Bernie Sanders's sweeping "political revolution" certainly seems to be trained on awfully minor targets recently.
For weeks, Sanders has denounced the Democratic Party's "closed primaries" — which exclude Sanders-supporting independent voters — as undemocratic obstacles to the will of the people. But he's also voiced support for keeping caucuses, which are significantly less democratic than closed primaries.
This week, Sanders released a blistering attack on the Nevada Democratic Party for how it handled a relatively mundane rules dispute at its state conventions. (Sanders took about as many delegates from Nevada as he won at the ballot box, and the whole uproar was only over a handful of delegates.)
"The chair of the convention announced that the convention rules passed on voice vote, when the vote was a clear no-vote," Sanders said in a statement. "At the very least, the Chair should have allowed for a headcount."
To outsiders, these criticisms can sound both bizarre and counter-productive. Why is Sanders — who can at other times exhibits a laser-like focus on major questions like wealth inequality and poverty — now so fiercely trained on elections process issues?
Why is the "political revolution" focused on "voice vote" rules?
In a recent post on his blog Honest Graft, political scientist Dave Hopkins takes on this question head-on.
Hopkins, a professor at Boston College, argues that Sanders's griping about these minor process questions proceeds logically from his broader political philosophy about "political revolution."
"The events in Nevada arose out of an attempt to effectively overturn the results of the popular vote in the state on Sanders's behalf, which sounds undemocratic on its face," Hopkins says. "But if one views a Sanders victory as more legitimate by definition than a Sanders defeat at the hands of 'establishment' figures Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid, such tactics begin to look increasingly justifiable."
Here are the three key paragraphs from Hopkins's post, which is worth reading in full:
Liberals are particularly susceptible to process arguments for two reasons. First, liberal concerns about social equality more generally make it easy for left-leaning critics to accuse any disliked procedural attribute of being "unfair" and therefore unacceptable. For example, the Democratic National Committee's "Fairness Commission" prohibited the use of winner-take-all delegate allocation in primaries in the 1980s, on the stated egalitarian principle that delegates should properly be awarded in proportion to the popular vote, while Republicans—who are less deferential to claims that internal procedures are undemocratic—continue to allow states to use winner-take-all rules if they hold primaries after early March.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, liberals tend to view themselves as self-evidently standing for the rights and interests of "the people" against the elites. In a democracy, of course, the many should rightfully prevail over the few—so any political battle in which the left suffers defeat is easy to dismiss as the product of an undemocratic process rather than revealing the limits of liberalism's popular appeal. It is very telling that the statement released by Sanders after the Nevada convention began by referring to "establishment politics and establishment economics" and criticizing "big-money campaign contributions." Some critics, such as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, found this strange—"you open with your stump speech?" he asked Sanders rhetorically.
But from Sanders's perspective, it makes perfect sense: the economy is rigged, the campaign finance system is rigged, and so too are the state parties and the nomination process—all by the same dreaded "establishment" controlled by the "millionaires and billionaires." Otherwise, suggests Sanders, he would be winning—or would have already won, since the chief barrier to the implementation of democratic socialism in the United States is, in his mind, not the will of the American people but rather the illegitimate influence of moneyed interests. (He once remarked that the Republican Party would get only "5, 10 percent of the vote" if not for the behavior of the corporate media.)