The Secret History of Superdelegates

In July, 712 Democratic officials will decide the nomination—just as the party planned it.

Branko Marcetic May 16, 2016

Illustration by Mark Sugar

Since its launch, a specter has haunt­ed Bernie Sanders’ run for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion. It’s not his age, though at 74 he would be the old­est pres­i­dent in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. And it’s not that he’s an avowed social­ist, the label that a mere eight years ago was used to smear Barack Oba­ma as a sin­is­ter, alien threat to the Amer­i­can way of life. Rather, it has been the so-called superdel­e­gates — the 712 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty insid­ers who are free to vote at the nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tion for the can­di­date of their choosing.

“Superdelegates don’t ‘represent the people’ … I’ll do what I think is right for the country.”

The cor­po­rate media’s ear­ly inclu­sion of the superdel­e­gates in the del­e­gate count cre­at­ed the impres­sion of an inevitable Clin­ton nom­i­na­tion. Sev­en­ty-three per­cent of superdel­e­gates — 520 of the 712 — have pledged their sup­port to the for­mer sec­re­tary of state, but superdel­e­gates are free to change their minds any time before the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in July.

By Feb­ru­ary 20, when only three states had held nom­i­nat­ing con­tests, such report­ing had con­ferred on the Clin­ton cam­paign an aura of insur­mount­abil­i­ty, lead­ing some vot­ers to ques­tion whether their votes tru­ly mat­tered. Even as Sanders won a string of con­tests at the end of March to nar­row Clinton’s lead, superdel­e­gates in those states stub­born­ly clung to Clin­ton. Despite the sec­ond-biggest vic­to­ry ever in a con­test­ed New Hamp­shire Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, Sanders was cred­it­ed with the same num­ber of total del­e­gates as Clin­ton, thanks to superdelegates.

This has rubbed many the wrong way. There have been wide­spread calls to abol­ish the superdel­e­gate sys­tem — and not all from the Sanders camp. Even Mitt Romney’s 2012 cam­paign man­ag­er, Matt Rhoad­es, called the sys­tem unfair.”

The atti­tude of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty big­wigs hasn’t helped. When a Sanders sup­port­er crit­i­cized superdel­e­gate Howard Dean for stick­ing with Clin­ton despite Sanders’ land­slide vic­to­ry in Ver­mont, Dean tweet­ed back: Superdel­e­gates don’t rep­re­sent the people’…I’ll do what I think is right for the country.”

In an added twist, the Sanders cam­paign sug­gest­ed in April that if nei­ther can­di­date reach­es the 2,383-delegate thresh­old for vic­to­ry from pledged del­e­gates, it will attempt to win the nom­i­na­tion by flip­ping superdel­e­gates with the argu­ment that Sanders is more elec­table. Crit­ics have called the strat­e­gy hyp­o­crit­i­cal, giv­en Sanders’ invo­ca­tion of demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tion and his ear­li­er crit­i­cism of superdelegates.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s bizarrely unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic process rais­es an obvi­ous ques­tion: Why did it choose to insti­tute such a sys­tem? To answer that, you need to go back to the Hunt Com­mis­sion, which in 1982, invent­ed the superdelegate.

The pro­ceed­ings of that Com­mis­sion were nev­er pub­lished, so In These Times went to the Nation­al Archives in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to study the tran­scripts of the sev­en-month-long dis­cus­sions. The records paint a pic­ture of a par­ty eager to win and con­vinced that, in order to do so, it must return con­trol of the nom­i­nat­ing process to top offi­cials. It’s a strat­e­gy that reflects a shift in the par­ty since the 1970s, away from the grass­roots — a shift that has led to ten­sions with­in the par­ty that are boil­ing to the sur­face with Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

A TALE OF TWO COMMISSIONS

In many ways, the Hunt Com­mis­sion was formed as a rebuke to a com­mis­sion con­vened by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee (DNC) a decade ear­li­er, also to over­haul the nom­i­nat­ing process: the 1969 – 1970 McGov­ern-Fras­er Commission.

