DNC E-mail Leak Scandal: Not Much of a Scandal, Blown Way Out of Proportion: A Politics 101 Primer on Party Organization

Ultimately, the information revealed in the DNC e-mail hacks (by the Russian government!) “shockingly” revealed that people who were staffers for the Democratic Party’s leadership organization didn’t like Bernie Sanders, the independent Senator from Vermont who made a career in large part out of not liking the Democratic Party and was trying to attempt a hostile takeover of the Party. Upon closer inspection, all the Democratic Party was doing was trying to do what all political parties try and should try to do: shape the debate and see to it that candidates that shared the Party’s values and ideas and who supported the Party won out in the end. This is, in fact, pretty run-of-the-mill in terms of any organizational power struggle and of politics in general, and the real scandal here is the fact that the Russian government is trying to mess with a U.S. election and may have ties to the Trump campaign, not anything contained in the e-mails the Russian government made sure were leaked just before the Democratic National Convention.

 Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse August 10, 2016 

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) August 10th, 2016

Matt Slocum/AP

AMMAN — As the story swirling around the Russian-hacked, Wikileaks-released body of e-mails from seven staffers of the Democratic National Committee (abbreviated as DNC and the braintrust/leadership organization for the Democratic Party) unfolded just before and during the Democratic National Convention, it came to light that some of these staffers had discussed Bernie Sanders in a critical manner and discussed ways to bring negative attention to his candidacy.

Cue one of the most overblown “scandals” in recent memory.

Much Ado About Nothing

A point lost in much of the commentary surrounding the leaked e-mails is that, rather than show any kind of specific smoking gun, they either showed explicit instructions not to act on these ideas/discussions or failed to provide any evidence that they were acted upon.

The e-mails are basically internal musings of private individuals working for a private organization, much like thoughts in a person’s head bouncing around but with something along the lines of telepathic communication at work between several individuals. Like any groupings of individual e-mails as part of any public or private organization, they don’t represent the organization as a whole or its official policy, but represent private discussions of private individuals who do work for the organization but are simply expressing private thoughts not meant for public consumption that nevertheless do represent their thoughts as individuals within a massive organization, yet we don’t know if they are meant to be 100% serious or more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, whether they are joking or maybe just playing devil’s advocate for something they’d like to see but know won’t ever materialize; basically, we know far, far less about the e-mails than what the people involved know, but they seem to give us a window into glimpsing the thought process of several DNC staffer, nothing more, nothing less. Sure, questions are raised, but drawing firm conclusions from these e-mails that there was any substantive action taken against Bernie Sanders and his campaign is not possible.

But such details and many others were lost in much of the media coverage and on the many, many Bernie Sanders supporters who ranged from leaning toward believing in an anti-Bernie conspiracy to “knowing” in their hearts that there was one, as they now “knew” they had the information they needed to give solid form to their dark, brooding thoughts, to lose it and go absolutely ballistic on the DNC, the Democratic Party, and Hillary Clinton.

Both the absurdity and the petulance of this genuine yet myopic outrage deserves to examined in detail.

Non-Democrat Tries to Take Over Democrats & They Don’t Like It… YAWN

First of all, I must, again, quote a friend of mine and his pithy yet spot-on social media post in which he wrote “so, lemme get this straight: some staffers from a national political committee expressed personal political opinions on their work email? ok, gotcha.” Perhaps Sanders supporters feel this is being unfairly dismissive, but as someone who has been a registered Democrat for my entire adult life, I beg to differ. For one thing, the vast majority of Clinton’s votes in the Democratic primary came from registered Democrats who preferred her 64% to 35% for Sanders, while the vast majority of Sanders’ votes in the Democratic primary came from independents, who preferred him 64% to 34% for Clinton. Last time I checked, the Democratic Party was a well-defined private organization with its own beliefs and people, with the full rights and freedom to control its membership and participation and pathways to both in order to prevent outside people and influences from hijacking it. 

In fact, Bernie Sanders was not even calling himself a Democrat until he decided to run for president over a year ago. So, for one thing, everyone, including Bernie Sanders supporters, needs to admit that Bernie was declaring himself to be a Democrat not because he had suddenly discovered newfound love and appreciation for the Democratic Party, its politics, and its officials; no, the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history—one who had very often run and campaigned (and campaigned hard) against Democrats—was very much and very cynically using the party’s national-level apparatus and organizational strength as a way to project his ideas, his approach, his candidacy, and himself in marked contrast and in opposition to said party. Sanders even made it clear in the middle of March of this year that he was doing just this, explicitly saying that he ran as a Democrat to get more media coverage and money, musing to his interviewer that this interviewer “would not have me on his program” if he was running as an independent and further musing:

“Look, here’s the truth. You’re right, I am the longest serving independent in the history of the United States Congress…Do you run as an independent? Do you run within the Democratic party? We concluded– and I think it was absolutely the right decision, that, A, in terms of media coverage– you have to run within the Democratic Party.

