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The Path Forward for Democrats

Lessons from the Nixon years.

Here's a story that might sound familiar: In the presidential primary, Democratic Party elites vote overwhelmingly for an established and reliable nominee instead of a more ideologically extreme candidate buoyed by the support of a passionate group of college activists. The national convention proves divisive. The Democrats limp, divided, into the fall election and lose to a Republican candidate some see as temperamentally unsuited for the presidency.

The year is 1968—not 2016—and Hubert Humphrey gets the nomination over Eugene McCarthy (and the recently deceased Robert Kennedy), only to lose to Richard Nixon in the fall, sending the Democrats back to the drawing board. The changes that followed were some of the most dramatic reforms by a major political party in American history, and continue to define the party today. Many of the themes facing today's Democrats are similar, but what path they'll choose this time around remains to be seen.

Parties generally do some sort of recalibration after losing a presidential race. Phil Klinkner's book The Losing Parties effectively catalogs the different responses parties took to their losses in the post-war era. As Klinkner notes, those responses tend to vary across party lines. Republicans usually focus on "nuts and bolts" reforms, deciding where in the country to build up their campaign organizations and what new initiatives to fund. Meanwhile, members of the Democratic Party tend to react by focusing on its internal governance and the way it nominates candidates. Are its constituent subgroups being represented well enough among the party's delegates and leadership? Is its nomination process democratic enough? Is the party open enough to new people and ideas? Has it become too open to them?

Following the Humphrey defeat in '68, Democrats formed a party-reform task force that would come to be known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission, charged with making recommendations about how the party should select convention delegates and nominate presidential candidates. Though the Democrats lost again to Nixon in '72, these remain the most substantial reforms a major American political party has ever adopted, fundamentally changing the way the party nominates presidential candidates.

As Byron Shafer noted in his examination of these efforts, Democrats on that reform commission were pursuing two important, but ultimately contradictory, goals. One goal concerned racial representation. Many reformers felt that the Democrats' problems lay in the fact that basically the same white men had been making the party's key decisions for decades, and that the African Americans, Latinos, women, young people, and others who'd been doing so much work for the party (and voting for it for so long) were nowhere to be seen among its delegates. Other reformers felt that the problem was that the party was too closed to change: They wanted to make party decisions less predictable and more open to outside voices. While both of these goals involved incorporating new opinions and groups into the party's machinery, they were fundamentally at odds in other ways. If you want a defined outcome, like a certain percentage of racial minorities and women represented among the party's delegates, you definitely don't want the chaos of unpredictable primary elections. Conversely, if you want nominations and other party decisions to be less predictable—less choreographed by party insiders—racial and gender representation may fall by the wayside. Without guidance, equal representation might not happen on its own.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support journalism in the public interest.

Party reformers debated a related series of arguments on how seriously to push for "affirmative steps to overcome past discrimination." The commission ultimately introduced a series of recommended reforms, the first two of which—known as Guidelines A-1 and A-2—dealt with representation: State party delegations, the task force said, had to have African Americans, women, and young people among their membership in numbers roughly proportionate to their share of their state populations.

This decision was not always popular among established party members. As Klinkner notes, a delegate to the 1972 Democratic convention complained, "There is too much hair and not enough cigars at this convention." Another: "We don't want a party that consists of Bella Abzug on one hand and Jesse Jackson on the other." Concerns that the party had become too open to outside voices continued after the party's massive loss in 1972 (and even after its 1976 win with Jimmy Carter, who came to the White House with his own set of allies, largely detached from the Democratic Party's Washington power structure).

Following the party's rout in 1984, Democratic leaders were quick to pin the blame on identity politics: "The perception is that we are the party that can't say no, that caters to special interests and that does not have the interests of the middle class at heart," said Tennessee's Democratic chair. According to another party leader, "We ought to be just as concerned with the farmer on the tractor as that guy with an earring in his left ear." A former aide to Lyndon Johnson complained: "Blacks own the Democratic Party.... White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species." Many Democratic insiders expressed concern over the influence of these new interest groups within the party. Even Nancy Pelosi argued that Democrats "must have a basic, fundamental attitude of addressing people as individuals, not as groups."


Democratic leaders today are still wrestling with the same questions. The group tasked with setting the course after the 2016 election is known as the Unity Reform Commission. The group, which included appointees from both the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns, was formed to analyze how party processes—from nominations to campaign finance to electioneering—are run, and to offer some recommendations for the next cycle. The hearings were mostly pretty dry and civil, but the moments of acrimony were powerfully revealing about party splits.

Just as post-1968 Democrats were concerned about open party process versus racial representation, so are today's. Many of the arguments in the hearings revolve around racial interpretations of the 2016 loss. Some Sanders delegates have offered the identity politics critique, saying that the party should be focusing more on working-class whites in order to win, while others appointed by either Clinton or Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez counter that the party should be prioritizing the minority communities that have been loyal to it.

At the commission's meeting last June in San Antonio, Nebraska Democratic Chair Jane Kleeb, a Sanders appointee, argued for open primaries, as did many other Sanders appointees: "The fastest growing party ID is non-partisan. And I don't think it's because independents don't want to be part of a party. They do. But they feel like the Democratic Party has not shown them the welcome mat...."

Yvette Lewis, an African-American Clinton supporter and former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, pushed in the other direction: "While I'm all for growth and expanding our party and expanding our ideas and expanding our reach, I am not for diluting the voting power of the most reliable voting bloc in the Democratic Party. And I know that there is data to suggest that when we do have these open primaries it does dilute the minority vote.... We bear the burden of being a diverse party. If all we had to worry about was old white people we'd be fine. But that's not who we are."

The commission held its final meeting in December of 2017 and produced several recommendations for party reform. These include the elimination of most superdelegate votes, as well as expanded access to primaries and caucuses—opening the nomination process up to people who aren't registered Democrats. These recommendations appear to be a compromise: They're not as far as Sanders delegates wanted to go, but they're far more reform than Clinton delegates wanted. Ultimately these reforms, if implemented, will have the effect of making nomination contests a bit less dominated by party insiders and a bit more open to insurgent candidates who do not have the blessing of party leaders. That is, they make the nomination of Sanders, or someone a lot like him, more likely.

As of press time, the DNC is still considering these proposals and is likely to enact some sort of reform at its August meeting. One possible path forward is stripping superdelegates of their first vote on the presidential ballot, only permitting them a vote if the contest requires a second. This idea has met with some resistance.

So if 2016 was like 1968, does that mean we can expect 2020 to be like 1972, in which new nomination procedures allowed for the nomination of an iconoclastic left-wing senator, splitting the party and handing an easy re-election to an incumbent Republican with brewing scandals? It's possible to draw too much on history. There are many important differences between now and 1972, including the vast number of potential Democratic candidates and the substantial weaknesses of the Republican incumbent when compared with Nixon in his first term. Also, the reforms Democrats are considering now aren't quite as dramatic as those the party embraced between 1968 and 1972. Even if new nomination rules will give an outsider candidate a bit of an edge, party elites still exist and still wield considerable power (at least on the Democratic side).

But whatever happens, the next few years will give us a sense of what the Democratic Party thinks went wrong in 2016 and how it can prevent that from happening again. And the next presidential election will tell us whether Democrats will look back on this reform period as a proud one or one to push back on for the rest of their lives.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest. It was first published online on August 30th, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members.