Convention Choreography and Street Disruption

August 25, 2008

In 1972, it was a bit of a scandal when a secret script for the upcoming Republican National Convention was discovered. In The Boys on the Bus, author Timothy Crouse reported on the details of the script—calling it a “stage-managed coronation of Richard Nixon.”

“Spontaneous cheers will interrupt the convention secretary in mid-sentence and at 10:33 the President will be nominated and there will be a ten minute spontaneous demonstration with balloons..”

The Republicans were planning their convention rather than just letting events unfold unpredictably, and this shocked the establishment! Back then conventions were a raucous affair, where it was often the case that delegates didn’t know who would win the nomination when they went into convention, and where serious and divisive debates about platform planks (should the Democrats stand for civil rights in the South, for example) would tear the party to pieces. The fact that the Republicans were working to remove any division or unpredictability from their convention was a surprising new development in 1972—but this strategy was quickly adopted by both political parties.

Today, the primary election process insures that the presidential and vice-presidential nominees are already chosen, debates over the platform have all been worked out , and all other sources of party division are almost always resolved before the convention ever begins. The line-up of speakers has been carefully vetted and planned to the last detail .

So what’s the point? Why do the parties even continue to hold a convention and why do so many voters watch?

Conventions continue to play several roles for political parties, including serving as a single place where thousands of delegates representing different factions of a party can gather to build solidarity and excitement for the hard work ahead in winning an election and serving as a star-studded occasion where lot of big-money donors gather for fund-raising dinners, invite-only parties and other special events to raise necessary millions of dollars for the party.

One of the key functions of a political convention is to serve as a carefully choreographed advertisement to share the values of the party and image of its presidential nominee with the voters.

“Contemporary conventions are staged primarily as mega-media events designed to electrify the party faithful and to woo undecided voters by dazzling them. Scholars have demonstrated that support for the party’s nominee is boosted immediately after the convention, and the prevailing nostrum seems to be: the better the convention, the bigger the boost. Elaborate effort—and resources—are now lavished on the conventions by party leaders to orchestrate, anticipate, plan, schedule, rehearse, time, and script every detail of every minute of the convention—especially those proceedings that will be aired during prime time.”

— Costas Panagopoulos, 2008

For four days, the Democratic and Republican conventions will feature long lines of speeches, tributes and video presentations revealing what exactly the party stands for, what kinds of people associate with the party, and what the party intends to do once in power. It is a rare moment for voters to truly watch the party present itself—and this serves a vital purpose for American democracy.

We certainly can’t rely on the mainstream media to help voters learn about core values of a party. Studies show that the average amount of time that a candidate or official is allowed to actually speak, in their own words, on the television news is about 7 seconds. Seven second sound-bites are hardly enough time for parties to present their ideas or values in any kind of nuanced ways.

But at a convention, candidates can give lengthy speeches, and they aired in their entirely o various news stations. Video tributes to party achievements and great party leaders are aired for the voters to experience and learn from . Some people call it a useless advertisement, and there are even some in the mainstream media who suggest that none of the convention should even be covered (in favor of what? 8 second soundbites?)—but the convention experience is not so much a useless advertisement as it is a multi-media classroom that voters can enter to learn about the party and its nominee.

Voters are certainly interested in what goes on in that classroom. Although viewership has dropped in recent decades (although there have been few studies of alternative ways of following a convention such as on-line or through casual conversation with friends), at any given moment, 15% of all television viewers are watching the convention—no small number. And the number jumps during the big speech by the nominee. 15% of all voters also make up their actual election decision while watching the convention—a number matched only by the presidential debates.

Conventions are a way to convey the party and its values to the voters—but the choreography of a convention is always threatened by events in the street organized by demonstrators who are intent on challenging a party, confronting it with opposing ideas, and thrusting an alternative narrative of grass-roots priorities upon the national stage. In 1968, convention demonstrators in Chicago were so numerous and so unruly (as were violent police, intent on squashing grass-roots demonstrations in the city) that the Democratic party looked out of control to voters who saw it all unfold on television. They responded by voting in a Republican president.

To this day, demonstrators seek to recreate the energy and drama of the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests, and party officials try to minimize and silence such street demonstrations that distract from the party’s message.

