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Monday, June 6, 2016

Democracy for Thee but Not for Me

I’ve spent no shortage of time and energy complaining about Bernie Sanders over the course of this election. Part of my dislike for Sanders is motivated by a general opposition to heavy handed government intervention in free markets; part of it is motivated by a concern that the numbers he’s presented, either by accident or by design, do not represent the true cost of his programs—a concern given weight by looking at the cost to European countries that offer similar programs; and part of it is motivated by a sense that Sanders is not truly conversant on the issues he talks about. But all along, as I’ve complained about Sanders, I’ve been assured—both by his supporters and critics—that he’s the only candidate who can save our democracy from a developing oligarchy of the wealthy, that he is most concerned by the actual will of the people, and that he is the most authentic and least opportunistic of the candidates. How ironic, then, that as Sanders’ campaign has stretched on it has more and more revealed itself as an agent opposed to the will of the people—an ends justifies the means struggle to stoke the political revolution necessary to achieve Sanders’ goals.

One of Sanders’ chief arguments on the stump is that money has to be removed from politics. He distrusts Super PAC’s (never mind that he has at least one supporting him and advertising for him). He rails against big donors contributing to campaigns on the suggestion that candidates would be beholden to them. He opposes self-financed candidates because they can effectively buy the election. Meanwhile, while speaking often and loudly about these campaign financing evils, Sanders has outspent every other candidate in the race. Supporters will often claim some kind of moral high ground on this point—citing the great number of small dollar donations from ordinary people. But if it’s unacceptable to buy an election in the first place, how has the candidate who spent the most not been trying to do just that? Sanders has condemned big money in politics while lavishing in the largest pile of it.

Sanders’ excess spending has unfortunately not catapulted him quite high enough in the esteem of registered Democrats, and back in April during New York’s primary he lamented the fact that the state barred anyone other than registered Democrats from voting in the Democratic primary. Sanders combined this argument—speciously claiming non-Democrats had been somehow disenfranchised—with his contention that he wins when voter turnout is high. The implicit suggestion was that Sanders fares far better in states with open primaries. This of course is not true; Hillary Clinton has won the majority of open primaries. Where Sanders does excel, however, is in caucuses. For anyone not familiar with a caucus, the basic process is as follows.

The caucus begins at a set time. Everyone who is going to participate in the caucus has to be inside at that time. People sort themselves according to their chosen candidate. The first ballot is taken. Then people re-sort themselves for additional ballots and candidates below an arbitrary viability threshold are eliminated. The caucus can take up to several hours, and leaving early risks having one’s vote not counted. It forces face to face interaction with voters and robs people of the anonymity of the voting booth. And thanks to the viability threshold it can prevent people from voting for their chosen candidate. The caucus process by design is highly exclusionary, certainly far less democratic than a closed primary, as it rewards only the most ardent activists. Senator Sanders has no negative words for the inherent undemocratic nature of the caucuses, though—likely because he has won so many of them.

Unfortunately for Sanders, his ongoing success in caucuses—mostly taking place in smaller states—has been unable to change the fact that as the contest has gone on, Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates and the popular vote has held steady and increased. This has left Sanders’ campaign performing rhetorical gymnastics as it pursues a strategy of convincing Democratic superdelegates to switch their vote to support him as the party’s nominee. This strategy, pursued since the end of March when Clinton’s lead cemented her as the probable nominee, runs counter to his months-long insistence that superdelegates shouldn’t vote counter to their state’s voters. His argument is that polls show him to be a stronger opponent against Donald Trump, and the superdelegates should give the party the best chance to win in November; an unkind person might translate that as Sanders claiming to know better than the voters. Meanwhile Sanders has already stated that he will carry on his campaign beyond the end of primary voting to the Democratic convention, promising a contested convention weeks after the people who make up the Democratic electorate have finished choosing their preferred candidate.


A few months ago, in a debate prior to the Florida primary, Bernie Sanders was asked about remarks he’d previously made regarding Fidel Castro, leader of a revolution and oppressive authoritarian government; Sanders had spoken positively about the revolution and policies enacted since while ignoring Castro's atrocious human rights legacy. When pressed on those earlier remarks with regard to Castro, Sanders managed a brief criticism before immediately following his criticism with praise for Cuba’s healthcare system under Castro. I argued at the time that this praise for an ends-justifies-the-means authoritarian ruler offered a glimpse at Sanders’ priorities, and while I don’t think he has the makings of a late-blooming Castro, Sanders’ own behavior has shown us just how much he values the voice of the people when the people don’t see things his way.

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