Pri­or to 1970, the nom­i­nat­ing process had been any­thing but demo­c­ra­t­ic. Pri­maries, intro­duced at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, were few and non-bind­ing. Par­ty mem­bers had carte blanche to select the can­di­date at the con­ven­tion. At the 1968 Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion, the pro-Viet­nam War can­di­date Hubert Humphrey won the nom­i­na­tion over anti­war Sen. Eugene McCarthy by court­ing par­ty hon­chos, hav­ing not run in a sin­gle pri­ma­ry — mean­while, McCarthy had won more pri­maries than any oth­er candidate.

Humphrey’s win out­raged McCarthy sup­port­ers and exac­er­bat­ed the split between pro- and anti­war camps. Fist­fights broke out on the con­ven­tion floor while police clubbed and tear-gassed pro­test­ers outside.

The mêlée prompt­ed the for­ma­tion of the McGov­ern-Fras­er Com­mis­sion, which rewrote the rules gov­ern­ing par­ty nom­i­na­tions. Charg­ing that vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 1968 elec­tion had been illu­so­ry,” the commission’s 1970 rules shift­ed the bal­ance of pow­er from par­ty lead­ers to the rank and file, man­dat­ing that del­e­gates be cho­sen in forums open to all par­ty mem­bers. These rules would lead to an explo­sion in the num­ber of pri­maries. They more than dou­bled from 17 in 1968 to 35 in 1980. While only 13 mil­lion Amer­i­cans par­tic­i­pat­ed in the 1968 nom­i­nat­ing process, 32 mil­lion did in 1980. Pre­vi­ous­ly piv­otal, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion became more symbolic.

Over the course of the next three elec­tions, how­ev­er, the par­ty suf­fered two land­slide loss­es. First, in 1972, lib­er­al anti­war Sen. George McGov­ern (S.D.) suf­fered an unprece­dent­ed 49-state defeat to Richard Nixon. Then, in 1980, Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter lost to Ronald Rea­gan by a resound­ing 10 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote.

Par­ty high­er-ups con­clud­ed that the 10-year exper­i­ment with democ­ra­ti­za­tion had been a fail­ure. The news for Democ­rats is not good,” read a 1981 report com­mis­sioned by the DNC. Not only were Democ­rats los­ing elec­tions, but par­ty mem­ber­ship was pre­cip­i­tous­ly drop­ping. Accord­ing to Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan polling cit­ed in the report, 41 per­cent of the elec­torate called them­selves Democ­rats in May 1980; a year lat­er, only 31 per­cent did, while those iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as Inde­pen­dents had shot up 8 points to 42 per­cent. More alarm­ing, the pro­por­tion call­ing them­selves Repub­li­cans increased from 23 per­cent to 27 per­cent. The Democ­rats were con­cerned their don­key was head­ed toward extinction.

There are many expla­na­tions for this decline — vot­er apa­thy, dis­il­lu­sion­ment with pol­i­tics, the rise of more can­di­date-cen­tered cam­paigns — but the DNC seized upon one that lay with­in its con­trol: the McGov­ern-Frasi­er Com­mis­sion reforms.

By bring­ing the process to the peo­ple,’ the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has lost its lead­er­ship, col­lec­tive vision and ties to its past,” stat­ed a white paper pro­duced by California’s 43rd and 44th Assem­bly Dis­trict Demo­c­ra­t­ic Coun­cils in May 1981.

Enter the Hunt Com­mis­sion. Win­ning elec­tions was its goal. DNC Chair Charles Man­att told com­mis­sion mem­bers at the first ses­sion, Improv­ing the nom­i­nat­ing process will bring us vic­to­ry in 1984, and by God…that’s what we’re all about.”