This year in Denver, party leaders worked with the city of Denver to create a carefully planned parade route for demonstrations that would go nowhere near the convention itself, and passed a rule that all parades had to end before the convention events started for the evening. They designed a “freedom cage” (see previous post on the subject) where other protestors could go to speak out at the convention, also out of sight of delegates and hidden behind a large white tent.

But Denver organizers have threatened to tear it all down. Groups in Denver have named themselves such things as Recreate 68, Unconventional Denver , Disrupt DNC 08 , and Tent State University—and they have claimed that up to 50,000 protestors will be descending on Denver to march in the streets, ignore the rules relegating protestors to small cages, and push the Democratic party to take more strong stands against the Iraq War, against poverty, and against global warming (for example).

Will the demonstrators be able to steal the stage from the Democrats? Do convention demonstrations have a role to play, similar to the Convention choreography itself, in teaching the nation about the political lay of the land? In Denver and in St. Paul over the next few weeks, we will see who truly has the upper hand—the party in the halls of power or the movement in the street.


The Democratic Party is too Democratic! Super-Delegate to the Rescue!

March 7, 2008

The Texas and Ohio results are in and it looks like the fate of the most powerful office in the world is now in the hands of this guy–


He’s Mr. Jason Rae, 21 years old and the nation’s youngest superdelegate. Texas and Ohio voters last week didn’t decide the election after all. In fact, the voters themselves, whether in Texas, Ohio, Iowa or anywhere else, may never have a chance to decide it. In the end, it may all be in the hands of the young Mr. Rae, Ms. Jenny Greenleaf from Oregon, Mr. Awais Khaleel from Wisconsin, and their superdelegate associates, who will all be free to ignore the wishes of millions of voters in their states and across the nation.

Super-Delegates Are Meant to be Anti-Democratic

Who are these super-delegates and how did they get such extraordinary super-powers—so that each of their votes for presidential candidates is equal to about 10,000 votes of normal citizens? The answer has something to do with the paradoxical Democratic party nominating process, a process resembling a tragic creature you may have read about as a child.

Doctor DoLittle called it a pushmi-pullyu—a strange creature with a head on both ends and sadly resigned to always be pulling itself in hopelessly opposite directions. Today this tragic creature is known as the Democratic party—or at least the Democratic party’s presidential nominating process, which is built around strangely contradictory impulses towards pure democracy (the direct primary with proportional allocation of delegates) and blunt aristocracy (the automatic allocation of “super-delegate” status to party officials and insiders, who are free to vote as they choose, unbeholden to any popular vote process).

It’s a strange, two-headed creature. Speaking from one head, Democrats seem to love democracy (they were the party back in the 1970s that led the way to changing state laws across the country to require the direct primary or open caucus method of nominating presidents so that voters would control the process, and they are the party allocating their state delegates through a proportional representation system). But speaking from the other head is that same Democratic party which has had enough concern with the possibly unpredictable and unwise choices of “the people,” that they came up with the idea of super-delegates in the 1980s, automatically giving party officials and assorted party insiders an especially powerful role in selecting the presidential candidate, regardless of who the people themselves might have voted for in the primary.

Superdelegates shouldn’t be intervening in any way to overturn the will of the voters, complain some, like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. “I think the electoral process has to work its way,” she argues.

But then again, superdelegates using their special powers to overturn the momentum of the people is exactly the way it was designed to be, and therein lies the troubling truth about the obscure institution of the superdelegate—purposely designed as an elitist cure to the excesses of pure democracy. But will voters put up with it, if the superdelegates nominate a candidate who did not win the most states or the most delegates through primaries and caucuses in the various states? In 2008 we may find the answer to whether the voters at large will accept the “cure” against their own desires—or whether the super-delegates may even now be singing their swan song in deciding their final nomination, before being banished forever by a frustrated Democratic electorate.

Over 25 million people have voted nationwide, and Barack Obama leads Hillary Clinton by about 500,000 votes in the popular vote tally. Obama also leads among “pledged delegates”—those delegates allocated according to the popular votes in their state—by a count of 1366 to 1222 (2025 delegates are needed to win).

And yet, when all is said and done, neither Obama nor Hillary is likely to win enough popular delegates to be nominated for the Presidency. Enter the superdelegates. These are people who are allowed to vote as delegates for the Democratic nominee due their status as a member of Congress, a state party official, or a former high-ranking party leader. There will be around 840 superdelegates at the Democratic National Convention in Denver—they will be free to vote as they chose—together they will constitute over 40% of the total votes needed to win the nomination, and their preferences very well may decide the final Democratic nominee.

