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 August 7, 2020

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.

Lar­ry Cohen chairs the board of Our Rev­o­lu­tion and is a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee, vice-chair of the Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion, and mem­ber of the 2020 con­ven­tion rules com­mit­tee. He is the past pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca and was a senior advi­sor in the Bernie 2016 campaign.
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