COVERT ORI­GINS

From August 1981 to Feb­ru­ary 1982, the 70-mem­ber com­mis­sion met in some of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s most sto­ried hotels. From the Capi­tol Hilton to the Mayflower — a mec­ca for the capital’s rich and pow­er­ful, where Franklin Roosevelt’s right-hand man first penned the line the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — a group of labor lead­ers, high-rank­ing par­ty func­tionar­ies, sen­a­tors, rep­re­sen­ta­tives, gov­er­nors and may­ors ham­mered out the nit­ty-grit­ty details of reform.

The gath­er­ing got off on a light note when Min­neapo­lis May­or Don Fras­er joked that the par­ty could sim­ply announce it wouldn’t nom­i­nate any­one select­ed through the pri­maries. This, the tran­script notes, elicit­ed gen­er­al laughter.”

The very democ­ra­cy of the pri­ma­ry process appears to have made the Com­mis­sion mem­bers ner­vous. They felt they had to give par­ty elites — elect­ed offi­cials and high-rank­ing par­ty mem­bers — a greater hand in choos­ing can­di­dates, or as Xan­dra Kay­den, a mem­ber of the Cen­ter for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pol­i­cy (now Cen­ter for Nation­al Pol­i­cy), put it, the pow­er to to regain con­trol of the nomination.”

This was part­ly couched in a belief in elites’ supe­ri­or judg­ment. They bring to the con­ven­tion a cer­tain polit­i­cal acu­men, a cer­tain polit­i­cal anten­na,” explained Con­necti­cut state Sen. Dick Schneller, a lib­er­al mem­ber of the party.

The inspi­ra­tion for these words was like­ly Jim­my Carter, whose pres­i­den­cy cast a long shad­ow over the pro­ceed­ings. The Geor­gia gov­er­nor had won the nom­i­na­tion run­ning as an out­sider against the polit­i­cal boss­es.” Carter often bragged in his stump speech: I’ve nev­er worked in Wash­ing­ton. I’m not a sen­a­tor or con­gress­man. I’ve nev­er met a Demo­c­ra­t­ic president.”

As pres­i­dent, he passed over par­ty insid­ers for appoint­ments in favor of his close-knit team of Geor­gia unknowns. His strained rela­tion­ship with his par­ty was exac­er­bat­ed by his reluc­tance to com­pro­mise on pork-bar­rel spend­ing, which con­gress­men relied on to shore up sup­port in their districts.

[Carter’s] nom­i­na­tion at least would not have been pos­si­ble under the old rules,” said Austin Ran­ney, an expert on elec­tions who had worked on the 1968 Humphrey cam­paign and served on the McGov­ern-Fras­er Commission.

Though his name was not invoked as often as Carter’s, these reforms were also a rebuke of George McGovern’s dis­as­trous 1972 cam­paign. McGov­ern had won the nom­i­na­tion on the back of the grass­roots-focused reforms he him­self had helped insti­tute in 1970. The [Hunt] Com­mis­sion doesn’t want a sys­tem that lends itself to a McGov­ern or Carter,” Rick Stearns, a mem­ber of the Commission’s advi­so­ry com­mit­tee, would lat­er tell the press in explain­ing the ratio­nale for superdelegates.

Anoth­er fear was that the 1970 reforms led to nom­i­nees out of step with the party’s ever-shift­ing cen­ter — whether to its left, or, in the case of Carter, to its right. Lib­er­al-reform­ers real­ized that the same rules which made it eas­i­er for a lib­er­al-insur­gent like George McGov­ern to get nom­i­nat­ed could be used suc­cess­ful­ly by a South­ern-con­ser­v­a­tive-insur­gent, which is how they per­ceived Carter,” wrote Com­mis­sion mem­ber and Mary­land Demo­c­ra­t­ic Com­mit­tee­man Lan­ny Davis not long after.

A con­cern was that pri­maries, with their low­er turnout rates than gen­er­al elec­tions, could give undue pow­er to sin­gle-issue fac­tions.” This was a stan­dard com­plaint at the time (and since): that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was com­ing under the sway of groups devot­ed to nar­row­ly focused caus­es, from gun con­trol and envi­ron­men­tal­ism to fem­i­nism and civ­il rights.

