On the Nevada Democratic Convention

I’ve seen Sanders supporters here and there demanding to know why Clinton supporters haven’t been talking about the mess that was the Nevada Democratic Convention over this past weekend. I can only answer for myself, though I’ve been a vocal Clinton supporter for several months. In my case, I’ve been quiet for three reasons:

  1. There hadn’t been much reporting done yet, just claims made.
  2. The history of claims of maltreatment from Sanders supporters don’t have a great history.
  3. Pointing out #2 when Sanders is already losing seems like a waste of energy.

Still, if Sanders supporters are going to insist on seeing a conspiracy of silence, I can speak up. Let’s start by talking about caucuses generally, because if you’re going to insist on saying one went wrong, you need to know what it looks like when one goes right.

Going back to basics, caucuses are one of the least-democratic ways a U.S. political party currently chooses its candidates. “Least-democratic” here means the fewest voters are directly represented in the outcome. Some smaller political parties are less democratic in that several states have no input into the national decision, but by and large, the days of backroom decision-making are done. The people who are allowed and able to participate in state contests choose the candidates to some degree. Caucuses are now the low bar.

Primaries, of course, are more democratic than caucuses. Open primaries, where people don’t have to be registered with the party whose candidate they’re choosing, are more democratic than closed primaries. However, they’re also open to being gamed by people who don’t support the party in whose primary they’re voting.

Proportional awarding of delegates to the national convention based on vote tallies is more more democratic than the winner-take-all system used by the Republicans, which turned Trump’s pluralities into a probable majority. Awarding delegates based on which candidate wins a smaller geographic region can also be less democratic than proportional representation, particularly if it follows gerrymandered borders.

All of that is a long way of saying that, if your concern is the will of the people and hearing the masses over party machinery, caucuses are the wrong places to be looking. (Though the assertion that party selection processes should reflect the will of the most people is an open question.) Caucuses are, by definition, about giving the people willing to put in the most effort far more say than anyone else. That makes them less accessible to people with physical limitations, people who don’t speak English well, people who work off hours, and people who can’t afford childcare.

So if you’ve been sharing things that tell me how super important it is that your candidate does well in caucus states, I’m already not terribly sympathetic to arguments that he was robbed and the will of the voters has been undone by machinations. This is particularly true when you’ve also been sharing things telling me how super great it is that your team used this not-very-democratic process to overturn the will of the people who were able to vote in the caucus and gain a disproportionate number of delegates to the state convention. (This is particularly true when the information is misleading to boot, but more on that later.) Inconsistencies like this, on top of all that nonsense about red states–which just happened to be the states with high proportions of non-white voters–only make me think you’re conflating democracy with getting what you, personally, want.

Stylized donkey icon reminiscent of the Democratic Party logo with texturing and 3D shading.
“Democratic Donkey – Icon” by DonkeyHotey, CC BY 2.0

Now let’s talk about what happens at caucuses and conventions. To be blunt, the default state of a caucus or convention is kind of a mess. These are private events, in a high-burnout field, largely staffed by volunteers, that are held every two to four years. Rules exist for how these events are supposed to run, but one of the purposes of the caucus-convention system is to potentially change the rules. If there’s a caucus state where there isn’t a significant contingent showing up to every single Democratic convention in caucus states to demand caucuses be dumped in favor of primaries, I would be hugely surprised.

That doesn’t mean every rule or kind of rule can be changed at the convention, though. A lot of what happens at a convention will be determined by who showed up last time or the time before and who volunteered at some point in the past. Many of the rules are in place to keep things moving. They keep people focused on the decisions that delegates are empowered to make at the convention.

This is a recipe for chaos and confusion under the best of circumstances. What happened in Nevada was not the best of circumstances. So far, the fault for that seems to lie with Sanders’ campaign and some of his boosters.

Friday, the day before the convention, Sanders supporters had two major parts of their claim against the state Democratic Party thrown out of court. One part of this article covering the decision is entertaining.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Robert Kern, said it would’ve been a “bold move” for the judge to rule in their favor.

“We knew that the legal theories we were bringing here today were very novel theories,” Kern said. “We aren’t surprised he went a more conservative route.”

In other words, the idea that this problem belonged in court was so much hot bullshit, but they were hoping.

The other part of the judge’s reasoning is less entertaining.

He also agreed with the defendants’ argument that the confusion over the deadline to run for party office was not brought about by the party itself, but through misinformation had spread within the group of Sanders supporters. He added that supporters of both candidates were present at a phone meeting where the final deadline, April 25, was decided and were free to disseminate that information to their supporters however they saw fit.

