Why “Un-pledged” Delegates of the Democratic Party Are Good For American Democracy, By Adeolu Ademoyo
There is no perfect democracy anywhere. However, the onus rests on the critics of the “un-pledged” delegates to practically show party mechanisms and tools that will stop these dual absurdities – electoral and ideological – if they occur in a practical situation.
Unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophise, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun. – (Republic 473d-e)
The delegate system of the two American political parties – the Democratic and Republican – in electing the candidate(s) for the presidential election has generated a lot of controversies. The more contentious has been the idea and practice of the “un-pledged” delegate of the Democratic Party. But Plato’s observation on the nature of democracy can help illuminate the soundness of this idea of “un-pledged” delegate.
One major criticism of Plato though, is that his view is elitist, which puts some “un-elected” men and women as the guardians of the People’s Republic. Paradoxically, Plato’s observation is not different in practice from the idea of a vanguard in a party or a vanguard Central Core of most left leaning progressive parties, political organisations and movements – Marxist, socialist, left leaning, etc.
The delegate system in American democracy is simple. Presidential candidates in each party contest against one another in their party’s primaries from one state to the other to numerically amass what is called “pledged” delegates. Based on the outcome of each primary, the candidates are awarded percentages of the total delegate in a state and each candidate will handpick “pledged” delegates that will represent her/him at the annual party convention where the presidential candidate of the party is finally elected by the delegates – pledged in the case of Republican party, and both pledged and un-pledged in the case of the Democratic Party. The American Democratic Party has the uniqueness of the “un-pledged” delegates who are not part of those candidates can amass when they contest in primaries.
These “un-pledged” delegates (they are wrongly called “super delegates”) are elected party officials, congresswomen and men, governors. The uniqueness of the “un-pledged” delegates is that they are free because they are not awarded based on the success of candidates at primaries. Hence, they can vote at the Democratic Party convention for any presidential candidate.
Henceforth, I wish to focus on the debates within the American Democratic Party on the role of the “un-pledged” delegates in the party in nominating the flag bearer of the party for president in an election year. And I will address some of the misrepresentations of the delegate system of the Democratic Party and the misrepresentation of the “un-pledged” delegates.
Some politicians, especially from Senator Bernie Sanders’ camp, have called for the abolishment of the “un-pledged” delegate system in the Democratic Party. These critics claim that the “un-pledged” delegates are not elected and therefore the idea and practice are “un-democratic”. The answer to this is simple. There is a fallacy of ambiguity here, which the critics of the delegate system of the Democratic Party play on for their own electoral goals.
It is false to say that the “un-pledged” delegates are not elected. Of course as governors, congresswomen and men, senators, party officials, they were elected. The ambiguity the critics play on is that the “un-pledged” delegates are not elected during the primaries for the presidential race. But to say that they are not elected at all and therefore un-democratic is false.
Critics of “un-pledged” delegates who argue that they are undemocratic because they wrongly claim that they are not under any circumstance elected tend to suggest that the pledged delegates are “elected”. This is far from the truth. Actually, voters do not elect individual pledged delegates. It is the presidential candidates who contest in a primary and win votes that handpick the delegates to fill the percentage of delegates allocated to them (based on performance) as representatives at the convention. So talking about how election shows democracy, it is the “un-pledged” delegates who are actually elected, though in different elections (within and outside the party), while the pledged delegates are not elected but are handpicked representatives of presidential candidates.
As governors, senators, congress men and women, party officials, the founding mothers and fathers of the Democratic Party must have been looking for true “guardians” (Plato) and “vanguards” (Marxist/progressive parties/and movements, conservative parties and movements) who embody the body, soul, mind and broad vision of the party and who will guard and defend it in periods of ideological crisis and attack, hence the idea of the “un-pledged delegates” who can vote at the convention to elect the presidential candidate.
Things have changed from the old Greek city state system into contemporary democratic practices where political organisations and parties enable the direct expressions of voters’ electoral choices. In the post-Greek city state democratic practices, all political organisations and parties (progressive and conservative) have something in common. This is that regardless of their conservative or progressive ideologies, while they claim to aggregate the interests of their members or those on whose behalf they claim to speak, NONE is a direct expression of the individual voter’s sovereignty in the manner we had it in the old Greek city state.
For example the conservative “Tea Party” claims to represent Americans of conservative outlook, while “Move on.org” claims to represent Americans with a progressive outlook. But Americans did not vote anywhere that these organisations – both of the right and left – should represent them. Therefore despite their claim to be “the voice of the/their people”, they are not the electoral will or voice of the/their people because they were never voted for.
Yet officials (who are not even elected by voters voting in local or general elections) of these organisations (both on the left and the right) claim to represent people. Their claim is only sound within the context of the representative nature of party based democracy, which gives same but more soundness to the “un-pledged” delegates of the Democratic Party. Even when “un-pledged” delegates are elected in different local, state and national elections, and therefore can lay claim to be “peoples voices”, however it is that same representative nature of party based democracy which gives meaning to organisations both on the left and right which claim to be “peoples’ voice” that also gives more meaning and soundness to the role of the “un-pledged” delegates as the soul, body, mind and voices of peoples in the Democratic Party during and post election periods.
In other words, if critics of the “un-pledged” delegates must attack it as an idea, they must be ready to throw out the very idea of a constitutional party democracy (which is representative but not direct in the old Greek City State fashion), which enables political organisations (pressure groups) including those that claim to be “peoples’ voice” even when they or their officials were not voted for in a democracy. And given the objections of the critics of the “un-pledged” delegates, we either return to the old Greek City state practice or adopt an anarchist view of things whereby we sack all political and state institutions, including all political organisations – whether progressive or conservative – which in similar forms do not represent the direct individual sovereignty and electoral will of the people.
