Want Progressive U.S. Politics? Continue to Reform the Democratic Party Rules

There would be far more elected officials like Jamaal Bowman and AOC, if New York complied with the new Party reforms.

Larry Cohen

On August 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which sent a delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., addresses the Democratic National Convention’s credentials committee. Hamer, the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told the committee of the violence she experienced while trying to vote in Mississippi. (Photo by Warren K Leffler/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

On July 30, the Democratic National Convention’s Rules Committee voted unanimously to keep in place the small-d democratic reforms that grew out of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Those changes in the rules govern this year’s convention, and now, as a result of the unanimous vote, they will govern the 2024 convention as well, once officially adopted by the full convention on August 17.

The 39 state party chairs that supported the reform proposal recognize that democracy and change inside the party is just as important as democracy outside the party. Democrats can’t claim to be the voting rights party, and then restrict voting in primaries.

Those vital reforms were based on the work of the Unity Reform Commission, of which I was vice-chair, representing the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

I was also one of the sponsors on the Rules Committee of the proposal to continue the reforms through 2024, and yet, in late July, I feared it was a lost cause. But Sen. Sanders focused his own and his team’s efforts on passing the proposal, and 39 state party chairs endorsed it. Joe Biden’s campaign responded well to those efforts and what became the Unity Resolution” was ultimately adopted by the Rules Committee 173-0.

This is significant because if the proposal had not been adopted, it would have been up to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to decide whether or not to adopt these rules in 2024. Since members of the DNC are superdelegates, this would have required them to again strip themselves of the right to impact the Democratic Party nomination for president in four years. In 2016, most of those superdelegates were lined up for Hillary Clinton long before the Iowa caucus, leading many to believe Sanders’ campaign was hopeless.

The reforms, however, go far beyond superdelegates. Most caucus states switched over to holding primaries, which drastically increased voter participation in Washington, Minnesota, Colorado and other states. The remaining caucus states were required to adopt a method for voters to participate if they were working, physically challenged or otherwise could not caucus.

Most importantly, these rules require that unaffiliated voters can join the Democratic Party and vote on the same day as a primary. In New York alone, there are 3 million unaffiliated voters, many of them young people, who could be critical to changing the outcome not only for the party’s nomination for president, but also in the numerous one party districts” in the House of Representatives and state legislature where winning the party nomination virtually ensures election.

One party districts are almost certain to elect Democrats given the district’s party registration and voting history, so the primary is the election that counts. Corporate and other big money interests all focus on the Democratic candidates in these races, which often results in very moderate Democrats getting nominated. This year, New York moved the cut off date to join the party from six months to two months before the primary, which, while not in compliance with the reform rules from 2016 mandating same day party registration, is still a step forward.

Imagine a campaign like the recent U.S. House primary election in New York’s 16th District between Jamaal Bowman and incumbent Eliot Engel. With same day party registration, thousands of new Democrats could have helped elect Bowman, the progressive challenger. He won anyway, but there would be far more Bowmans and AOCs if New York complied with party rules. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other closed primary states have similar barriers and multiple one party districts. Changing to same day registration could also help progressives get elected in those states.

Other important reforms considered at the Rules Committee this year had mixed outcomes. Primarily these were charter amendments, and faced a higher bar since they are permanent provisions. All were issues sponsored by Sanders delegates and viewed by the Biden campaign as items that could be deferred. (Eighty percent of the committee members were Biden appointees.) These issues included mandating primaries instead of caucuses and keeping corporate lobbyists out of the DNC. While they did not succeed, reformers will continue to pursue such issues at the DNC and in state parties.

In the United States, unlike any other democracy, we define our politics by our candidates. Even on the Left, we talk about movement building and organizing yet often are addicted to candidates and ignore the rules — especially when it comes to the rules inside the Democratic Party. Some on the Left have argued for building a new party without ever figuring out what the rules are in the Democratic Party that stand as the real barriers to change.

The unanimous vote should be a wake-up call about what’s possible in terms of building and changing the Democratic Party. The 39 state party chairs that supported the reform proposal recognize that democracy and change inside the party is just as important as democracy outside the party. Democrats can’t claim to be the voting rights party, and then restrict voting in primaries. State Party chairs Ken Martin (Minn.), Jane Kleeb (Neb.), Tina Podlodowski (Wash.) and Trav Robertson (S.C.) led the effort to mobilize state chairs to support the rules resolution that we ultimately passed. They are committed to party building at every level.