In other words, the people who had sued to be allowed to register late hadn’t been prevented from running by the party they were suing. They were prevented by the campaign they were supporting. The campaign had the information they needed. It hadn’t passed it along.

This is consistent with one of my reasons for supporting Clinton over Sanders. Back in the ancient days of the DNC database breach, Sanders’ campaign gave out bad information multiple times. It’s consistent with the small amount of effort his campaign has put into getting supporters to the polls. It’s consistent with the contradictory messaging on the future of his campaign. In contrast to Clinton, who has been blunt about learning her lesson from how Obama beat her, the Sanders campaign has not made it a priority to get good, detailed information out to supporters. It hasn’t told them how the political process works. It hasn’t told them exactly what it needs them to do. Neither have its proxies.

There was some hope that had changed in Nevada at the county conventions. An upset like that usually requires coordination. Unfortunately, it seems to have been a fluke. The immediate reports from Sanders proxies (see that U.S. Uncut link above), spread bad information about what had happened. Contrary to reports, delegates were not able to flip the state for Sanders. Clinton had been too far ahead of Sanders in vote totals for that to happen. At best, they could have flipped two delegate slots, for a net gain of four delegates to Sanders at the national convention over early projections.

I say “at best” because there were still several things Sanders’ state delegates needed to do to make that happen. They needed to be registered as Democrats. They needed to have their identities (and voting eligibility, I presume) verified. They needed to show up and be present when votes were taken.

These things do require coordination. They require more coordination for people who are new to the process and haven’t done it all before. Unfortunately, between the judge’s decision I mentioned above and reports coming out of the convention, that coordination seems to have been lacking.

  • Sanders supporters didn’t get the information they needed about filing to run for party office.
  • Sanders supporters were less likely to have completed the requirements to be delegates.
  • Sanders delegates didn’t get (or didn’t use) the information they needed to enter the caucus quickly.
  • Sanders delegates were less likely to show up.
  • Sanders delegates weren’t aware that the initial vote (which many missed because they were slow to enter) was preliminary and not binding.
  • There was little to no coordination between those Sanders delegates who had served on the committees to draft the rules and platforms and those who were merely voting.
  • Sanders delegates were broadly unaware of the petition process required to make a change at the convention.

Now, yes, much of this information came from Clinton delegates, corporate media, or the state party itself. But information on how badly democracy was being abused at the convention came from Sanders proxies. The first interpretation fits with everything I’ve known about caucuses and conventions for years, as well as following the disorganized pattern of the Sanders campaign. The second requires a conspiracy theory on an absurd scale. Not only would party officials have to rig the proceedings, but experienced, politically aware activists would have to embrace it, and the media would have to choose saying nothing is wrong over selling controversy. That’s their stock in political trade. It doesn’t pass the smell test.

So, given all that, what do I think of what happened in Nevada? I’m disgusted.

Caucuses are for persuasion and compromise. Heckler’s vetoes have no place there. Rushing the stage has no place there. Creating an environment of physical intimidation has no place there.

The threats and slurs afterward? Do you really need to ask how I feel about those?

Ignorance? Yeah, it has a place at caucuses. That’s what happens when you bring more people into a complicated political process. It’s inevitable. Ignorance and misinformation shouldn’t be partisan tactics, though. Encouraging people to believe a party is helping one candidate when it isn’t should not happen. Encouraging people to believe a single decision would tip the scales on numbers when it wouldn’t should not happen.

Oh, you mean you want to know how I feel about how the votes happened? Meh. I don’t think they were ideal. Voice votes are tricky when things are tight. They’re nearly impossible in an atmosphere of disruption.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a system that would do better in an atmosphere like the one in Nevada. The voice votes allowed Sanders supporters to get what they wanted where possible, as the platform votes demonstrated. Blaming their inability to get everything they wanted on the voice votes assumes facts not in evidence and otherwise contradicted. Nothing tells me any system would have worked faster. Nothing says defeats under another system would have been accepted.

That’s the problem when someone’s only acceptable outcome is winning. That’s the problem when they’ve created a history of bullshit claims. I simply don’t believe their bad behavior is predicated on anyone else’s actions. I see excuses where they claim rationales.

And that’s what this Clinton supporter thinks of what happened in Nevada.

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On the Nevada Democratic Convention
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6 thoughts on “On the Nevada Democratic Convention

  1. 1

    I agree with most of what you said. A major point of disagreement concerns the claims of violence and intimidation at the convention itself. I think this is largely Democratic party and media framing. I watched many, many videos, including the ones linked to when claims of violence are made. I have not seen actual video of any of these claims. No chairs thrown, no chairs after supposedly being thrown, no punches thrown, no shoving. I saw no video of the stage being rushed. If anyone has an example of any of these alleged behaviors on video, I’d love to see them.

