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The Forever Election

The seemingly endless Democratic primary campaign will begin — officially — on February 3rd with the Iowa Caucus. The entire primary system is designed to remove power from the hands of the voters and place it in the hands of the party establishment.

Sybil Davis

January 31, 2020
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The seemingly endless Democratic presidential primary campaign will begin — officially — on Monday February 3rd with the Iowa Caucus. The last primary will be on June 6th with the Virgin Island Caucuses, which will be followed by the winning candidate officially gaining the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in mid-July. At that point, the official presidential campaign will begin. If this seems like an overly long process, consider that the first candidate for the Democratic nomination, John Delaney, announced that he was running in July of 2017. He was followed about four months later by Andrew Yang. This has been the longest primary campaign in history — given that Delaney was the earliest candidate to announce under the modern system. There have been seven debates so far with 22 candidates participating in them. It has been a long and exhausting process.

At this moment, as we are about to begin the pre-election election, it is important to ask why exactly so much time and money have been invested into the primaries. Indeed, it is a strange system: states voting on different dates, two forms of electoral processes, and an odd amount of power given to two small and relatively racially homogeneous states. The truth is that the primary system is deeply undemocratic and helps keep the U.S. in a constant “election season.” This drives popular unrest and social movements into the dead end of two party electoral politics. 

How The Sausage Gets Made (Or a Brief History of the Democratic Primary)

The primary system is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics, only beginning in 1901. This system emerged as a progressive reform designed in part to lessen the power of the party establishment. Prior to 1901, for most of the mid-to-late 1800s, presidential candidates were selected at national conventions by delegates elected at smaller state conventions. The criticism of these early conventions was that they removed the voice of the voters in choosing who the nominee was. This is the era where the (often correct) stereotype of the men in suits in cigar smoke filled rooms choosing who would be president first began to take hold. Reformers pushed for a primary system in an attempt to open up the process. However, these reforms were not terribly successful and led to situations like the 1912 Republican National Convention, where Teddy Roosevelt — who had won the vast majority of the primaries — still lost the nomination because most states still assigned their delegates at state conventions, which were controlled by the party establishment. Additionally, many primaries were non-binding, which meant that when the convention came, the delegates were not obliged to vote for who their state selected. 

While primaries and caucuses were held from 1901 to 1968, the system as we know it really began in 1972 after the McGovern-Fraser Commission passed new reforms to once again lessen the influence of party leadership. This was done in response to the chaotic and (for the Democratic Party) disastrous 1968 convention. Two months before the convention, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, leaving his delegates with nowhere to turn. A divisive and hostile convention, marked by violence towards anti-war protesters from the Chicago Police, resulted in Hubert Humphrey being selected as the nominee despite not having competed in a single primary. 

The way the modern system works pretty closely resembles the way that the national election works — with the notable exceptions that states vote at different times and the existence of superdelegates. States are assigned a certain number of delegates based on population that they award to whoever wins the primary or caucus in that state. Some states have slight irregularities in their systems, in which either the votes are either not-binding (meaning that the delegates are not bound to vote for who won the election). Additionally, under reforms passed after the 2016 primary, all states in the Democratic primary have a proportional distribution of the delegates (after the candidate receives  at least 15% of the vote). This can allow for strange situations where both the winner and the loser of a state receive essentially the same number of delegates. States also differ in who can vote in the primaries. Some states have “closed” primaries, in which only registered Democrats can vote, while other states allow voters to vote in the primary regardless of how they are registered. 

The issue of “party boss” infringement in the election of candidates came up again in 2008 and 2016 with the issue of superdelegates. Superdelegates are Democratic national committee members, elected officials, and distinguished party leaders chosen by the Democratic National Committee who may vote for whoever they like at the convention. This proved to be a major concern in 2008 and 2016 because both elections featured a nominally anti-establishment candidate (Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, respectively) running against the establishment pick for the nomination (Hillary Clinton). In both cases, the concern was that superdelegates would swoop in at the end and back the establishment candidate over the insurgent, even if the establishment candidate had fewer votes than their opponent. However, this did not happen and the superdelegates ended up supporting the candidate who had the most delegates. In 2016, in what was viewed as a compromise between the Clinton and Sanders camps, new reforms were passed to lessen the numbers of unbound superdelegates to 775 and restrict their ability to vote on the first ballot, though they were not eliminated.

