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Identity politics, parties, and democracy

People have been talking about fixing the Democratic Party for a long time.

Barack Obama stands behind Bernie Sanders in a 2007 photo. Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images

What the Democrats lack right now in elected offices they more than make up for in advice on how to win them back. Indeed, ideas for fixing the Democratic Party have become something of a growth industry recently. These proposals come in many flavors, but two common strains are making the party more democratic (opening up nominating processes, disempowering elite superdelegates, etc.) and turning away from “identity politics” (offering more “universal” proposals rather than appealing to subgroups of voters).

As it turns out, those two threads are closely related to each other. Appealing to constituents’ identities is very much a part of making a party more internally democratic. What’s more, as we describe in a paper we are presenting at the American Political Science Association’s conference this week, these arguments go back a lot further than 2016. They’ve been vexing the Democrats for at least a century.

The events of 1924 might sound familiar. The Democratic presidential nomination that year was closer than many had anticipated, with an upstart undermining some of the support of party insiders’ favorite candidate and doing unexpectedly well in primaries across the country. When the nomination math looked bad for him, he made populist appeals claiming that the Democratic Party should be more democratic. “I feel that I have to carry out the mandate of the people,” he told his supporters. “I feel that I must stay here and carry on this fight in order that I may not betray the trust the people imposed on me.” Yet while his campaign came up short, his message lived on and ended up undermining support for the actual Democratic nominee, who went on to lose the fall election.

In this case, the upstart was former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, the son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson. McAdoo, a Californian with ties to the South and New York, as well as to the Ku Klux Klan, fought to a nomination stalemate against New York Gov. Al Smith, the darling of the Tammany Hall organization. In a convention that would last more than two weeks and see a record 103 ballots, McAdoo and Smith eventually withdrew to make way for the nomination of US Rep. John Davis of West Virginia.

William McAdoo (right) with his father-in-law, Woodrow Wilson.
Apic/Getty Images

As we note in our paper, the temptation to make appeals to democracy are strong during intraparty disputes. In any given dispute, at least one person is going to be losing, and they may try to expand the conflict by inviting in rank-and-file voters. Those dissatisfied with the 1968 nomination of Hubert Humphrey and the catastrophic Democratic convention that summer appealed to democracy by claiming that the real problem was that not enough voices had been present inside the halls, and that voters, not party insiders, should be picking nominees. Supporters of Hillary Clinton in 2008 urged Democrats to “count every vote” when she seemed to be losing the battle of delegates to Barack Obama. Many movements toward greater democracy within the Democratic Party have, in fact, been ways to settle disputes between warring factions.

The Bernie Sanders campaign fits very nicely into this pattern. Sanders waged a strong campaign with considerable grassroots support. But even after early strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, it was clear that the odds were very long against him actually securing the nomination; Hillary Clinton had too many built-in advantages. Sanders thus made explicit appeals to intraparty democracy. Stopping his campaign, Sanders said in March, would be “outrageously undemocratic” given the support he’d received thus far. “Superdelegates in those states [where I won],” he explained in May, “should respond to what their constituents [want].”

These appeals did not get Sanders the results he desired. Indeed, in some ways they took on a life of their own. Sanders delegates booed party officials and other speakers at the Democratic National Convention. More importantly, recent evidence gathered by Brian Schaffner and others suggests that a sizable numbers of Sanders supporters crossed over in November to support Donald Trump, and that these crossovers may have been enough to deliver a victory to the Republican.

Our study of democracy within parties highlights the fact that democracy isn’t just about voting and participation. When countries democratize, the design of institutions gets a great deal of attention too (or at least it should). Key questions include how different established groups will be assured representation, especially if they won’t have the numbers on their own, and how the losers of political contests will be treated.

These ideas rarely get much attention in the contemporary debate about democracy within parties. Instead, the focus has been on who’s included in debates, whether superdelegates are undemocratic, and whether participation rules like closed primaries are fair.

Besides the 1924 nomination mentioned above, the other case we consider in our paper is the 1936 elimination of the two-thirds rule for presidential nominations, which the Democratic Party held on to for 100 years. Candidates for president and vice president had to win the votes from two-thirds of the convention delegates. Arguments for eliminating the rule drew heavily on the idea of “majority rule” as a principle of democracy. And it is a central principle — but not the only one.

After the elimination of the rule and the growth of the power of liberal New Deal Democrats, Southern conservatives grew anxious that they were being edged out of the party, and sought to restore the rule. These calls included a different kind of claim to intraparty democracy. Democrats in the South argued that they had been the backbone of the party for years and were being unfairly shut out, as a group, because of their smaller numbers.

Through this same period, the Democratic Party became more interested in making appeals to African-American voters (and whites who were liberal on racial issues). As the South came to understand itself as a distinct faction within the party, it pushed back against this new direction. In 1944, demands to bring back to the two-thirds rule accompanied requests for platform planks supporting “white supremacy” and rejecting anti-lynching legislation.

What happened within the Democratic Party in 2016 was unexpected, but not totally unprecedented. Democracy claims have a long history in the party. The case of 1924 illustrates the deep origins of the tension between elite control and voter input over nominations. Both cases demonstrate that procedural claims within parties — that voters should have more influence over nominations, or that majority rule should be the preferred decision rule — are difficult to disentangle from attitudes toward specific issues and candidates.

The 1924 nomination and the 1936 abrogation of the two-thirds rule both featured a heavy dose of the racial politics of the era. In 1924, the party fought over whether to denounce the Ku Klux Klan in the party platform. The need to bring different factions of the party together eventually led to the nomination of John W. Davis, a rural conservative who would go on to defend segregation in court in the 1950s. When the Democrats moved to a majority-rule nomination system, Southerners viewed the change as a pathway to a more racially liberal party (which was probably accurate).

At a time when observers are wondering whether the Democratic Party should turn away from “identity politics” to address other types of concerns, it’s worth thinking about where the original identity politics came from: white supremacy. Establishing a democracy — whether a country or an organization — requires making choices about how different perspectives and groups will be represented. We can make abstract arguments about which voices and rules authentically represent the “people.” But historically, these debates have been hard to separate from policy and social divisions. Contemporary arguments about democracy within parties are no exception.