I get a lot of mail, solicited and unsolicited, in my e-mail in-box, so it takes a bit of doing to get me to look at them. But it happened last week. In three almost consecutive messages I found myself being urgently beseeched to sign a petition concerning the Democratic Party's "superdelegates": those men and women who achieve status as convention delegates by virtue of the offices they hold and not from their direct selection in states' primaries.
The senders who so urged me were three of the big hitters of progressive activism: MoveOn.org, Democracy for America and True Majority. Their message was that there could well be a dark cabal at large to deprive "the people" of their determinative voice as these superdelegates (non-people?) would substitute their own candidate preferences for those of the people. So I was asked to petition these (non-people?) to let the voters decide and for them to cast their own votes in accord with that voter decision.
This plea is made in the context of recent primary contests, the results of which have been heavily favorable to Barak Obama, so the motive of this petition drive is rather transparent. But that aside, is this fair?
For a couple of reasons, I doubt it. First of all, there is no sacred writ that decrees that all decisions in a democracy have to be determined by a simple head-counting of votes of "the people." The framers of our constitution gave us a form of "representation" in which political decision-makers are not totally bound by the votes of majorities of citizens. Our legislatures are set up as "deliberative" bodies in which our representatives take into account the arguments that come up in the course of deliberation that will not necessarily have been considered in the course of the political campaigns in which they were elected.
I see nothing inherently un-democratic in the Democratic Party, in its "wisdom," (if that isn't too oxymoronic) deciding that there needed to be a check for "deliberation" in the mix of popular sovereignty and professional elitism that was to go into the selection of the party's candidate for President.
The petition that I was asked to sign was in effect a call to amend the constitution of the Democratic Party, and I'm not sure that petitions from "true majority" type activists is the best mechanism to do that.
Second, the petition suggests something that is inherently unfair, not necessarily for its content but for its timing. Good or bad, democratic or elitist, the party's rule for the allocation of its delegates between elected and ex-officio ones is a rule that was "in place" at the start of this campaign season and for many years previously. Super-delegates are a part of the "game" of candidate-selection to which all candidates must and do adapt.
A recent article in AlterNet shows that Clinton and, especially, Obama have given millions of their campaign dollars to the campaign chests of "super-delegates," and these people are otherwise "wooed" for their votes as ardently as any member of Congress trying to hustle up votes for his or her legislative agenda. The "game" is played this way, and isn't it unfair to try to change the rules in the middle of the game: the way, let's say, MSNBC changed the "rules" of eligibility for participation in a presidential debate precisely to exclude Dennis Kucinich from the Nevada debate? Even a Nevada judge was outraged by that (if not the Nevada "Supreme Court"), I think Barak Obama himself recognized that the "game" is played this way.
His campaign also sends me regular "messages" and the latest one I received approaches the "super-delegates" matter in a very different way. He asks me, in effect, to lobby super-delegates to support the candidate of my own preference (presumably Obama since he was sending me this appeal); never mind that my preference may not have been the preferences of (say) "the people" who voted in the primary in my state.
This is well within the rules of the super-delegates game. If the game itself isn't fair, shouldn't we wait until after the ongoing election to "fix" it?
Lest the reader feel that I'm being one-sided in attacking a maneuver apparently designed to help enhance Obama's chances of obtaining the nomination, let me hasten to establish my credentials as an "equal opportunity" caller-out of unfair tactics. This one is close to my heart as a Democratic primary voter in Florida, one of those two states (the other being Michigan) that did the no-no of advancing its primary date in hopes of gaining more "influence" on the nominees of both parties, only to find (in the case of the Democrats) that their influence was cut off at the knees by a "sanction" to deprive these states of their delegates at the national convention.
Primaries could be held in these states, but candidates were not allowed to campaign in them; if they did, they in turn would be "sanctioned" by depriving them the opportunity to take part in those all-important "bellwether" early primary states. In both cases, Clinton handily won pluralities in both states though, by the party's rules, she didn't gain any delegates thereby. (I didn't vote for either Clinton or Obama so my personal "voice" was not lost by the process.) Well fine, that's the game, those were the party's rules, whether you like them or not (I hated them).
But have you noticed: at the slightest breath of suggestion that Clinton (in fact it's usually the actions of "the Clintons" that is evoked when dastardly under-handed actions are being mentioned) would insist that the convention seat "her" elected delegates from Florida and Michigan, there is an outcry of "that's not fair," that's "gaming the system," pretending to respect the political banishment of Florida and Michigan voters when you were actually using them to your advantage, etc.
I agree with the unfairness of any such maneuver and I'm sure MoveOn, True Majority and Democracy for America would agree; but they'll be a little hard-pressed to reconcile any opposition to this with their call for dominance of "the voters" over the party's "super-delegates" system when it's "the voters'" challenge to a sanction of the party that is creating the potential for unfairness in the Florida/Michigan debacle.
The "super-delegates" structure of the Party's nominating process may need revision (I'm not so sure it does). The Party may need a more equitable distribution of "influence" of different states by having a single-date nationwide primary (I'm pretty sure it does.) But again that's a matter for re-making of the party's rules and modes of enforcement that should be considered between elections, not during them.