Democratic In Name Only

Though reforms have been made, the primary system is still deeply undemocratic. This is due in part — though not totally — to the existence of the superdelegates. They essentially invalidate the whole notion of democracy, given that 16% of delegates in the Democratic Primary are not accountable to any vote. While reforms have been made — such as the Democratic National Committee restricting their ability to vote on the first ballot — it cannot be denied that the existence of unaccountable delegates is both a symbolic and an actual affront to the notions of democracy. 

The primary system is constructed to, in part, replicate the electoral college. It should be logical, then, that the primary system has the same problem as the electoral college when it comes to not reflecting the actual will of the people. By focusing on states instead of the popular vote, the primary system inherently dilutes the results and gives a lot of power to certain states. This is especially true given the timeline of the primaries and caucuses. Iowa and New Hampshire will — and have historically — defined the field of candidates for the rest of the race. Not since Bill Clinton in 1992 has a candidate won the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire. The narrowing of the field that inevitably happens after the first two or three contests limits which candidates other states are able to vote for. 

Along those same lines, because the race is typically decided long before the actual convention, states that have their elections later in the calendar can be totally forgotten in the campaign, meaning that candidates may not even campaign in states such as New York (April 28), Ohio (March 17), and New Jersey (June 2). Iowa and New Hampshire are particularly odd choices to lead of the primary election because they are almost laughably unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Both states are over 90% white, and New Hampshire came second to last in a recent NPR study of how closely individual states resemble the demographics of the country. The fact that these two states will — especially in a field as crowded as this one — almost bilaterally decide who gets to be the nominee is ridiculous.

The primary system is also undemocratic in that it builds a false sense of majorities. In other words, a small minority (the primary voters) of a minority (Democratic or Republican Party supporters) will decide who will be the nominee. That person will then begin running for president with the media narrative that they represent about half of the population. But that isn’t true. In 2016, only around 29% of eligible voters participated in either the Democratic or Republican primary elections. The record for primary participation was in 2008 with just 30% of eligible voters. That means that whoever is chosen as the nominee for each party actually only represented about 15% of voters in 2016 — and that’s assuming that everyone who votes in a party’s primaries agrees with the winner. However, the two party system enforces the narrative that each party represents about half of the public, so their nominee is granted the illusion of a much wider consensus than they actually have. The primary system is invaluable at building false majorities for candidates.

Election and Election and Election

As we end the 30th month of the 2020 Democratic Primary, it is important to question why this process is so long. Elections of this length are essentially unheard of around the world. The current leadership election for the UK Labour party, for example, began in December, and members will vote all at once through paper or online ballots from late February to early April. All in all, that is a little more than five months of total electioneering. Comparatively, the Democrats have six months of the primary election left before the nominee is chosen. As soon as the nominee is chosen, then the general election will begin in earnest. Once the general election has ended, then talk about preparing for the midterm elections will begin almost immediately. Once the midterms are done, it will be time for everyone to start running for president again. Election season has grown and grown and grown to the point where the U.S. is now eternally in an election. This is not an accident or a fluke but a key element of bourgeois democracy’s strategy to disenfranchise the working class.