Our deci­sions will make the con­ven­tion more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the main­stream of the par­ty,” the Commission’s chair, North Car­oli­na Gov. James Hunt, told the press short­ly before the Com­mis­sion fin­ished. We lost a lot of peo­ple in the last few years. Our actions should make main­stream Democ­rats feel better.”

Main­stream” may have been code for the work­ing-class vot­ers who were flee­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. The 1981 DNC report had not­ed sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences between pri­ma­ry and gen­er­al elec­tion vot­ers; pri­ma­ry vot­ers tend­ed to be bet­ter-edu­cat­ed and middle-class.

While the loss of work­ing-class sup­port was a prob­lem that would dog the par­ty for decades, Com­mis­sion mem­bers saw no illog­ic in address­ing this dis­af­fec­tion by rein­stat­ing top-down con­trol. Many seemed to tru­ly believe that superdel­e­gates could rep­re­sent the will of the peo­ple more faith­ful­ly than the votes of the peo­ple could.

They can pos­i­tive­ly bring to the con­ven­tion the views of the grass­roots who are their con­stituents,” explained New York Rep. Geral­dine Fer­raro, who would become the first woman vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date on a major-par­ty tick­et when she was tapped by Wal­ter Mon­dale three years lat­er. No one is bet­ter able to rep­re­sent them at the con­ven­tion than a mem­ber of Congress.”

DIS­SENT IN THE RANKS

Not every­one was on board with these changes. Some Com­mis­sion mem­bers ques­tioned whether the focus on reform­ing rules ignored the broad­er fac­tors behind the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s woes. The oth­er team was using the same sys­tem and the same process” when they won the 1980 elec­tion, not­ed Sen. Dick Schneller: What was the difference?”

One dif­fer­ence, of course, was that the late 1960s and 1970s had occa­sioned an extra­or­di­nary con­ser­v­a­tive revival that helped sweep Richard Nixon and, lat­er, Ronald Rea­gan into pow­er. An inter­lock­ing net­work of grass­roots cam­paign­ers, intel­lec­tu­als, media, think tanks and advo­ca­cy groups formed what came to be known as the New Right, help­ing set the stage for four decades of con­ser­v­a­tive ascendancy.

Dis­sent­ing Com­mis­sion mem­bers also fore­saw pit­falls in the cre­ation of superdel­e­gates. New York state Demo­c­ra­t­ic Com­mit­tee­woman Bar­bara Fife point­ed out that superdel­e­gates would be most­ly white and male, under­min­ing the Democ­rats’ com­mit­ment to equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. That proved true: In 2008, about half of Demo­c­ra­t­ic superdel­e­gates were white men.

Okla­homa state Rep. Cle­ta Deather­age wor­ried — pre­scient­ly, it turns out — that cre­at­ing dif­fer­ent castes” of del­e­gates would cre­ate dis­sensus” with­in the par­ty, and won­dered what would hap­pen if superdel­e­gates begin to move against what is per­ceived to be a pop­u­lar choice?”

It would be easy to car­i­ca­ture the Hunt Com­mis­sion as a cabal of par­ty boss­es schem­ing in some smoke-filled room. But the record sug­gests that the par­tic­i­pants were gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in doing the right thing. Through­out the hear­ings, they affirmed the impor­tance of ensur­ing equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion for women and minori­ties in the par­ty. They believed the cre­ation of superdel­e­gates and the rolling back of pri­maries would bet­ter serve the par­ty, its vot­ers and the coun­try. As the Commission’s final report point­ed out, pri­maries had cre­at­ed a longer, more expen­sive and divi­sive nom­i­na­tion process, and the front­load­ing” of states ear­ly in the process threat­ened to sew up the nom­i­na­tion prematurely.