It all sounds sort of like the smoke-filled rooms of the party bosses of old. Voters and their pledged delegates cry out to go one way—while the non-elected superdelegates and the presidential nomination itself may very well go of in the other direction. In this election what that really means is that (based on current trends) the voters and the pledged delegates look like they will end up going mostly for Obama—while the superdelegates and party establishment may go for Clinton. Add to the combustible mixture that superdelegates are much older, and much whiter, than the voters who have surged to the primaries in record numbers this year. For example, white men make up 28% of the Democratic party’s voters, and yet account for about 46% of the superdelegates. The 21 year old Jason Rae superdelegates are few and far between among the party elite—though they showed up in record droves during the primaries.

Do the Voters Need the Wisdom of the Super-Delegates?

So if the superdelegates end up playing a decisive role, will the voters themselves put up with it? How comfortable will Democrats be, especially all those young, first-time voters that surged to Obama in the various state elections, if the superdelegates exercise their superpowers and decide hand the nomination to Clinton? Perhaps songwriter Roy Zimmerman says it best in his humorous riff on the superhuman superdelegate.

It’s been a long time since superdelegates actually overturned the preferences of the voters. So long, in fact, that standard political science textbooks give little more than passing reference to the quaint, but generally meaningless, role of ‘superdelegate”—in the textbooks you will find mostly brief and innocuous discussions of these people, who have not decided an election in years, simply because the popular vote has generally been loud and clear in terms of who the people wanted as their nominee

History of the Super-Delegates

But there was a time when party insiders were in fact a major force in selecting nominees, and when they overturned popular sentiment in the primaries to select whoever they wanted. Something very much like this happened the last time in 1968, when young idealists and other Democratic activists used the primaries to push their party in one direction (towards anti-war and increasingly liberal candidates), while the establishment party leadership went another route and nominated a more centrist candidate who had actually not won a single primary all year long (Hubert Humphrey). A week of riot in the streets of Chicago followed, as young activists denounced the party elite, the Democratic party fell apart into bitter in-fighting, and the Republican candidate won the election (Nixon).

A chastised Democratic party proceeded to open its nominating process completely to the people—banning the notion of party insider nomination by “super-delegates”—and turning the entire process over the people themselves in 1972. The problem is that party insiders became concerned in the following elections that passionate Democratic activists in the primaries were nominating hopelessly liberal candidates (McGovern in 1972) or naïve and untested candidates (Carter in 1976) that became electoral disasters for the party, losing in landslides to Nixon and Reagan. “The people,” many party insiders concluded,” cannot fully be trusted with nominating their own leaders: we need to bring back the voice of wisdom, moderation, and strategic calculation that only we party leaders have.”

And so the superdelegates were designed in the 1980s, according to political scientist Rhodes Cook, as a “firewall to blunt any party outsider that built up a head of steam in the primaries,” or (in the words of Northeastern University political scientist William Mayer) to prevent any insurgent candidate “out of sync with the rest of the party.”

The number of super-delegates were increased following the insurgent success of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s—a campaign that many party insiders felt hurt their party by associating it with the overly “radical” (though popular in the grass-roots) campaign of Jesse Jackson, an African-American thought by most to be unelectable in the general election. Party leaders expanded the superdelegate institution to better muffle the voices of impassioned grass-roots activists—who were seen as a democratic force, yes—but also a dangerous force in terms of undermining the professionalism and electability of the party at large. Current Clinton advisor, Lannie Davis (who himself was part of the team who invented the super-delegate process back in the 1980s), recently reminded Americans of how important it is to allow the super-delegates to vote for anyone they want, regardless of the popular vote in their own congressional district or state. We need to avoid giving too much power to the “narrow band of base activists” who dominate the primaries, Davis argues, by which he means to limit the power of the voters themselves, or at least those that show up to vote in primaries and caucuses.

