Superdelegates weren’t established to be democratic. They were established to be Democrats.
That’s what I found reading though In These Times magazine’s exclusive trove of documents from the proceedings from the 1982 Hunt Commission, in which Democratic politicians, labor leaders, and party organizers plotted a system by which insurgent progressive candidates like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter (and later, Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders) would face an additional barrier to the Democratic nomination: insiders.
More than that, though, they created an incentive structure by which they could harness the insurgent energy of young people, single-issue interest groups, and local elected officials to power a party that was, by all accounts, struggling.
“I think we want to strengthen this Party in part by making the people of this country feel better about the Democratic Party,” announced North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, early in the commission’s meetings. “One of the great things we have done—and I am proud to have been a part of it—is open the doors of our Party.”
But that opening of the party, achieved after the McGovern–Fraser Commission recommended more than a decade earlier that Democrats radically change their delegate election processes, had also weakened it: elected leaders and Democratic officials could no longer hand pick supporters, and across the country, state primaries replaced caucuses as the preferred tool for delegate selection. The People had the power, and they couldn’t agree on what the Democratic Party should represent.
The 1972 Democratic National Convention confirmed party elites’ worst fears about “opening up”: liberals and progressives of all stripes, incorporated into the party’s formal mechanisms for the first time, log jammed the convention with long fights over the party platform, delaying George McGovern’s own acceptance speech until three in the morning. Democrats would win one of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.
Midway through that dry streak, the Hunt Commission met. They had seen what a truly “democratic” Democratic Party looked like — petty ideological infighting and the alienation of a middle class that Nixon had so cleverly dubbed “The Silent Majority” — but they couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.
“One of the problems about linking the parties with the candidates in that instance is that since the parties have no control–one of the original functions of the parties in the two-party system is accountability,” said Xandra Kayden, then an progressive activist and now an academic.
With the party elites out of the nominee-selection business, she posited, Democratic voters didn’t feel they could register their protest votes with party leaders, and would instead support fringe candidates or movements that ran against the party. She was right.
“[I]f the Party doesn’t have influence over getting the nomination—and we have been kept out of that—then the accountability issue is a little lax,” she said.
It may seem odd — if the Democratic Party was worried about accountability — to jumpstart a program by which party elites were given unaccountable control of a significant portion of convention votes. But to the members of the Hunt Commission, the role of superdelegates was to ride the line between representing their party’s interests, local constituents’ interests, and their own opinions.
Superdelegates’ prominence in selecting a nominee, in other words, was meant to shine a spotlight on elected officials who weren’t engaged in the affairs of their national party — who, therefore, presumably didn’t care what their constituents thought about who should be president.
“The problem in the Democratic Party is that there’s too many in Congress that like to stand above the battle and don’t want to become involved,” lamented Doug Fraser, president at the time of the United Auto Workers.
“They don’t want to take risks like all of the rest of us have to take risks, and we have got to make them take risks […] So it is not a privilege that we are giving them, it is a responsibility that we are giving them, a responsibility that they should have and should have been exercising all the time.”
In this light — which, admittedly, is a fairly self-congratulatory read of the commission’s intentions — superdelegates are given a more prominent role on the national stage precisely because elected officials should be pressured by their constituents to engage in a discussion about the party’s nominee.
“Party officials and elected officials [are] responsive to a constituency considerably larger than that constituency which votes only for delegates to the national convention,” agreed commissioner Leslie Israel, “and each … is answerable when they go home for their actions to that very much larger constituency of the electorate as a whole.”
In this sense, superdelegates make the national party stronger even if they have to change their vote to coincide with their constituents’ interests, or to support the candidate with the most pledged delegate votes: voluntarily compromising with voters is a real concession of power from representative to governed, as symbolic as it is politically important. When superdelegates switched their support from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama in 2008, it was perhaps the most visible acknowledgment this century that the Democratic establishment had conceded.
Superdelegates, of course, also play the opposite role, able to stop a nominee that they knew would leave the party weak in a general election or wasn’t representative of non-primary-voting Democrats.
This role has become a reviled narrative of the election cycle: Superdelegates are the spoilers of insurgent candidates, the symbolically heavy hand of a national organization dictating one of the country’s two plausible options for president.
It’s worth noting that the Democratic Party’s incentives here aren’t much different than they were in 1982, though conditions have changed so much as to make the old system a dubious solution to a fractured party.
Democrats are still trying to control he energy of single issue constituencies: groups like #BlackLivesMatter and the movement for divest from fossil fuels are crucial to the Democratic Party, but party elites — specifically, the superdelegates who announced their support for Clinton early in the nomination process — know that they don’t represent the whole of the Democratic base (though it won’t be long…).
Superdelegate slots are also incredibly useful for keeping elected officials engaged in the party’s national business, though this time we have Citizens United to thank for the disengagement of some lawmakers: With unlimited money readily available through untraceable super PACs to do one’s political bidding, candidates have less incentive than ever to bow to a party structures rather than strike out on their own, into the open embrace of “dark money.”
Reading through the proceedings of the Hunt Commission, I wonder if today’s superdelegates see much value at all in using their vote to solidify their standing within the Democratic Party, to send a message to their constituents back home, and to strengthen a crucial national organization.
The dozens of superdelegates supporting Hillary Clinton in defiance of the popular vote back home may in fact be supporting her precisely because she is a lifelong Democrat and Sanders is not.
But this would pervert the original role superdelegates were supposed to play, as middlemen between a stubborn national organization and the voters who realized in 1972 that their hands were on the steering wheel. Superdelegates were created to save that adversarial system from itself, operating in the crucial gray area between constituent and party loyalty, acknowledging the legitimacy of radical political expression while also representing the voices, perhaps, of party regulars who don’t have three hours to wait to vote at a caucus, but who have voted in every general election for decades.
Superdelegates were never meant to silence any of these voices, nor even ignore them. They were meant to respond to the pressures of their political “caste” — a term used frequently by members of the Hunt Commission — by creating a party welcoming for everyone, strong enough to appeal to the other side.
If this year’s batch can’t figure out a way to convince Democratic primary voters — and progressive independents — of the party’s willingness to hear new and radically progressive voices, they may lose all legitimacy, becoming representatives of a party as resistant to change as it is vulnerable to collapse.
Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a campaign rally in Stockton, California, United States, May 10, 2016. REUTERS/Max Whittaker