The Superdelegate as Undertaker

The coffin they’re trimming isn’t just for Bernie

Superdelegates have become a flashpoint in the increasingly acrimonious Democratic primary, with Sanders supporters, and now Clinton surrogates as well, arguing that they are being used to ‘rig the system.’ But superdelegates play a minor role in the profound disruptions that loom over the Democratic party and, indeed, the party system as a whole.

Superdelegates are not going to throw the Democratic nomination in July. They will help whoever wins a plurality of pledged delegates reach 2,383. Period. The alternative — Democrats heading into the General Election with a nominee chosen by the party establishment over the will of voters — would be so politically crippling that no reasonable superdelegate would entertain it.

This is not to say that superdelegates are not an important element of the Democratic nominating process — on the contrary, they’re integral — but that their work is already done. Superdelegates were conceived as a way for the party establishment to maintain control over the nomination process in an era in which nominees might literally be chosen on the floor of the party convention (or its famed, smoky backrooms). But, as Pew Research notes, there hasn’t been a contested convention in decades, for the simple reason that they have tended historically to produce losing candidates, and parties avoid them like the plague.

Nevertheless, in spite of the transformation of party conventions from contests to coronations, superdelegates remain an important tool in ensuring that “party leaders and elected officials,” as Debbie Wasserman Schultz surprisingly acknowledged, “don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.” The evolved role of superdelegates is, in effect, to ‘shock and awe’ the Democratic rank-and-file. To break early and hard for the candidate preferred by party elites. Prior to the first vote cast, Clinton led Sanders 380 superdelegates to 11 and the media dutifully reported the daunting challenge this presented to challengers. Given the party’s proportional allotment of pledged delegates, strong initial leads are, indeed, exceedingly difficult to reverse. With the complicity, compliance, or simply complacence of the media, who often represented the commitment of superdelegates as more final than they were, and regularly lumped pledged and unpledged delegate totals, superdelegates have already served their purpose.

Many Democrats, myself included, are guilty of thinking of the Democratic Party as the collective expression of that portion of the population that is rational, tolerant, and generous. But ultimately it’s a political institution, like any other. The fact that those who have spent their lives ascending to positions of power within the party would employ mechanisms to prevent losing that power to ‘grassroots activists,’ or interlopers like Sanders, is neither surprising nor particularly repugnant. It’s their party, they can try if they want to. But the reliance of the party establishment on superdelegates is a classic symptom of decline.

Why doesn’t the party just field candidates who can obtain primary votes on their own merits, without the intervention of superdelegates? Because there is a growing ideological divergence between, on the one hand, the establishment and the interest groups with which it’s aligned, and, on the other, the Democratic electorate. Bill Clinton’s terms in office marked the ideological ascendancy of the Democratic Leadership Council and the ‘New Democrats,’ who succeeded in pulling the Party sharply to the right on economic policy. The DLC was particularly opposed to protectionism, populism, and pacifism, all of which it perceived as having contributed to the Party’s losses with the candidacies of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. The Clintons effectively remade the Democratic Party into a purveyor of DLC or ’Third Way’ politics, and Hillary was a central player in the development and distribution of the ideology. Influential ‘New Democrats’ included Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and, once in office, Barack Obama. Notice a pattern? Every democratic presidential and vice-presidential nominee since 1992 has been a ‘New Democrat,’ advocating a Wall Street-friendly hybrid of traditionally Democratic social liberalism and traditionally Republican fiscal conservatism.

The progressive or left wing of the party, however, never went away and never really got on board. And, in a similar way as stagflation in the early 1970s galvanized opposition to Keynesianism and finished off the New Deal coalition, the 2008 Financial Crisis has shed unwelcome light on the New Democrats’ coziness with Wall Street and reinvigorated the party’s progressive base. The superdelegate ‘shock-and-awe’ should be understood against the backdrop of this confrontation between a waning, centrist Clintonian establishment and a resurgent base that has historically leaned left.