Yet the Commission’s work was based on ques­tion­able assump­tions. Com­mis­sion advi­sor Rick Stearns’ cagey defense of superdel­e­gates in 1982 illus­trates this best: It’s like Reagan’s eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy. If you accept the premise, it’s good.” The premise, in this case, was that pol­i­tics was the domain of those at the top, those most qual­i­fied and best placed to help achieve polit­i­cal victories.

The Hunt Com­mis­sion ulti­mate­ly approved a smat­ter­ing of new rules that sub­tly rolled back ear­li­er democ­ra­ti­za­tion, but the pièce de résis­tance was what came to be known as superdel­e­gates. They would make up just over 14 per­cent of nation­al con­ven­tion del­e­gates and include two-thirds of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers of Con­gress, as well as state and local par­ty offi­cials, state par­ty chairs and vice chairs.

Whether the cre­ation of superdel­e­gates suc­ceed­ed in its ide­al­is­tic objec­tives is anoth­er ques­tion. For all the Commission’s envy of the GOP and its hand­wring­ing over par­ty uni­ty, Ronald Rea­gan became the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee over the efforts of his own party’s estab­lish­ment, who loathed the for­mer Cal­i­for­nia gov­er­nor. The Hunt Com­mis­sion rules make it less like­ly that Democ­rats will elect the pro­gres­sive equiv­a­lent of a Rea­gan, far off the cen­ter and hat­ed by the par­ty estab­lish­ment, but a trans­for­ma­tive pres­i­dent who secured his party’s ascendancy.

The Democ­rats’ new rules were put to the test dur­ing the 1984 elec­tion, when Mon­dale, the superdel­e­gates’ over­whelm­ing choice, received the worst drub­bing in the his­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. If the Commission’s most impor­tant cri­te­ri­on for suc­cess was win­ning, the superdel­e­gate strat­e­gy had failed.

THE SUPERDEL­E­GATES’ KRYPTONITE

In recent months, momen­tum has been build­ing on the Left to over­haul the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty nom­i­na­tion sys­tem, includ­ing superdel­e­gates — part of the larg­er bat­tle for the soul of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty” that has emerged in and around Sanders’ campaign.

The superdel­e­gates are an acid test for whether you think the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty should be demo­c­ra­t­ic,” says Ben Wik­ler, MoveOn’s Wash­ing­ton director.

MoveOn peti­tions in 48 states urg­ing superdel­e­gates to sup­port pri­ma­ry and cau­cus win­ners have drawn a col­lec­tive 380,000 sig­na­tures and swayed a num­ber of superdel­e­gates. One is Ver­mont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who recant­ed his ear­ly com­mit­ment to Clin­ton and promised to vote for whomev­er wins the most pledged delegates.

Superdel­e­gate and Flori­da Rep. Alan Grayson took a nov­el approach, hold­ing an online elec­tion to deter­mine his vote, which attract­ed near­ly 400,000 peo­ple and saw Sanders win 84 – 16.

And on April 4, a Sanders fan cre­at­ed a superdel­e­gate hit list” (since rechris­tened a superdel­e­gate list”) with the con­tact infor­ma­tion of superdel­e­gates, allow­ing vot­ers to get in touch and per­suade them to switch their votes.

Some are going a step fur­ther and try­ing to remove superdel­e­gates from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nat­ing process alto­geth­er. It’s the core demand of the March on the DNC, a con­ven­tion protest orga­nized by the Philadel­phia-based Equal­i­ty Coali­tion for Bernie Sanders.

The Sanders camp — which includes Grayson, cam­paign advi­sor Lar­ry Cohen and Ari­zona Rep. Raúl Gri­jal­va — and groups like MoveOn are also dis­cussing plans to push for the abo­li­tion of superdel­e­gates at the convention.

