In den Tagen, als ihr Fall gewiß war —
Auf den Mauern begann schon die Totenklage —
Richteten die Troer Stückchen grade, Stückchen
In den dreifachen Holztoren, Stückchen
Und begannen Mut zu haben und gute Hoffnung.
Auch die Troer also.
the days when their fall was certain
(on the walls the Lament for the Dead had already begun)
the Trojans were adjusting pieces, little pieces
in the triple-paneled gates, little pieces
and began to feel strength, and good hope.
The Trojans too, then.
In session: the Democratic National Committee
Rules & Bylaws Committee
Washington, DC: January 19 and 20, 2018.
In the end the security guys weren’t needed. I’d been told I wouldn’t be guaranteed a seat, so I figured the Democratic National Committee was telling me I would have to throw my own. There must have been some underlying fear (or maybe hope) that this meeting was going to be disrupted by the dreaded Bernie Bros.
The process of reforming the Democratic Party, which this meeting in Washington was meant to address, was first set in motion at the 2016 Philadelphia Convention when the Sanders camp demanded a thorough reform of the way the Party runs its business. This was followed by the usual internal machinations and skullduggery to gain control of the Unity Reform Commission, charged with writing the proposals for Unity and Reform; finally, the Commission’s report limped into DC on January 19 and 20 to be publicly reviewed by the DNC’s Rules & Bylaws Committee and that’s where I spent the better part of a week over two days. Some time in the Fall the finalized report will be limping to the DNC’s 447 voting members for approval. I expect it will die a quiet death. By “it” I mean the Democratic Party as it now stands.
It must have been a disappointment for the organizers: only two protesters turned up with signs on January 19, something about Democrats being Undemocratic; and though the security guys did try to stop the sign-waving they weren’t foolish enough to make an issue of it, let alone throw anyone out. There was a feeble attempt by one of the more reactionary members of the committee to warn against disturbing elements, but it was a warning to the empty air: not only were there plenty of chairs to go around, there were enough left over to stretch and take a snooze.
You might say the situation in the conference room mirrored the situation outside: in or out, a fair proportion of Americans voters don’t give enough of a damn to show up for the Party. Should the DNC vote as whole to reject the recommendations of the Rules & Bylaws they will care even less. A party that can claim a stunning upset in a local election where their candidate wins the allegiance of almost 13% of registered voters (against about 10% for the Republican candidate) is a party more interested in being the lesser of two evils than in bringing in voters.
A little over a hundred years ago V. I. Lenin stated that the Russian Parliament was dead, except they didn’t realize it, being dead and all that: they needed a little persuading. After spending a couple of days on those hard, hard chairs in Washington I’ve come to believe that a majority of the members of the Rules & Bylaws Committee don’t need persuading; their support for the Commission Report has little to do with any strategic advantage in the next Presidential election; it does, however, have a great deal to do with the values claimed by the Party, even more so with the pragmatic need to radically change the way the Party does business. Pragmatism and values must coincide if the Party is to represent the values and aspirations of another, new America. How otherwise to make sense of the fact that the Commission Report was enthusiastically endorsed by Tom Perez, the oft-resented Chairman of the DNC who was installed to foil the Bros; it was quietly supported by Donna Brazile, who has never been accused of lacking pragmatism, or of having principles, for that matter. Brazile’s recent Saul-like revelation of the deep, deadly corruption within the Democratic Party makes no sense except in light of the Commission Report. You might not like these people; you might not agree with them; but you can’t dismiss them as fools who don’t know what the stakes are. What the Unity Commission Report reveals about the state of the Democratic National Committee and the state parties is worse than even I could have imagined and, honey, I’ve been around. I suspect the visceral disgust among almost all strata of the voting public toward the Democratic Machine will find itself fully justified when or if, as expected, these proposals are rejected by the deadenders at the DNC. Truth, I don’t believe the recommendations of the Unity Reform Commission would make that much of a difference even if they were to be accepted by the membership. Another one of the deadenders on the Committee argued that these recommendations are for the most part “aspirational,” like the recommendations for spiritual salvation a particularly self-protective monk might have offered to a particularly tetchy baron in the Middle Ages. No doubt the deadenders on the Committee should have been pleased with the fig-leaf: accept the recommendations and don’t bother to implement. The “aspirational” aspect has been vigorously denied in an open letter from the Bernie Eight, the Sanders-backed members of the Reform & Cetera Commission. You get a sense of the importance of these proposed reforms when their opponents aren’t even ready to finesse them: there is principle even among the unprincipled, and the principle behind the Commission Report runs far deeper than mere jockeying for political advantage. This might explain why the first part of the report, the part dealing directly with issues affecting the Presidential primaries and the nominating process, went over relatively smoothly: most of those proposals are compromises affecting the allocation of superdelegates to the National Convention: because the Sanders people felt the primaries had already been decided in the media by unelected delegates with voting privileges at the Philadelphia Convention they wanted to insure that the final choice of a candidate would be determined by the popular will. Were the Commission’s proposals to be adopted the number of superdelegates would be cut by 60%, and a number of them would be required to cast their vote as determined by the voters they claimed to represent, at least on the first ballot. Even so, deeper underlying issues arose when Randi Weingarten, President of the United Federation of Teachers and a member of the Commission, complained that if she were forced to vote for the candidate chosen by the voters she might be voting against the choice of the rank-and-file union members she represents. As I reminded Randi, she didn’t seem so picky about the union member’s choice a few years back when she decided the adjuncts at NYU had chosen to be represented by her despite the fact that we’d already chosen what union would represent us and it wasn’t hers. Randi was very gracious back then when I stood up at her campaign launch and told her to back off. This time, not so gracious; but then this time there were no cameras rolling. Like all American unions, and like the Democratic Machine itself, the UFT works on the principle of Democratic Centralism: decisions are submitted to the rank-and-file; the rank-and-file gets to vote on the decisions already submitted. In the same way, the DNC and the Party Machine decide who will win the presidential primaries and the voters are invited to ratify that choice: Aaargh! Zombie vote Democatic! Even today, there are fierce struggles at the local level between the moneyed interests whose idea of pushing for a Democratic “resistance” is to parachute well-funded candidates into districts where they co-opt the local progressive grassroots. It’s a battle the Machine is bound to lose, in fact it’s one viable explanation why the Democrats lost Pennsylvania in the 2016 election.