Party building starts with measuring party registration in every county and setting goals. It means measuring turnout and volunteers. It means opening up party elections at the precinct, county and state levels. It means organizing around issues, and using the primary process to elect candidates who are accountable on those issues to the party organization, whether at the local, state or national level.

The Democratic Party has operated as a top-down system for decades, but slowly there is a growing recognition that the national party is mostly the sum total of the 57 parties (including states, Washington, D.C., territories, Puerto Rico and Democrats abroad) — and that those parties must be member based.

Until 2017, it was rare to have microphones on the floor at DNC meetings, let alone discussion and roll call votes on motions. After the officer elections in 2017, that changed, and the internal functions of the DNC are increasingly democratic, in part because of the the Unity Reform Proposals. DNC Chair Tom Perez has encouraged participation even when it is contentious, such as last year’s discussion on holding presidential debates focused on topics like climate, rather than the general debate format that prevailed.

Focusing on the rules not just the rulers” is also critical when it comes to Senate governance and the Democratic caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Republican caucus worked around the cloture” rule that requires the support of 60 senators to end debate on a piece of legislation on the Senate floor.

McConnell eliminated this cloture vote on Supreme Court nominations because a cloture vote would have blocked Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh from confirmation. Similarly, McConnell passed his 2017 tax giveaways to corporate America with a simple majority. He also used a parliamentary motion to cut the floor time for judicial confirmation from 30 hours to two, and over 200 federal judges have been confirmed in President Trump’s first 3 years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions will be spent on contested Senate races this year. Yet at this moment, at least 10 Democratic members of the Senate have not committed that they are willing to vote to get rid of the filibuster if they are the majority in 2021. Here again, it is rules inside the Democratic Party, not those imposed from outside, that hobble our democracy.

Our addiction to candidates means that we raise huge contributions and devote hours and hours of volunteer time to win a Senate Democratic majority. But because we tend to ignore the rules, very little time has been spent discussing how the Senate should govern with a Democratic majority. For example, senators like Joe Manchin (W.V.), Angus King (Maine), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) have all indicated they would not move any legislation forward unless it had 60 votes, which in effect gives Republican senators the right to veto Democratic legislative initiatives. Imagine, a Democratic majority in the Senate next year that is unable to act because the Democrats are unwilling to wield their majority power the way that McConnell did repeatedly.

The hurdles facing us are not only Democratic Party rulemaking and Senate procedures. From the current electoral college system to the arcane U.S. voter registration process, the limits in all but five states on vote by mail, and, most importantly, no limits on campaign spending — the United States stands as the most constrained democracy in the world. This is true even without dealing with fundamental rules like the make up of the Senate itself, the role of the federal judiciary in reviewing legislative changes, or the ability of the president to commit the nation to endless wars.

But we can start with the rules that Democrats control. As we saw in the Rules Committee, we can organize and make a difference. We can demand that the rules on unaffiliated voters joining the party are enforced in New York and other states. We can put limits on corporate and other big money influence in the party structure. We can better focus on one-party districts, realizing that many of the rules are designed to protect incumbents who benefit greatly from corporate contributions. We can demand that Senate Democrats govern and not hide behind the filibuster. We can build state parties from the bottom up, controlled by county organizations that are truly precinct-based, with fair internal elections. We can organize for progressive state party platforms like those adopted in many states that support issues like Medicare for All and then build the progressive caucus in that state to hold candidates accountable on our issues.

What we can’t do is wait for the next Bernie Sanders and expect them to do it for us. We can’t ignore the rules and how we change them, and then say the party sucks and look for another new one to solve the problem. Running independent and third party candidates is fine where it works, but it doesn’t work in most places.

Our Revolution (where I chair the board) and other organizations are mobilizing not only on issues and for candidates, but around party building and rules reforms within the party. Voting for Democrats cannot be like rooting for a sports team and wearing their colors. We need to stay focused on issues, not just candidates. But just as importantly, we must focus on the rules that regulate, and often control, the outcome.

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Larry Cohen is board chair of Our Revolution and the past president of the Communications Workers of America. He has been on the Democratic National Committee since 2005.

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