Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why Bernie Sanders Loves to Argue About Process

The conflict that broke out last weekend at the Nevada Democratic Convention—which not only encompassed protests and physical altercations during the event itself but also included the subsequent defacing of the state party headquarters as well as multiple nasty phone and text messages directed toward the state party chairwoman and her employer—demonstrated that some liberal activists are neither as tolerant and cheerful as they might portray themselves nor as wimpy and passive as their detractors on the right might suggest. The nub of the disagreement concerned the procedural conduct of the convention itself, which was in charge of selecting members of the Nevada delegation to the Democratic national convention this summer.

Some Sanders supporters believed that the Nevada Democratic Party, which is under the firm control of Senate minority leader (and Clinton endorser) Harry Reid, had acted improperly in order to marginalize their candidate's strength (e.g. by rejecting the credentials of a few dozen would-be Sanders delegates). At issue was a handful of national delegate slots that might have allowed Sanders to gain a greater share of the Nevada delegation than he would normally be entitled to receive based on the results of the February caucus, which Clinton won by a five-point margin.

Though Reid strongly hinted after the rebellion in Nevada that Sanders would—and should—accept the results of the convention as legitimate and call on his followers to refrain from directing abusive behavior at the state party and its leadership, Sanders issued a statement that was relatively defiant, listing several grievances while minimizing the transgressions of his supporters. "If the Democratic Party is to be successful in November," he warned, "it is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect they have earned."

These latest developments represent the fruition of a trend that has been building over the past few months. Ever since Sanders fell behind Hillary Clinton in the delegate count on Super Tuesday, his campaign has increasingly complained about matters of process, from the existence of superdelegates to the use of closed primaries (which prohibit participation by registered independents) in several states.

Liberals are particularly susceptible to process arguments for two reasons. First, liberal concerns about social equality more generally make it easy for left-leaning critics to accuse any disliked procedural attribute of being "unfair" and therefore unacceptable. For example, the Democratic National Committee's "Fairness Commission" prohibited the use of winner-take-all delegate allocation in primaries in the 1980s, on the stated egalitarian principle that delegates should properly be awarded in proportion to the popular vote, while Republicans—who are less deferential to claims that internal procedures are undemocratic—continue to allow states to use winner-take-all rules if they hold primaries after early March.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, liberals tend to view themselves as self-evidently standing for the rights and interests of "the people" against the elites. In a democracy, of course, the many should rightfully prevail over the few—so any political battle in which the left suffers defeat is easy to dismiss as the product of an undemocratic process rather than revealing the limits of liberalism's popular appeal. It is very telling that the statement released by Sanders after the Nevada convention began by referring to "establishment politics and establishment economics" and criticizing "big-money campaign contributions." Some critics, such as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, found this strange—"you open with your stump speech?" he asked Sanders rhetorically.

But from Sanders's perspective, it makes perfect sense: the economy is rigged, the campaign finance system is rigged, and so too are the state parties and the nomination process—all by the same dreaded "establishment" controlled by the "millionaires and billionaires." Otherwise, suggests Sanders, he would be winning—or would have already won, since the chief barrier to the implementation of democratic socialism in the United States is, in his mind, not the will of the American people but rather the illegitimate influence of moneyed interests. (He once remarked that the Republican Party would get only "5, 10 percent of the vote" if not for the behavior of the corporate media.)

This viewpoint also explains why the Sanders campaign has in fact been quite selective in its complaints about process. One could easily impugn the caucus system as undemocratic, yet Sanders's successes in caucus states make that argument an uncomfortable one. Even superdelegates, though a regular target of criticism from Sanders, are also cited by his campaign as representing their candidate's sole remaining path to a numerical majority, justifying his continued presence in the race. The events in Nevada arose out of an attempt to effectively overturn the results of the popular vote in the state on Sanders's behalf, which sounds undemocratic on its face—but if one views a Sanders victory as more legitimate by definition than a Sanders defeat at the hands of "establishment" figures Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid, such tactics begin to look increasingly justifiable.

Sanders is far from the only left-winger who believes that if the political system itself is reformed (by overturning Citizens United, easing voter registration requirements, prohibiting gerrymandering, eliminating superdelegates, and other measures), an endless parade of liberal victories would follow. This line of thinking greatly exaggerates the degree to which public opinion in America collectively lines up on the left side of the ideological spectrum. The fiction that only the likes of the Koch brothers stand in the way of implementing progressivism in the United States makes it easier for the left to claim righteously that it represents the true voice of the people against the privileged few, but also represents an overly simplistic view of reality that cannot, in the long term, be a solid ground on which to build a political movement.

Liberal preoccupations with process may be ultimately counterproductive to the political aims of the left in other ways as well. If the lesson drawn by Sanders and his supporters from the 2016 nomination race is "the fix is in" rather than "good start—let's get 'em next time," it will be harder to sustain momentum for their agenda within the Democratic Party and the electoral arena more broadly past the end of this campaign.

In part, this is because complaints about a rigged system may breed more apathy and cynicism than motivation to remain productively active in party politics. But blaming defeat on outside forces also discourages the kind of internal stock-taking and retrospective evaluation that can allow a political movement to learn from its mistakes and increase its future effectiveness. If the Sanders cause is to outlast the Sanders presidential campaign, it needs to put the process complaints aside and figure out how to win more votes.