I suppose, but he doesn’t get close enough to the core of what’s wrong. They should have insisted he be included. But of course they wouldn’t.

And I’m seething over the political press, who, when tweeting the news of Lessig’s exit, offered only snark, jokes at his expense. I understand the delight one can take in the failures of ridiculous candidates, the hilariousness that ensues when their hubris far outshines their qualifications or competence. But Lessig wasn’t one of those candidates. He’s a serious, brilliant, accomplished person with a core message that is of existential importance to the republic. But ha-ha, he had to quit, couldn’t get one percent, funny glasses, ha-ha. Whatever plague is making our democracy sick, these people are the rats helping it to spread.

I don’t know if things would have been any different if Lessig had not begun his campaign with the pledge to resign once his legislative agenda had been fulfilled, a pledge he recently recanted in light of the resistance to it, and the fixation on it. I have to think it would have at least helped for the “gimmick” of his candidacy to be the sole focus it ever received from the vapid press.

It seems Lessig is leaving the door open ajar for a third-party candidacy, but I don’t think that’s what he wants. We’re all rolling our eyes at the idea of a Jim Webb independent run, and the last thing Lessig wants is to seem like more of a political joke than the press is already making him out to be.

The point, Lessig says himself, was to get into the debates. That’s where he was going to have his maximum impact. And the Democratic Party has slammed the door in his face. I don’t know what he should do next, although in his blog post following his official announcement, he wrote in a parenthetical:

…first lesson for presidential candidate wanna-be’s: be a Senator first, so your salary can be paid while you’re running for President.

How about it, Larry? You almost ran for the House once. Maybe it’s time to get in the fray at the legislative level. Kick some ass in Congress, and then we’ll see what happens next.

Lessig Says “You Win…I Will Remain President” – But It Might Be Too Late

Image by Robert Scoble (CC-BY-2.0)
Lawrence Lessig has reversed himself on the one aspect of his presidential campaign that I considered deflating, that dampened what would otherwise have been true enthusiasm: He’s no longer pledging to leave office once he achieves his legislative objectives. He means to be president and stay president. He wrote at The Atlantic:

If the Democrats won’t take seriously a candidate with a viable, credible, and professionally managed campaign just because it includes a promise to step aside once the work is done, then fine. You win. I drop that promise.

I am running for president. … After we pass that reform [the Citizen Equality Act], I will remain as president to make sure the reforms stick. I will work with Congress to assure they are implemented. I will defend them against legislative or legal attack.

But beyond that priority, I would do everything else a president must do, too. Which means I bear the burden in this campaign of convincing America I could do that well.

Excellent. I’m delighted by this.

But it’s almost certainly too late to matter.

After the first Democratic debate last week, I said that the quality performances of the first-tier candidates more or less ruled out a Joe Biden candidacy, as the debate made clear that there was no need for either an establishment alternative to Hillary Clinton, nor a left-flank alternative to her or Bernie Sanders. The two of them both did well enough for themselves to settle the race as one between the two of them, and the remaining three candidates were rendered more irrelevant than they already were, if that was even possible.

So my concerns for Lessig are that, first, his being left out of the debates has as much to do with resistance to true reform candidates from the DNC as it does with poor poll showings, or being left out of polls altogether. That resistance certainly won’t have changed now that Lessig is promising to remain president, and the DNC has little interest in someone standing on stage saying that the whole system that keeps them (and the GOP) in power is the real problem. It is the real problem, the problem from which all other problems flow, but it boots the Democrats nothing to admit it.

But second, and probably more importantly, I’m afraid that the moment has passed for grassroots excitement for Lessig to compel the networks, or whoever else has veto power, to care whether or not he’s there. To this time, I have not seen the kind of unbridled enthusiasm for Lessig’s candidacy that I would have expected, especially from the young, civil liberties-minded, Silicon Valley crowd, and I chalk this up to his poorly conceived resignation pledge. Now that he’s wisely reversed himself on this, that enthusiasm has now been channeled largely toward Bernie Sanders. In other words, Sanders is sufficiently reform-minded to sate the appetite for change that Lessig represents. And the debate last week only solidified that state of affairs.

