As everyone must have heard by now, thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee were leaked and posted on Wikileaks over the weekend. The big news — which forced the committee’s head to resign and threatened to overshadow the convention this week — was that top party officials had clearly favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the nomination contest, despite the committee’s public protestations of neutrality.
A friend asks:
I was a Sanders supporter, but not fanatical, and definitely plan on voting for Clinton. Do you think this whole thing is a big deal? Does it mean we are not living in a democracy, or is that an overreaction?
Maybe others are having similar thoughts, so I thought I’d contribute my own.
First of all, no, this doesn’t mean we’re not living in a democracy. It’s often helpful to consider these things from a comparative perspective — how does the U.S. system compare to what other countries do? And if you make a habit of doing that, one of the first things you’ll notice is that asking that question as a binary — “Are we a democracy, yes or no?” — isn’t quite the right approach. There are 196 countries in the world, and that means 196 different political systems. And democracy depends on so much more than just elections. There’s also the media environment, the role of special interests, the influence of money, the independence of the legal system, the nature of local governance, the inclusion of women and minorities, and many other factors.
That’s why the answer to “Is country X a democracy?” should be more of a sliding scale than a yes or no. Some — China, North Korea — aren’t even in the ballpark. Other governments are authoritarian but, with varying degrees of seriousness, employ some democratic mechanisms, which do make a difference (Russia or Iran). Some are democratic, but with major flaws (Mexico, Turkey).
And then, even within the clearly democratic world, there’s still plenty of variation. In many countries with parliamentary systems (unlike ours), voters never get to vote for a head of government at all — they just vote for the party that best represents their interests, and the winning party selects a leader. Germany is a good example of this system (though the details are a bit more complicated.) So German voters get way less choice than Americans about who, specifically, will lead them — and yet, in some respects, German governance is probably “better” (i.e. more democratic) than the United States’.
So, the fact that the Democrats’ official governing body preferred one candidate over another doesn’t exactly take us into non-democratic territory.
If you think about it, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Hillary has been the consummate insider since the mid ’90s. She’s been in the White House, espouses mainstream, moderately liberal views, is well known for her willingness to cut deals, and has deep relationships with basically all the major players. So it’s not exactly a shocker that the DNC — the very definition of “democratic establishment” — preferred her to Bernie, who didn’t even join the party until last year. And, strictly speaking, it’s not clear why the DNC shouldn’t have a preference. It’s a political party, not an independent judiciary.
Secondly, it’s not obvious that any of this made much of a difference in the race. As Nate Silver never tired of pointing out, Hillary won because she got more votes than Bernie, and it wasn’t super close: 15.8 million vs. 12 million. It’s hard to imagine that anything the DNC did or did not do could have closed a gap this large. Even Bernie’s former press secretary says so:
There are other qualms. Other valid arguments, but a stolen election is not one. I worked there. No one stole the election from us.
— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) July 25, 2016
Here’s the but — and it’s a big one. For whatever reason (there is lots of debate about this, but that’s for another time), citizens of the major Western democracies are losing faith — not just in their particular leaders, but in liberal democracy itself. One of the most obvious symptoms of this is the rise of extremist populism. In France you’ve got Marine Le Pen and her National Front. In Germany there’s Alternative für Deutschland. In the United States — well, this one’s obvious. (And here’s a very good piece by David Brooks, arguing that Trump is only the culmination of many years of Republican rejection of ordinary democratic politics.)
The connection to the DNC scandal is that a non-trivial segment of Bernie voters feel this way too. Now, of course, Bernie himself and the vast majority of his fans have been absolutely clear that they’re fully onboard with democracy. But there’s no doubt that a sizable contingent feels that the system is no longer working. And to the extent that Bernie voters feel rejected, cheated, and lied to by the Democratic party, it’s going to push them towards more extremist viewpoints: that the established order is rotten to the core, and that America needs something completely new. In the short term, their disillusionment makes it harder to defeat Trump. In the longer term, it feeds into the rejection of democracy itself. That, in my view, is the main effect of the DNC scandal. And it’s very bad news.
I’ve argued before, and will almost certainly argue again, that the answer to disillusionment with democracy must be better democracy. If we liberals believe that our system really is best, we’ve got to make it work. The millions of Bernie voters who made a passionate, healthy contribution to the democratic process should be celebrated, and the party had better take their platform into account. Any legitimate problems with the nomination process must be addressed. And of course, in the broader scheme of things, American democracy only deserves to survive if it can address the many pathologies this country still has. So, no complacency, and no tuning out. In the immortal words of Chief Wiggum, this is going to get worse before it gets better.