DNC Unity Reform Commission: Are the Democrats Serious About Democracy?

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How much democracy is enough democracy? The question may sound glib (of course we want democracy) but it’s a fair question with a complex answer, and it’s what the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission was in town to discuss on the last weekend of August.

The Unity Reform Commission was created following the 2016 Democratic National Convention as a concession to the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. It’s comprised of nine Hillary Clinton appointees, seven Bernie Sanders appointees, and three appointees of DNC Chair Tom Perez.

The committee was formed with the ostensible goal of reforming the Democratic primary process. It’s tasked with discussing the merits of primaries and caucuses and the value of unpledged delegates (also known as superdelegates) and reporting its suggestions to Democratic party leaders early next year.

How much transparency is enough? It depends on who you ask. Sanders revealed the names of his committee appointees as soon as the list was released. To this day, Clinton and Perez have not clarified which committee members they appointed. In one sense, it hardly matters. Clinton and Perez appointees are effectively the same and argue from the same vantage. But in another sense, it matters a great deal. The committee tasked to create unity can’t even unify on whether or not to be transparent.

How much public participation is enough? Not much, apparently. Chicago DSA’s Shana East attended most of the weekend’s events. “These meetings are supposedly open to the public. However, the public isn’t allowed to speak or take part in it really other than watch it,” she said. “The one thing that we are able to do—which is why a group of us Bernie supporters went—is there’s a reception where you’re able to actually speak to the people on the commission. So that’s your opportunity to lobby.”

Of course, East and the other attendees weren’t sure which members were appointed by Clinton or by Perez, but they approached all of them in good faith to share the view that many voters would prefer the party turns toward democracy and transparency by supporting decisions such as eliminating superdelegates.

And democracy is precisely what’s at stake. East said, “Some people were saying online, ‘Oh, Hillary’s campaign folks are so deluded they actually think the Democratic party is democratic,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I witnessed at this meeting that they in fact know it’s not democratic. They really think that there’s this political class that is more well versed in the way politics works that should be in charge as opposed to regular working-class people.’”

East said an argument used by the Clinton-Perez cohort during the meeting was that, if the Republicans had superdelegates, maybe they could have avoided a Trump nomination. This, of course, is a perfect illustration of their belief in the superior wisdom of an elite political class.

Trump beat his next-closest rival by a margin of 904 delegates. Even if 1,000 hypothetical Republican superdelegates existed to stop Trump, the only other candidate they could have elected was Senator Ted Cruz. What is the difference between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz? It’s not a substantive policy difference; it’s one of manners. Cruz obeys Washington decorum while he strips immigrants of their rights, privatizes our public resources, and shreds the safety net. Trump does not. This is a substantial part of why Democrats believe undemocratic measures should have been used to stop Trump, but the alternative of a Cruz presidency does not seem adequate to justify suppressing democracy.

How much are the Democrats willing to change? Not much, East thinks, but she still believes it’s important to show up and present her viewpoint.

“I’m cynical because I was a staff member on Bernie’s campaign … and interacted a lot with the Hillary campaign. I’m cynical but obviously I went for a reason,” she said. “If no one with an opposing viewpoint came and spoke up, it would definitely go one way. But at least there’s some opportunity to show that the people—the majority of people—think certain reforms should be made.”

This committee and these arguments can feel like yet another tired relitigation of the disastrous 2016 presidential election. Supporting the status quo benefits Clinton and future candidates like her, and supporting reform benefits Sanders and future candidates like him. But the conversation really does represent a deep ideological divide. As East observed, the Clinton-Perez appointees are aware that they demand limits on democracy. This shouldn’t be seen as a convenient position they take to elect their candidate—it is a deeply held matter of ideology.

The Clinton-Perez camp may stress unity in theory. But support for undemocratic mechanisms like superdelegates cannot and will not unify their party nor will it create the kind of coalition that wins elections. Simply put, democracy is a greater unifier than deference to political elites, especially at a time when the prevailing political class has de-legitimized itself through its poor handling of the financial crisis, its complicity in endless war, and its embrace of corporate America at the expense of the great majority of the electorate.

They say they fear a democratic primary process because it gives us Trump. But candidates like Trump are not running in their primaries, and if they were, they’d surely lose. What party elites fear is their own marginalization at the hands of candidates that support a living wage, tuition-free college, a broad agenda that prioritizes the needs of working people over the powerful. What they fear is us.