The Democrats’ pandemic convention has been an uncanny spectacle to behold. Centrally coordinated from Milwaukee but technically distributed across the country through a combination of live and pre-recorded speeches and performances, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) has sought to portray a Democratic Party whose members have united around the shared goal of defeating Donald Trump. But beneath the canned TV relays, there is an ominous edge to the DNC’s unity: The technical setup of the convention has foreclosed most avenues for dissent, and the DNC’s management of key decisions is palpably out of step with the goals behind which the party claims to be unified.
I’ve witnessed the more insidious edge of such “unity” firsthand. This year, I had the honor of serving on the DNC Rules Committee, as a member appointed by Bernie Sanders’s campaign. I saw my participation as the culmination of over five years of involvement in what is now loosely called the “Bernie Sanders movement,” both at the grassroots level and as a former staff member on the campaign in 2016. I was there in good faith, as someone who is committed to democratizing decision-making within the DNC. Given the stability of the United States’ two-party system, I’ve felt that it is imperative for progressives to participate both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, in order to build power and shift the party towards policies that benefit working people rather than corporate interests.
What We Do Is Secret
The inner workings of the DNC — a series of virtual meetings that took place in July and decidedly outside of prime-time convention coverage — have stacked the deck, not only against progressive goals but against party-building itself. What happens on TV helps to conceal the efforts of the three key committees that work to produce the nominating convention every four years. The Rules Committee, on which I served, can propose changes to the Democratic Party Charter and Convention Rules, and thus have a big impact over who wins an election, the roles of delegates and superdelegates, and how primary elections are run (and won). In other words, these rules decide how participation in the primaries translates into seats at the convention.
Of the many barriers that voters face when trying to influence the Democratic Party’s decisions, caucuses — particularly the Iowa caucuses — stand out. This past February, I witnessed the failure of the caucus system while serving as a precinct captain for the Bernie 2020 campaign in Iowa.
Issues during the caucuses ranged from lack of accessibility for people with disabilities, parents and second-shift workers, to widespread accuracy and reporting errors, to what amounted to a public relations debacle for the party. Results took over two weeks to be finalized. But problems with the caucus system are a surprise to no one. Following some reforms enacted through the Unity Reform Commission in 2017, including limiting the role of superdelegates to the second ballot at convention, several states abandoned caucuses for primaries. Voter turnout in these states increased between two- and six-fold. If we care about expanding Democratic voter participation, why would we not require this change in all 50 states? Iowa is the first Democratic contest, and what happens there can greatly influence subsequent primaries.
After Iowa, and in the midst of a pandemic which makes in-person voting a risk, I thought the party should at least discuss and reflect upon what happened during the caucuses. I saw this as an opportunity to propose simple, permanent reforms that could be made to avoid issues so catastrophic that they prompted DNC Chair Tom Perez to describe the 2020 Iowa Caucuses as a “major league failure.” So, I worked up a proposed amendment to the DNC Charter to require states to hold primaries rather than caucuses.
Yet on the night before the July 30 Rules Committee meeting, Sanders’s campaign lawyer advised me to drop them; other Bernie-appointed members of the committee were told the same. It seemed that two members of the committee, former Sanders Campaign Manager and Senior Adviser Jeff Weaver and Chair of Our Revolution Larry Cohen, had been acting as lead negotiators on behalf of the Sanders wing (unbeknownst to the rest of the committee).
A deal was struck (called the “Unity Resolution”) and any other progressive proposals were seen as either in conflict or antagonistic toward this agreement with the Biden camp. We were told by Weaver that if we didn’t withdraw, we would be going against Sanders’s wishes and the progress made by the campaign, and sadly, that they would advise committee members to vote against us.
After careful consideration and negotiations with the campaign, I was able to present one of my amendments, entitled “Expanding Democracy by Increasing Voter Participation” in exchange for dropping the others. I thought it would be wrong to not at least raise the issue of the Iowa caucuses, given all the time and effort of those involved and the disgraceful outcome. But Weaver and company followed through on their threat: Committee members were advised to vote against my amendment in an email sent out just prior to the meeting. In the end, I received only 15 “yes” votes, 148 “no” votes and 9 abstentions.
To the cynic, the DNC’s attempt to manufacture consent might be unsurprising. But even seasoned committee members saw new levels of gaslighting in 2020.