By the second day the sign holders had gone home and only one of the security guys had bothered to show up. And as usual it was in the last day of discussions that the swords got drawn—some of them came out in the last half-hour. Consider the following:
Nobody, but nobody at the DNC keeps track of where the money goes: The DNC is a self-feeding enterprise that works to funnel large sums of money from fundraisers to consultants, many of whom are also members of the DNC—including, by the way, the chair of the Rules & Bylaws Committee. As a result, candidates are chosen, not for their electability, but for the amount of money they can funnel back to those who chose them: media consultants, delegates and superdelegates. Even today, as the Democratic primaries get under way, an aspiring candidate doesn’t get the support of the Machine by showing local support but by opening up her rolodex to show how many rich donors she can call on. Them what’s got, gets.
Second: there are vast discrepancies in the way primaries are organized and controlled from one state to the next. New York State, which is the worst offender, has labyrinthine laws to keep challengers off the ballot, insane requirements for voting in primaries, and procedures so opaque for participation in the State Party that nobody can decide what they are: the only voters who get to vote are the Zombie voters. Pennsylvania is not much better: anyone following the latest shenanigans in Philadelphia will need no convincing: recently, four Democratic campaign workers have been indicted for voter fraud in Philadelphia; resignations due to criminal indictments are a commonplace.
Third: there is no ombudsperson at the DNC. Nor, apparently, for state parties. Even now protests are being planned against the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania for ignoring a case of sexual assault at the 2016 Convention. But then, as one of the deadenders on the Commission explained, if one were to set up an ombuds system the Republicans might get hold of a complaint and use it against the Party—what is this, the Harvey Weinstein Wing of the Democratic Party?
The whole discussion—in fact, the whole process of approving the Unity Commission Report and getting it past the vote of the Membership as a whole—would hardly seem worth the trouble. It’s easy enough to vote for propositions you have no intention of implementing, and that in most cases could not be implemented since state parties have their full independence: it would be difficult to coerce them. Even so, the very acceptance of these proposals would commit the Party membership as a whole to take sides in a struggle that’s already engaged at the state and local level, with primaries coming up in less than a month, between the reformers represented by a dozen or more organizations, and the Party Machine. For the Machine, to agree there is a problem means admitting its own corruption. For the Machine to admit its own corruption, in the midst of fierce struggles in most electoral districts, means the Machine signing its own death warrant. This, I assume, is the reason the Sanders group, “Our Revolution,” is actively engaged in pushing for the acceptance of these proposals among the local parties. For the progressives it’s a win-win situation; for the Machine it’s the reverse. By resisting the implementation of these reforms the deadenders are adding another powerful and popular plank to the People’s Platform.
Among American politicians and the politically inclined there’s a strong and natural tendency to downplay Bernie Sander’s debt to Socialist theory. But when Sanders calls his group a political revolution he’s referring to a specific train of thought that runs roughly as follows: Historically, or at least since the late eighteenth century, revolutions could be classified as either social, or political. A social revolution would involve a radical transformation of society as a whole, to the point where the values in that society were at odds with its political system and the infrastructure. In such a case the political revolution would follow the social revolution, and more often than not be a peaceful one: the new political arrangement would validate and empower the society whose values and needs it reflected; it could barely pass for a revolution at all or rather, it could pass for a revolution in the original meaning of the word: a return to a valid (and supposedly originary) social ideal. In the late nineteenth century, however, many Socialists came to believe that the succession from a social to a political revolution—the norm of a Bourgeois order—was impossible in a situation where the ultimate beneficiaries, the proletariat, had no social legitimacy: the values of society remained the values of the Bourgeoisie. Hence it was necessary to initiate a political revolution before social values could take root: values like the right to an education, the right to health care, the right to full equality, even at the polling booth. It should be obvious by now that each of these demands cuts to the heart of the established understanding of social relations in America, which is that of Formal Democracy. In theory we’re all equal but in practice some of us have better access to education, to power, and most of all to cash. In practice it's no longer acceptable to a wide swath of Americans to have the same opportunities on paper when access is purely theoretical, and this situation has been developing since the nineteen-sixties when, as the historian William Appleman Williams pointed out, Americans came face-to-face with the realization that there were no more open frontiers to push beyond: the pie is finite, and we’re going to have to learn to share, and sharing means we have to agree in common how and what. The idea that our democracy is to be managed by elites with greater knowledge and experience than their formal equals at the ballot box is so fundamental to the American Tradition (going back to the first New England town halls) that any attempt to overthrow it must strike the elites as an attempt against the very values that made America. At present the political and social revolutions are going hand-in-hand; for instance, the #MeToo movement has shifted the dialogue from theorizing formal gender equality to an appreciation of the power structures that underlie the oppression of women and ultimately the oppression of us all.
Think of Bernie Sanders as the American Lenin with a nicer streak and less aggressive methods: either the Democratic Party accepts that it’s dead and it dies to be reborn, or it dies, and we feast on its bones. It appears at present that vast swaths of the Party have begun to accept this, more or less willingly, more or less consciously. Others, not so much. The wind is in our sails.