Bourgeois democracy works by taking the political unrest and unease of the working class out of the streets and filtering it into the ballot box. Struggling to put food on the table? Vote. Are your rights under attack? Make sure you vote! Don’t want to go to war with Iran? You gotta vote next November! The tyranny of voting as the only acceptable political outlet for the masses is married to the new mantra of “call your congressperson!” It views politics as something that only happens around elections, when of course politics happen every day. The forever election, then, is the bourgeois response to an increased politicization following Trump’s election in 2016. People were angry, and in the weeks between the election and the inauguration, there were mass public demonstrations. The membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) swelled to the largest they’ve ever been, and the Women’s March mobilized millions of people to protest Trump in DC. However, if we look at what has become of both of these organizations in the years since, we can clearly see that a strong focus on electoralism kills social movements. The Women’s March squandered their support when they took up the slogan of “March to the Polls” and began to focus on electing female leaders and making sure that Palestinians are not considered in their politics. The DSA has folded almost completely into the Sanders campaign and now concerns itself almost exclusively with campaigning for him and procedural questions. Another example of this is the way that Obama’s election in 2008 took the air out of the sails of the anti-war movement

Constant elections benefit both bourgeois political parties. Political discontent and a lack of agreement are squashed by another election to fight. Members can never criticize the party because it will just hand the election to the opposing party. Ranks are closed, and the goal becomes to rebuild the party from the inside, rather than founding something new. The way that Sanders has behaved in the years since 2016 are the perfect example of this. In 2016, he ran an anti-establishment campaign, criticizing the Democratic Party and the way that the primaries worked. However, in 2017 Sanders went on a cross-country “Unity Tour” with the head of the DNC. This tour went to several key swing-states and was intended to help the Democrats win in the midterms and defeat Trump in 2020. The forever election acts as de facto party discipline for both parties. This can be seen in the way that the entire Republican Party has fallen in line behind Trump, who was originally nominated against the wishes of many in the Republican establishment. Even the Democratic Party — which has been undergoing an ideological battle for control — doesn’t seem to be at risk of splitting. In other words, the electoral ambitions of both parties are holding the parties together despite their political disagreements. This is different than the UK Labour Party, for example, which did undergo a split in 2019 where a handful of elected officials left the party due to political differences with Corbyn’s leadership. Compare that to the general feeling of the Democratic Primary, which is that voters will support whoever the nominee is. The main goal for the Democrats is to get Trump out, which is why the friction within the party hasn’t overtaken it. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has attacked the Democrats for being a right-wing party but still remains a very high profile member of it. On the other side of the internal ideological war, Hilary Clinton had to almost immediately walk back her implication that she wouldn’t support Sanders if he was the nominee. 

Bourgeois Parties Can Never Bring Revolutionary Goals

With a media that breathlessly covers every change in poll numbers and continually gamifies the election, it can be easy to fall into the trap of believing the Democratic Party’s hype. They present themselves as the “party of the people” and point to the endless debates and primary elections as examples of how “democratic” their process is. This is a lie and one that is spread by both the Democratic Party and the media as a way of bolstering the establishment. From Andrew Jackson to FDR to Obama, every Democratic Party president has protected the ruling class at every turn.

This endless primary reveals how difficult it is for an independent party to compete in national elections. Every major Democratic candidate has been given extensive airtime to state their case and explain their program. The long primary season has made almost every candidate a household name; they are well known to basically everyone. An independent candidate doesn’t have the benefit of countless televised debates during prime time to argue for their program, and a class independent candidate wouldn’t have the corporate millions needed to buy the substantial ad time needed to raise their profile. It is a rigged system, and we cannot let one of the two parties that rigged it pretend that they are on the side of the working class. We need a class-independent party that is committed to banning corporate dollars from politics, ensuring that all candidates are able to compete for a popular vote, and that, once elected, representatives are accountable to the people who elected them — with the ability to recall them at any time — and are paid the same salary as a teacher. These are necessary reforms to ensure that independent candidates stand a chance in national elections, but they are not enough.

It is important to remember that while elections can help build the movement for socialism, they are not the movement for socialism in and of themselves. The constant election of the post-Trump era has strengthened both bourgeois parties, rather than weakening them. As socialists, we must keep a clear head and analyze the situation for what it is: yet another tactic of the ruling class to disenfranchise the working class. We need a party that will fight for the working class using elections to build a coalition among workers to overthrow capitalism.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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