Maggie Wunderly, a Sanders-appointee to the Rules Committee in 2016 and 2020, found it disheartening that “committee members who are all volunteers and worked hard on their proposals and on Bernie’s campaign were … told how to vote instead of respecting their contributions.”
“In 2016,” Wunderly told Truthout, “votes were whipped on Clinton’s side, but Bernie committee members were able to present the proposals they wanted and were not dissuaded from voting for things they supported.”
The procedural ploys did not end there. Using COVID-19 as a pretext, the DNC moved up standing committee meetings (allowing less time for proposals to be worked on and coordinated), and manipulated the ability of members to communicate and make motions during the meetings.
For example, in our Rules Committee meeting, the chat function was closed. At one point, when a motion was made to table an important amendment on preventing lobbyists from being DNC members, I had to write my motion to un-table on a piece of paper and hold it up to my laptop’s camera — and it was still ignored by Chairs Barney Frank and Maria Cardona.
Due to a tech-savvy maneuver by the DNC to place members in a separate Zoom “breakout room” where we could not be heard (unless selectively unmuted by those running the call), chaos ensued that was not visible to the public via the livestream. This violated the very rules set by the parliamentarian at the beginning of the meeting, which stated that the meeting was to be public.
What happened on the Rules Committee was not a fluke; similar actions took place on both the Platform and Credentials Committees, effectively making each meeting into a “showpiece” where no debate took place that wasn’t pre-determined, screened and sanitized for public consumption.
“I submitted nine amendments on climate and some of them were dropped without my consent. This is both against the rules and undemocratic,” John Laesch, a Sanders-appointed member of the Platform Committee, told Truthout. “I would have understood if they wanted to change a few words, but they wanted to eliminate any reference to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies for enhanced oil recovery, the fossil fuel industry’s plan to address the climate crisis.”
Lynn Casey-Maher, a Sanders-appointed member of the Credentials Committee concurred. “I felt that all our committee member voices were excluded. We were supposed to follow Robert’s Rules. A tech person then told us that we were in a separate ‘room’ and that the committee chairs could not hear us. So, in reality we were in a meeting, yet not in a meeting. He said he relayed our questions and concerns to the chairs and told us all motions were seconded in advance of the meeting,” Casey-Maher told Truthout. “That is when we knew we were being silenced. Even though this was a virtual situation that made committee meetings more difficult, shutting down people’s work and voices on Rules and Platform is a disservice to the party. If new ideas are not heard, how else can we grow?”
The Price of Unity
If the establishment is marginalizing progressives already active within the Democratic party, how are their actions disenfranchising potential voters?
For a party that is supposed to represent working people, Democrats have been woefully out of touch with working-class interests. Perhaps the most egregious example was the exclusion of Medicare for All from the Democratic Party platform, which is a policy supported by over 80 percent of Democratic voters and a majority of House Democrats.
The party has also been out of sync with public opinion on legalizing cannabis, notably during one of the largest movements for criminal legal reform in our nation’s history. Instead, they opted for watered-down language in their platform about decriminalization, relegating decision-making on legalization to the states and only in support of medical marijuana use.
These are popular issues that have great potential to build the party. Contrast this with the fact that between 2010-2016, Democrats lost over 1,000 seats nationwide. Wouldn’t now, just before the most crucial presidential election in my lifetime, be the time to increase voter participation among millions of Americans who have felt shut out of electoral politics?
Party-building isn’t about the ability of a few high-profile members to “cut deals.” It is about listening and engagement, increasing voter participation and cultivating new leadership within the party.
In the weeks since our committee meetings, I have been asked repeatedly about why the Democrats make decisions that harm their ability to grow their base, undermining the public’s confidence in the party. After all my experiences as a progressive who has been active in electoral politics over the past five years, I must conclude that the Democratic Party is not attempting to expand — they merely want enough votes to maintain the status quo.
As Wunderly said, “When your goal is to do the best you can for your voters and have a democratic process that people can truly participate in, you might just find yourself consistently winning elections.”
The DNC’s brokenness allows members of the party establishment to remain in power, and control the platform and elections for the benefit of the ruling class. For them, incorporating more, new and diverse voices would simply be too risky. Once folks begin to understand this twist of logic, this political moment — and the Democrats’ well-coordinated failures — will become easier to comprehend.