Efforts to democratize the Democratic Party made some progress in August 2018 when the full DNC voted to bar superdelegates from voting for the presidential nominee on the first ballot. This significant reduction in the power of superdelegates — Democratic leaders, party officials and lobbyists — grew out of anger among many Bernie Sanders supporters about DNC favoritism exerted via superdelegates for Hillary Clinton. In the end, the reform passed with much support from the Clinton wing of the party and a major assist from DNC chair Tom Perez.
Contrary to claims made in last-ditch efforts to retain the superdelegate system at the DNC’s decisive meeting, the reform moved toward greater racial diversity at the national convention. The most extensive research into the 2016 superdelegates, by the Pew Research Center, found that 20 percent of superdelegates were black and about 36 percent were people of color; numbers provided by the Hillary Clinton campaign showed that convention delegates as a whole were more diverse than superdelegates — 25 percent black and 50 percent people of color.
During the 2018 midterm election campaign, Democratic leaders who were ostensibly committed to playing even-handed roles within the party too often acted as power brokers working against new insurgent candidates by backing their usually better-funded opponents. For instance, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee designated certain primary candidates for exclusive financial and strategy resources from the party, many times edging out a progressive opponent. The DCCC’s focus on fundraising orients candidates and elected officials to be politically inclined toward big-money donors and disconnected from constituents.
A similar failure to maintain impartiality in primaries has persisted at the top of the DNC. Early in 2018, Chairman Perez repeatedly declared that the DNC should not endorse candidates in contested primaries. “One thing we’ve learned at the DNC is that when you, in fact or in perception, are trying to put the thumb on the scale in a spirited primary, that can undermine public confidence in us,” he said on C-SPAN. Yet in May he did a backflip and endorsed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for reelection over progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon.
The DNC’S encouraging action on superdelegate reform contrasts sharply with the DNC’s failure to act on a proposal by its Unity Reform Commission to establish a Financial Oversight Committee that would present an annual report on the DNC budget to the entire DNC, so that it could assess the effectiveness of expenditures and staff, as required by the DNC’s Bylaws. The current Finance Committee — entirely appointed by the DNC chair — conducts no evaluations of whether expenditures for consultants, media outreach and staff are accomplishing measurable goals. A Financial Oversight Committee could help achieve what the DNC has continued to lack: transparency and accountability in how DNC money is spent. After lengthy delays, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee has promised to place the oversight proposal on the agenda of the DNC winter meeting.
In response to criticism of the secret joint fundraising arrangement that the DNC entered into with candidate Hillary Clinton in 2015, the DNC has now committed itself to making transparent its fundraising with candidates and its agreements with state parties.
This summer, the DNC voted in reforms to promote more openness and accessibility in presidential primaries and caucuses. The reforms urge state parties to work with their state government to combat voter suppression and implement measures such as same-day party switching and same-day registration. An extreme example of anti-democratic barriers is in the state of New York, where voters must declare their party affiliation more than six months in advance. Those rules discourage electoral engagement, especially among people of little means and young adults.
To get closer to living up to its name, the Democratic Party should rely on a broad base of small donors and refuse donations from corporations, particularly those with interests adverse to the party’s platform. The DNC’s reversal of its ban on fossil-fuel donations was a step backward. And the party gave a nod to insular politics when it adopted a new provision requiring a presidential candidate to affirm that he or she is “a member of the Democratic Party” and to acknowledge that the DNC chair is authorized to determine whether the candidate “is a bona fide Democrat.” Treating the party as a club that looks askance at non-club-members makes no sense when far more voters identify as independents than as Democrats.
Barriers to democracy inside the Democratic Party have obstructed efforts to make the party a powerful vehicle for progressive change. During the last year, grassroots pressure has reduced some of those barriers. Looking ahead, a truly democratic Democratic Party could profoundly revitalize the politics of our country.