In the aftermath of the Iowa Caucuses, there has been much hand wringing over the state of the Democratic National Committee and Iowa Democratic Party. How can the DNC ensure that the IDP leadership is adequately prepared for future caucuses? How can the DNC make sure that the IDP avoids using new processes without vetting them beforehand, such as an app that had not been thoroughly tested? What can regular Democrats do to ensure that these sorts of mistakes do not happen again, that the people in charge of the DNC are replaced with competent decision-makers, and that the party reforms the system in a way that is representative of the people’s will? The answer to all of these questions, unfortunately, is a resounding, “not much.”
What most Democrats, moderates and progressives alike, do not understand about the Democratic Party is that the party’s structure is very undemocratic. Think about this for a moment: who is the leader of the Democratic Party? Nancy Pelosi. Members of the Democratic party never voted for her to lead the party. Yet, somehow, she represents all Democrats on the national stage.
The phrase “member of the Democratic party” is also peculiar. Normally, when you become a member of a club or an institution, you would register with the club or the institution directly. You might even pay a membership fee, and many political parties around the world do indeed charge a membership fee to join them. Union dues are an analogous example of just such a fee that one might pay to be part of an ostensibly left-leaning organization. But the Democratic Party charges no dues and does not keep a list of registered members. Instead, voters must register with the government to join the party.
This brings us to the all-important question: is the Democratic Party a public institution? No. The Democratic party is a private institution — or at least, that’s what the US courts and the DNC considers the Democratic Party to be, even if in practice it is more of a semi-public institution. This position comes from a 2017 ruling in which a federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by the Sanders campaign against the DNC. The court recognized that the DNC treated voters unfairly, but ruled that the DNC is a private corporation; therefore, voters cannot protect their rights by turning to the courts.
DNC attorney Bruce Spiva, speaking to the court in defense of the DNC leadership’s right to change its rules at any time or unilaterally pick its candidates for office contrary to the will of members, said, “[the parties] are private associations. Yes, they play a big role in the election of the president of the United States. But they are still private associations. They still have a right to order their own affairs.”
The courts agreed and dismissed the case. After all, the courts have no jurisdiction over the internal workings of private organizations if no laws have been broken.
So let’s review. As a member of the Democratic Party, you have no say in the leadership or the rules. You cannot vote to change the structure of the party or elect new leadership. If you wanted to get rid of Nancy Pelosi, you would have to unseat her in her home district in an election. But then you would have no say in who the party chose as her successor. In addition, the Party can decide to change its rules anytime it wishes. (In a recent example, the DNC changed the criteria for qualification for debates in order to permit Michael Bloomberg to join the other candidates on stage. Candidates no longer need to meet a minimum number of donations, previously in the hundreds of thousands, to win a spot at the DNC-sponsored debate. That helps Bloomberg, since he is soliciting donations, but is extremely unfair to candidates who struggled to meet the threshold to qualify for previous debates, such as Tulsi Gabbard). Moreover, if the members of the Democratic Party elect a candidate as the nominee for President, the Party can technically unilaterally decide to choose someone else. In practice, this would be political suicide, but the point is clear: being a member of the Democratic Party is nearly meaningless.
What, then, does it actually mean to be a member of the Democratic Party? As DNC attorney Bruce Spiva put to the court in the 2017 case, “You know, it's kind of a misnomer even to speak in terms of members of the DNC. There is no national registration. Some states don't even have party registration. Many states, in fact. I mean Virginia, when you register to vote, you don't register as a democrat or a republican or whatever. So, as far as the party's concerned, they are trying to encourage people to vote for Democratic candidates and to support democratic policies and values.”
This brings up another aspect of the Democratic Party that most Democrats do not understand: the Democratic Party structure is highly decentralized. While the DNC board is composed of the heads of each of the state Democratic Parties, the DNC has very little control over the state Democratic Parties individually. While the DNC can help state parties spread awareness of party candidates, provide data on voter behavior, and organize conventions, the DNC itself does not fund any primaries or caucuses, nor does it have control over how state parties operate in general. Each state Democratic Party is more or less autonomous.
Unfortunately, this makes life very difficult for smaller factions to gain representation within the party. Factions that might otherwise form third parties instead participate in the Democratic Party in order to avoid the Spoiler Effect and the near-impossibility of gaining any representation nationally due to lack of funding. But doing so comes at a cost. Due to the decentralized nature of the party, factions cannot gain footing within the party or alter the party’s platform unless they do so at the state and local level. This makes the likelihood that any smaller group within the party would be able to launch a movement to take over the national party the way Corbyn took over the Labour Party in Britain extremely low. Unlike the DNC, the Labour Party is highly centralized and hierarchical, and so Corbyn was able to take over the party via the help of a smaller organization called Momentum. Such a scenario would be almost impossible within the Democratic Party. If a local politician were successfully elected based on a platform that differed from the Democratic Party, they would have to find allies to form a faction in order to have any hope of success in enacting their policy vision. But even if they did form a faction, and even if that faction took over one state Democratic Party, they would have no control over the DNC, which could easily retaliate by freezing out the faction from donor fundraisers and internal party operations. Thus, the Democratic Party is able to effectively guard against grassroots movements, control politicians down the ballot, and enforce continuity with the National party platform from above using its decentralized structure.
All of this adds up to a gloomy state of affairs. Despite the fact that there are around half a million elected positions in the United States, the entire political system can be effectively controlled, at least from a policy perspective from the top-down by the DNC and the RNC. If you disagree with the Democrats, good luck finding any success in building a movement by winning elections. This is why it is correct to say that the Democratic Party is not just undemocratic, but it is also anti-democratic. The structure of the party explicitly prevents and guards against democratic representation within the party hierarchy. Ironically, the Democratic Party is hostile to democratic principles.
Rank and file Democrats may not realize that they have almost no say in their party. Indeed, the party relies on the loyalty of the uninformed rank and file voters to maintain the current top-down party structure. Only a mass exodus away from the Democratic Party is likely to force the party to reform. Until then, we just have to accept that both of the parties in the world's oldest democracy are anti-democratic in nature.