I truly hope that new interest is sparked in Lessig’s campaign, again, not because I think he has any chance of being nominated or elected, but because his message is so vital. The agenda he champions is literally of existential importance to our democracy. A man of his wisdom, intelligence, and humanity carrying a message of achievable and necessary democratic rebirth deserves and needs to be on the next debate stage. He needs to be heard, and the other candidates, the ones who actually can be president, need to address them.

I just despair that it simply won’t happen now. The moment, I fear, has passed. Please, let me be wrong!

Lawrence Lessig’s Noble and Dispiriting Pledge

Image by Joi Ito, CC 2.0.

UPDATE 9/6/2016: Lessig’s campaign successfully passed the $1,000,000 pledge threshold (I pledged a token amount), and formally announced his candidacy on ABC this morning.

I heartily support Lawrence Lessig’s campaign for president, and there’s almost no public figure I can think of that I would prefer to be president. And that’s just the problem.

Lessig’s campaign is premised on the idea that if he runs and wins, he will doggedly pursue a single, crucial legislative goal: to end the influence of money on politics and elections with a still-in-formation Citizen Equality Act. He maintains (and I largely agree) that without fundamental, structural reforms to our political process, none of the other great challenges of our time can be meaningfully confronted.

If and when a President Lessig achieves this goal, he has pledged to resign from office and hand over his job to the vice-president, whoever that happens to be. (Presumably someone who shares his political views, such as an Elizabeth Warren, Russ Feingold, or some such.) He has promised that he would be a president-in-full while in office, working for domestic tranquility and all that, but has specified that he’d have a mind toward building the foundations of his successor, the sitting vice-president.

It’s confusing, right? Lessig insists that by pledging to resign when his goal is realized, he makes clear that he is serious about fixing the rigged system, and not interested in power for power’s sake. (Is there anyone who thinks that of him? Or could think that?) And there’s a logic to that. He needs to show that he’s not just kicking around some “on my first day in office, my first act as president will be…” bullshit that you hear from every other candidate. He means what he’s saying. He intends to pass this massively important reform, and when he has, he’s out.

Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that, of course, he won’t come close to being elected or nominated, and may not even reach his fundraising threshold to even begin running.

The novelty of Lessig’s campaign is his pledge to resign, and it’s also the campaign’s greatest weakness.

People familiar with Lessig have been clamoring for him to run for public office for years. He had explored a run for Congress for 2008, but backed down when it became clear that he’d have no shot, and his chief opponent was actually not all that bad on his core issues. Offering to run for president, now, as a Democrat, when Hillary Clinton awaits coronation (which will happen, folks), is a thrilling prospect to those who know of him and his work. Yes, his supporters deeply care about the issues he’s made the cause of his life, but they also just really, really want this guy to be president. I really want this guy to be president.

And they sure as shit don’t want him to resign, especially just after he scores his greatest achievement.

We don’t rally around candidates over single issues, really. We rally around a person, or the projection of one, who embodies innumerable qualities, hopes, fears, and possibilities. Who we support for president is tied into our own identities, it’s part of how we tell the world who we are. And the presidency is the closest thing Americans have to a kind of divinely-ordained rulership. We elect presidents that we expect to stay president.

Lessig’s gambit confuses this paradigm. It’s possible that he’d be seeing much more enthusiasm for his run if he never mentioned anything about resigning, because his core backers would be driven by the idea of four to eight years of their guy in charge. Instead, they’re getting their guy for a little while until some other arrangement can be made. Inspiring, it is not. How deflating to you think it was to McCain supporters when in 2008 it was said that he seriously considered pledging to serve only one term?

Lessig’s cause is inspiring, but it’s not enough. I want him to run, I want him in the debates, and I want him to win. But if, by some miracle, he did win, I’d want him to stay. Until he pledges that, it’s hard for me to get as excited as I might otherwise be. I expect I’m not alone in this.