One obvious problem with the establishment’s slanting of nominee selection is that it can produce candidates that fail to resonate with voters. In the current race, it has promoted, for the second time, a lackluster campaigner with disturbingly low favorability numbers. But this isn’t the most significant problem with using superdelegates to smother the grassroots. While superdelegacy and other mechanisms (like front-loading of primaries, closed primaries, and pre-nomination joint fundraising deals) may prolong the control of New Democrats, they do so at the cost of marginalizing and alienating the wellspring of enthusiasm, voluntarism, innovation, and dynamism within the party.

In handicapping the Sanders campaign, the Democratic establishment forced his campaign to take the pioneering technological forays of Howard Dean and Obama to their logical conclusions. With no name recognition, little institutional support, few established donor relationships, no hope of corporate donations, and a suffocating media blackout, the Sanders campaign was forced to give birth to a new paradigm of electoral politics, in which a) online media, b) small, individual online donors, and c) direct, personal appeal to voters take center stage.

Bernie’s campaign has existed virtually exclusively online and on the street, with very little in between. News and information about Sanders has been spread overwhelmingly online. Ryan Whitacker at DecisionData found that while Sanders media mentions were hardly more than a third of Hillary’s, he had more than twice as many google searches. As any Hillary supporter can tell you, it is jarring to shift from cable news to social media, where support for Sanders is pervasive and somewhat overwhelming.

But the online financial arm of the Sanders campaign is even more remarkable. For three straight months, Sanders has out-raised arguably the most effective party fundraiser in US history. In January, Sanders brought in $20 million, which the Washington Post called “jaw-dropping.” But he then doubled that to $42 million in February, and $44 million in March. And 70% of those donations came from small, individual donors, who have provided only 19% of Clinton’s contributions (or 13% if outside groups are included). Setting aside any hay that Sanders’ campaign might make over these numbers, they are, from a strictly technical perspective, staggering.

The final element in Sanders’ campaign is, ironically, the most basic of political technologies, one that goes back so far that it probably contributed to the evolution of human language itself: the stump speech. How does one do an end-run around a colossal media blackout? Well, if you’re up to it, you drag an enormous revival tent from one end of America to other, giving your stump speech to packed, 5,000 plus crowds, several nights a week, for the better part of a year. And here’s where Sanders the man, with all his gifts and foibles, has been decisive in the evolution of this new form. Any other highly intelligent candidate would have grown tired of repeating, essentially for 50 years, the same message. But Sanders has not. On the contrary, one can hear the same passion in his hoarse voice today that listeners undoubtedly heard at campus sit-ins 50 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people have literally heard Sanders speak, with only a PA system between his throat and their ears — an unprecedented feat in primary election history.

While Sanders’ candidacy has been a prolonged nuisance to the Clinton establishment, his innovative campaign represents a mortal threat to the long-term stability of the Democratic party itself. The quintessential role of parties is to mediate between interest groups and voters. But Sanders’ run has confirmed the feasibility of a campaign without a party, in which a candidate appeals directly to the electorate, which itself provides the policy pressure, media distribution, funds, and votes. It’s hard to imagine a more destabilizing scenario, not just for parties, but for the interest groups that drive policy and help to finance campaigns, for the network media that covers the process, and for an electorate that has traditionally, though decreasingly, defined itself in relation to fixed political parties. The full ramifications of this revolution will not be felt for many years, but, from here on out, all of these groups will have to struggle to postpone, hasten, harness, and/or adapt to the new realm of possibilities.

The superdelegates have done their job in this election. They made Clinton’s nomination appear inevitable and all other candidates seem quixotic and potentially counterproductive. Clinton leveraged her apparently insurmountable superdelegate lead into an actual, nearly insurmountable pledged delegate lead. This may well give the old, New Democrat establishment eight more years in office. But necessity is the mother of invention, and by throwing the grassroots back upon its own resources, the old Democratic Party has hastened its own obsolescence.