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Was the System Rigged for Hillary Clinton?

New WikiLeaks revelations show some Democratic National Committee staffers favored Clinton’s campaign to that of her early rivals, but of course they did.

By Seth Masket


Hillary Clinton greets guests after speaking at the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum on October 23, 2015. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Richard Nixon, thinking ahead to his 1972 re-election bid, was worried about southern populist George Wallace, the governor of Alabama. Wallace’s third party law-and-order campaign in 1968, using thinly veiled racist appeals, had claimed several Southern states, and Nixon was concerned that a repeat of that campaign in 1972 might win enough Republican-leaning states to cost him the election. The solution, Nixon believed, was to get Wallace to run as a Democrat rather than as an independent.

This wasn’t Wallace’s preferred approach — he knew he could make some noise in the Democratic primaries but probably not be a national force. But Nixon had an ace in the hole. He had directed the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Wallace and his brother, Gerald, who had profited off his political influence. As described in PBS’s excellent biography of George Wallace, Nixon met with the governor in 1971, and, “seven months later, the Justice Department dropped its investigation of the Wallaces. And George Wallace announced he would run as a Democrat and not as a third party candidate.”

That is a rigged system. It involves abuse of power and political pressure designed to deprive people of their choices in an election long before they’re even paying attention to it. And, while somewhat extreme, it’s hardly unique in American political history. Party machines like Mayor Richard Daley’s organization in Chicago and Tammany Hall in New York City made a practice of deciding who would and would not appear on which ballots and rewarding friends and punishing enemies with public resources. And quite often these schemes served some positive ends, such as picking good nominees for office and introducing the franchise to an economically and racially diverse set of new voters. But yes, it was most definitely rigged.

We need to recognize the challenges of expecting a party to impartially manage a contest in which it clearly has preferred outcomes.

I bring these examples up in light of the new WikiLeaks revelations about staffers of the Democratic National Committee and their attitudes toward this year’s Democratic nomination race. The disclosed e-mails have been depicted as showing a rigged system that systematically undermined Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

But even if you believe the worst interpretations of these e-mails, the evidence is pretty mild. What we see is DNC staffers trying to spin the media in favor of Hillary Clinton and to complain to each other about Sanders. One certainly does not get the impression that the DNC staff was impartial between Clinton and Sanders — they appear biased and unprofessional — but there’s hardly evidence they materially manipulated the contest.

If one wants evidence of that, look to the overwhelming numbers of Democratic governors, senators, representatives, and state legislators who endorsed Clinton last year. Look at the Barack Obama-leaning super PAC that announced its support for herback in 2014. All these things had the effect of scaring off qualified Democratic candidates. Arguably, sure, they limited voters’ choices, they tilted the contest toward Clinton, and they weren’t fair. But they’re a pretty far cry from corruption or criminality. And to expect Democratic Party staffers to be impartial in their internal correspondence about a contest between Clinton and someone who arguably isn’t even a Democrat just seems unrealistic.

I’m certainly not claiming that anything is permissible as long as it’s better than what Nixon did. But we need to recognize the challenges of expecting a party to impartially manage a contest in which it clearly has preferred outcomes.

And it’s really hard to find evidence that Sanders’ voice was in any meaningful way squelched. He had nine debates with Clinton to make his case. He kept pace with her in fundraising. He was competitive in basically every state contest and had no trouble recruiting many dedicated volunteers, caucus-goers, and voters. He simply came up short. If this is a rigged system, then basically every contest is.