    What I did see: a person on the ground surrounded by medics, but no information about who they were, or how they got there. I saw angry words between opposite partisans that looked about to get physical. The two were quickly separated by cooler heads without any hands on each other. I saw claims (no video) of someone picking up a chair, but convinced to set it down by cooler heads.

    I also saw CNN claim that Sanders operatives fomented violence, based on an exhortation not to leave. Not leaving is not violence. (This instruction is against a backdrop of votes in caucuses continuing after people had left.)

    This framing of violence at the convention is a bum rap. Booing and dissatisfaction are not violence.

    The threats and intimidation of Ms. Lange are deplorable. I’m referring to what happened at the convention here.

  2. 2

    So you’re telling me that you’ve seen video of someone picking up a chair ready to throw it, that the threats post-convention are real, that we have reports from someone at the convention that chair-throwing happened, but that you know it didn’t because it wasn’t captured on video. Okay.

    Aside from that being bad reasoning, it doesn’t address what I said. Picking up a chair to throw it is still creating an atmosphere of physical intimidation. It is still entirely unacceptable.

  3. 3

    I said I saw no evidence of physical violence at the convention. You would think one of the dozens of videos posted would show actual violence, wouldn’t you? I’m saying when each side is claiming different things, I WILL have to see video evidence of such a serious claim. I don’t believe it or disbelieve it at this point. I don’t claim the evidence doesn’t exist. But partisans and the media are making claims that they don’t offer objective evidence for. Also, how are events that happened after the convention, not at the venue, evidence of violence at the convention?

    The larger picture is that disgruntlement and anger on the part of Sanders delegates in the convention is being spun as violence in order to demonize Sanders and his supporters.

    Clinton is going in to the convention leading in pledged delegates, but short of the magic number, and everybody, including Sanders and his supporters, knows that the superdelegates aren’t going to flip it. You have to wonder why Clinton and the party apparatus are dialing up the attacks against Sanders now, alienating voters she will need in November, when she has it in the bag. You have to wonder why Sanders is scrapping so hard, and not phoning it in, when he and his supporters know he can’t win with the variables that currently hold.

    My theory is that both campaigns and the Democratic Party are preparing for the possibility that the “security inquiry” yields a result that is damaging to Clinton to some degree, and it comes before the convention. If the result is not disqualifying on it’s face, but will be damaging to her chances in November, Clinton will want Sanders to be so beat up by then that even a tarnished Clinton still looks better by comparison. She will want the superdelegates to hate Sanders. Sanders wants the inverse. In the event that the “security inquiry” result leads to Clinton’s withdrawal, the party wants Sanders damaged enough that they can rationalize introducing another establishment candidate like Biden. Sanders is fighting to prevent this.

    I have no notion what the result of the “security inquiry” will or should be, or when it will come. But it would be naive to imagine that both campaigns and the Democratic Party aren’t gaming the possibilities and setting up for them. That’s why I think the not-Sanders forces have a reason to seize on every opportunity they can to make Sanders toxic, and the Sanders forces have a reason to fight this framing, fight for delegates, jazz up his supporters and feed their grievances about the unfairness of “the system”. It’s not just about what gets in the platform. Under the assumption that all actors are acting somewhat rationally, this explains why they’re all doing what they’re doing. One’s not the devil and the other’s not an angel – it’s political strategy aimed at shaping the end game.

  4. 4

    No, really. You don’t get to claim that that you’re withholding judgment on whether there was violence at the same time you claim the violence is just spin. Also, you didn’t actually respond to the second paragraph of my comment.

  5. 5

    There is a dispute whether there WAS violence at the convention or not. I don’t “claim the violence is just spin.”

    Picking up a chair to throw it is indeed unacceptable. You contend that “creating an environment of physical intimidation has no place there.” I concur. One guy picking up a chair and being stopped from throwing it by other Sanders partisans is a pretty thin pretext for claiming such an atmosphere. You don’t get to pick out the biggest asshole in a large group and make him the poster boy for the whole, especially when he was suppressed by his own, not accepted, cheered, emulated, or egged on. Well, I guess you can, but it’s hardly fair.

  6. 6

    The larger picture here is that

    1) Bernie simply isn’t going to win now, and
    2) The longer this infighting goes on, the more it’s likely to help Trump.

    I voted for Bernie in my primary, but I’m getting increasingly fed up with him. It’s time for him to quit gnawing on Hillary’s ankle.

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