Its not surprising that insurgent, grass-roots candidates who have been hurt by the superdelegate process sin the past are not big supporters of the institution meant to protect the voters from themselves. “I certainly think their influence should be curtailed,” Gary Hart says, an outsider who fought Walter Mondale to a draw in competing for the 1984 Democratic nomination among the voters themselves, but lost the superdelegates in a landslide. In 1988 Jesse Jackson won the Puerto Rico primary in Puerto Ric over Michael Dukakis. Puerto Rico’s governor nevertheless instructed his fifty-one delegates to back Dukakis. “This is clearly machine politics,” Jackson wrote back then. “Superdelegates should have nothing to do with the 1988 campaign.” .

Super-Delegates and the Theory of Republican Governance

Its easy to paint the superdelegates as anti-democratic elitists, an institution impossibly out of touch with the Democratic spirit of our times. But on the other hand, the whole idea of elected leaders and established elites playing a special role in making important decisions in our society is nothing more than the very principle of “republican” governance on which our nation was founded (“republican” in this sense does not mean the Republican party, but the “republican” spirit of respect for wise, elected leaders to sometimes know better than activist, impassioned masses of people).

If you consult the founding documents of the American system, it is clear that most of the founders themselves might have thought very highly of the super-delegates. In James Madison’s famous Federalist Paper #10, Madison was very clear that pure democracies were dangerous—they were always susceptible to fads (Obama-Mania?), and unwise and dangerous ideas often fired up the masses (immediate pullout of Iraq?). And so Madison put his faith in an representative elite—elected by the people, but also selected by other party officials—to make more wise and careful choices on everything from policy matters to who the next Senator or President should be (the original idea for the Electoral College was that it would operate as something of a college of super-delegates, deciding the president for the people). Madison felt we should trust a system of elite, representative rule to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice if to temporary or partial considerations.”

And so the impassioned Obama voters are the philosophical “democrats” of the day, speaking of the need for a party to represent the voice and will of the people who vote—while the Clinton superdelegates are the philosophical “republicans” of the day, speaking of the need for a balanced and moderate choice that reflects broad party needs beyond what Davis calls a “narrow band of activists.” It’s a long debate in America with a historic pedigree of allies on both sides. You can view those two sides in a discussion in this video clip from CNN.

Will Democrats Put Up with Super-Delegates Reversing Voters’ Decisions?

American has a long tradition of trusting representatives to make important decisions for them. But it cannot be denied that the sweep of most history in America has been away from the republican spirit and towards more democracy. And so we must ask today– how much of the republican spirit of representative/elite influence can the Democratic Party sustain in its nominating process?

The superdelegates were created in the spirit of “filtering and refining” the opinions of the voters at large—but it is unlikely that voters today will be very excited as their ideas are filtered, refined….and possibly reversed. In fact, the very institution of the superdelegate hasn’t overturned a popular vote since the “days of rage” in 1968 (when superdelegates were simply called party bosses), and many people in the party certainly didn’t put up with it back then. Would they today?

Today, the superdelegates have become an acceptable modern institution, only insofar as they have been meaningless. Democratic National Committee member Elaine Kamarck has called the superdelegate a “sort of safety valve,” but there are many who predict that if the superdelegates “steal” the election from the popular vote winner they will be better described as a “self-destruction system” as the Democrats will predictably implode in bitter infighting and recriminations over an election stolen by the insiders, leading their party to a grand defeat in 2008.

America is a Republic and America is a Democracy, yes. And there are many things that Americans trust their leaders with deciding, from annual budget allocations to sending the nation to war. But there is one choice Americans may no longer e willing to trust to their leaders, and that is the choice of choosing who their leaders will be. Writing for The Nation, Ari Berman put it like this: “The 2008 campaign has again exposed the undemocratic influence of the superdelegate elite. But just as the activists of ’68 pushed aside the party bosses, forty years later voters can demand that the party’s nominee reflect their choice.”

One way that voters can make this demand for the party to reflect their choice for the nominee is to ultimately do away with the superdelegate institution altogether. That decision, of whether to celebrate and protect the institution of the superdelegate as a necessary brake on activist democracy, or to eliminate it altogether as elitist and anti-democratic—will ultimately be made by those people who choose to stick around and make their Democratic party their own, after the smoke of the 2008 election has finally settled.

…And now that you have finished a serious reflection on some weighty matters concerning the future of American democracy, you might enjoy this wholly frivolous diversion. Enjoy this mockumentary of a day in the life of that strange creature, the American superdelegate.