Both Grayson and Cohen point out that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic superdel­e­gates are unique­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic in the Amer­i­can par­ty sys­tem. The Repub­li­can equiv­a­lent — 168 par­ty mem­bers who are guar­an­teed a vote at the con­ven­tion — must vote in line with their respec­tive states and only com­prise 7 per­cent of the total del­e­gates, com­pared to the DNC superdel­e­gates’ 15 percent.

The Sanders campaign’s new superdel­e­gate-court­ing strat­e­gy, how­ev­er, rais­es ques­tions about its abil­i­ty to call for the abo­li­tion of superdel­e­gates come July. Fol­low­ing Sanders’ April 19 defeat in New York, cam­paign man­ag­er Jeff Weaver con­firmed that if Sanders trails Clin­ton in pledged del­e­gates going into the con­ven­tion, the cam­paign will attempt to win the nom­i­na­tion by appeal­ing to superdel­e­gates. It’s going to be an elec­tion deter­mined by the superdel­e­gates,” he told MSNBC. They’re going to want to win in Novem­ber.” Asked about this, Cohen told In These Times the cam­paign strat­e­gy is evolving.”

Some argue that superdel­e­gates would nev­er dare over­turn the pop­u­lar will. They point out that superdel­e­gates have nev­er sup­port­ed a can­di­date who didn’t win in pledged del­e­gates, as in 2008, when they began flock­ing to Oba­ma once he start­ed amass­ing pri­ma­ry vic­to­ries. Reform­ers shoot back: Then what’s the point of hav­ing them at all?

Cohen also notes the false momen­tum” cre­at­ed by superdel­e­gates who sup­port a can­di­date ear­ly — iron­i­cal­ly, a prob­lem cre­at­ed by pri­maries that the Hunt Com­mis­sion cre­at­ed superdel­e­gates to combat.

R.T. Rybak, DNC vice chair and a superdel­e­gate him­self, says there’s no back­room deal­ing behind superdel­e­gates’ ear­ly sup­port for Clin­ton. That reflects in large part elect­ed offi­cials with con­stituen­cies who are going large­ly for Clin­ton,” he says.

Of course, influ­ence is rarely as sim­ple as quid pro quo. Clin­ton has been a cen­tral fig­ure and fundrais­er for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee for two decades, and is active­ly rais­ing mon­ey for the par­ty now via her joint fundrais­ing com­mit­tee with the DNC, the Hillary Vic­to­ry Fund. Many superdel­e­gates are Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials who are in her debt.

Rybak points to the GOP’s cur­rent Trump woes as an exam­ple of superdel­e­gates’ neces­si­ty. There are times where strict­ly who vot­ed in that year’s pri­maries is not com­plete­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive,” he says.

What­ev­er hap­pens, it’s clear the Hunt Commission’s vision is falling out of favor with many of today’s rank-and-file Democ­rats. But this cur­rent bat­tle is noth­ing new. Par­ty activists have bat­tled against the party’s drift toward the right and away from the grass­roots since the 1970s.

The Repub­li­cans adopt­ed a pop­ulist appeal at the same moment Democ­rats walked away from pop­ulism,” says Thomas Frank, author of Lis­ten, Lib­er­al: Or, What Ever Hap­pened to the Par­ty of the People? 

Did the Repub­li­can Party’s cul­ti­va­tion of its grass­roots give it the edge over the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party?

That is the big ques­tion of our time,” Frank says.

Whether or not the Hunt Com­mis­sion reforms hurt the Democ­rats elec­toral­ly, it’s clear that the party’s focus on win­ning gave it tun­nel vision. The Com­mis­sion dis­cus­sions were pep­pered with hope­ful dec­la­ra­tions that if only the par­ty could win back the enthu­si­asm of its elect­ed offi­cials by giv­ing them more of a stake, vic­to­ry would be assured. But there was no dis­cus­sion of doing the same for the base.

For those seek­ing reform, the superdel­e­gate issue, like so much else in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, comes down to democ­ra­cy. Either we have a pop­ulist-based Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, or we have a par­ty of the elite,” says Cohen. It can’t be both.”

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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