So, given the improbability of returning to the simplicity of the old Greek city state democracy on one hand and on the other hand the chaos in an anarchist resolution in the sacking of all state and political institutions, and if one of the most plausible options is that we retain a constitutional party based representative electoral democracy, then the question is: what is the role of the delegate system in choosing the presidential candidate of a party in an election in a constitutional party democracy? And what is the role of the “un-elected” delegates of the Democratic Party in this regard?
I will use two scenarios to answer these questions. Here is the first scenario: Imagine that someone with fascist inclinations, like the highly temperamental Donald Trump whose campaign platform is built around hate, xenophobia, bigotry, sexism and racism, decides to run on the platform of the Democratic Party. Under the open American Democracy, Donald Trump cannot be denied this right. Now imagine that this same Donald Trump is running against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primaries – and he is winning on racist, fascist, xenophobic, and bigoted agenda as he did in his own party – the Republican Party.
Under the party system where the presidential candidate of the party in an election year is the de facto leader of the party, it means a Donald Trump’s win in a Democratic Party primary will make a bigot, racist, sexist, a xenophobe with a fascist temperament the leader of the Democratic party! This will be a self-immolation and self-subversion and violation of the worst order. And no reasonable person or organisation will self–immolate and self-destruct this way.
Let us take the second scenario. And this happened at the West Virginia primary of the Democratic Party. It is standard politicking for an opposing party to wish that their opponent presents a weaker candidate in an election. Such opposing party will do everything for that to happen. The objective outcome of the primaries (voted in by independents and democrats) of the Democratic Party shows that Secretary Hillary Clinton is stronger than Senator Bernie Sanders. Secretary Clinton led both in pledged delegates and in the popular votes. These are hard objective and verifiable electoral facts. Any other criterion of assessment is subjective, hypothetical and relative.
So? The Republican Party knows this. In some of the open primaries of the Democratic Party (for example in West Virginia) – where voting is open to democrats and non-democrats, supporters of the opposing party (Republican Party) and candidate – the racist and xenophobe Donald Trump actually voted for Senator Bernie Sanders against Secretary Clinton. For supporters of your ideological opponent to vote for you against a fellow progressive just because the primaries are open is nothing but ideological distortion and attempt to immolate the Democratic Party. Senator Sanders’ socialist platforms and supporters should speak to this and inform fellow progressives what it means if not self immolation, ideological distortion and political weakening of the party (the Democratic Party) when supporters and voters of your ideological opponent (Donald Trump) vote for you (Senator Sanders) against fellow progressive (Secretary Clinton) who belongs to the same party as yourself.
I believe strongly that one of the main reasons why the “un-pledged” delegates exist is to prevent this absurdity of having someone whose ideological vision (a Donald Trump taking over the Democratic Party just because he is shouting hoarse against the “establishment”) subverts the core values of progressive political values to be leader of the party. The “un-pledged” delegates are also able to stop a situation where supporters and voters of one’s ideological opponent swoop (Donald Trump voters) in (in open primaries where both democrats and non-democrats can vote) on the party to weigh it down and weaken it. Hence, consistent with the progressive nature of a vanguard, the “un-pledged” delegates given their electoral and ideologically privileged position can be likened to the vanguard of the party – and they are supposed to look a potential subversion of the core values of the Democratic Party in the face and stop it with their votes.
On a completely different note, let us make this clear since Senator Bernie Sanders supporters like Congress woman Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii and others have failed to show a correct understanding of the “un-pledged” delegates and have called (they have the right to do so, they also need to present their argument) for their end. Without the “unpledged” delegates, the Democratic Party will have to rely on (i) the pledged delegates and (ii) popular votes to elect the presidential candidate. Two issues are very clear here. First, without the “unpledged” delegates, the threshold of delegates required to win the nomination will go down. In the 2016 primaries of the Democratic Party, Secretary reached the threshold, Senator Bernie Sanders did not. Second, Secretary Clinton led Senator Sanders throughout the primaries in (i) pledged delegates and (ii) popular votes. With these verifiable electoral facts, the point of Sanders’ supporters like Congresswoman Gabbard (who are still contesting the primaries after their end) and others remain curious. It may just be the inability to accept defeat even on their own terms.
One can understand the ethical inconsistency of Senator Sanders on the role of the “un-pledged” delegates when he appeals to the same “unpledged” delegates who he claimed are un-democratic to switch their vote from Hillary Clinton to him, even when that switch would violate popular votes in the primaries where Hillary Clinton leads him in both the pledged delegates and popular vote. Senator Sanders’ position is typical of the position of regular politicians.
In the history of the Democratic Party, the “un-pledged” delegates have never voted for someone who did not lead in the pledged delegates, as Senator Sanders wrongly wanted. The “un-pledged” delegates have never voted for an opponent of progressive politics – given our hypothetical scenario of a Donald Trump winning in Democratic Party primaries. So the “un-pledged” delegates exist to stop these two absurdities – electoral and ideological.
There is no perfect democracy anywhere. However, the onus rests on the critics of the “un-pledged” delegates to practically show party mechanisms and tools that will stop these dual absurdities – electoral and ideological – if they occur in a practical situation. If these critics cannot come up with alternative practices, tools and mechanisms, then the idea and practice of “un-pledged” delegate remains sound, meaningful and common-sensical and therefore deserve to stand in order to prevent an ideological self-immolation and weakening of the Democratic Party through various subterfuges by rightwing forces in the society.
Adeolu Ademoyo, email@example.com, Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.