Number two, that to run as an independent, you need– you could be a billionaire. If you’re a billionaire, you can do that. I’m not a billionaire. So the structure of American politics today is such that I thought the right ethic was to run within the Democratic Party.”

Sanders even had to be intensely pressured by his inner circle to run as Democrat, something he really, really didn’t want to do, and not an independent, which was his initial plan, before his advisors insisted he do an about-face. Even today, his official Senate website proudly touts his career as an independent in the second sentence of his “About” page and labels him currently as an independent. His was to be a hostile takeover, whose very campaign was fueled by and defined by his longstanding disdain and contempt (even encouraging of hatred) for the Democratic Party and its standard bearer, Hillary Clinton. And even in the middle of the Democratic National Convention, Sanders announced that he would be returning to his work in the U.S. Senate not as a Democrat, but as an independent.

Thus, the undeniable truth is that while Sanders ran as a Democrat for not quite 15 full months (and he really only declared himself full a Democrat for not quite 9 of those months, doing so in November, in time to be eligible for the New Hampshire primary while also pledging to run in future elections as a Democrat, a pledge which he apparently just went back on in in claiming to be an independent again), he wanted to take over the Democratic Party rather than join it. That means that other than in a purely opportunist sense for these last 15 months and in no deeper sense at all over the course of his 25-year congressional career and of his overall 45-year political career has Bernie Sanders ever really been a Democrat. 

So while Sanders is perfectly within his rights to attempt a hostile takeover within certain bounds, the Democratic Party is also within its rights to protect itself, its interests, and its people from such a hostile takeover within certain bounds.

The Right to (Political) Self-Defense, in Praise of Political Elites, & the Limits of Democracy/”The People”

Does this Democratic Party, which had its own accustomed ideas and approaches different from those of Sanders, have a right to organize itself in such a way as to help prevent a hostile takeover? Of course it does, which is why a good chunk of primaries (including those of very populous and thus electorally important states like New York and Florida) are closed primaries, where only party members who have registered to be in a party well before the primary can vote in that party’s primary.

As Andrew Sullivan noted recently, too much democracy and too open a system actually creates fertile ground for tyranny and chaos. The Founding Fathers were explicit: the people were not to govern, but their representatives as chosen by them were. In the American system of government, political parties run by political elites familiar with the complex machinery of government play an important role in the running of a system that negotiates the many competing views and interests of any diverse, modern democracy, and just as their role should not eclipse and supplant that of the people, the role of the people should not eclipse and supplant this important role played by elites. 

This idea of balance is not anything new, and such balance between people and elites was what the ancient Greek writer Polybius saw as the secret to ancient Rome’s success over 2,000 years ago. Whether reading the ancient advocates of republican government or The Federalist Papers, it is clear that a dominant philosophy is one of checks and balances, with both the government and the people checking each other and themselves being seen as ideal; yes, the people, hardly infallible, need to have their power checked, too, no matter how angry that idea may make some. And if ever there was a time for elites and the system to check the often temporary, misguided will of the people in American electoral history, it is today with Trump as a serious contender.

In America, elites today are basically the only thing other than the Constitution that stand between at least the semblance of orderly governance on one side of the spectrum and, on the other side, a system that would “operate” much like a room full of many people with very divergent views arguing endlessly on an issue and finding they are unable to come to a collective decision save for the majority simply imposing its will on the minority: a Tocquevillian “tyranny of the majority.” As James Madison wrote in “Federalist No. 55,” “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” 

Doing away with political elites’ powers as gatekeepers and stewards for political party operations and nominations goes hand-in-hand with the process of those same elites’ role of performing the key negotiative function in the American political system becoming increasingly eclipsed by elites’ almost servile fidelity to the momentary whims of the masses, measured by ever more ubiquitous and frequent public opinion polls (polls that increasingly determine a politician’s course of action, rather than inform it). While such elites in America have tended to rely on support from diffuse interest groups and populations in the past, the more open electoral system of late has seen a move towards support from more vocal, passionate extremists, most recently characterized by the rise of the Tea Party, and, after that, Trumpism and Sandersism. With the backroom an increasingly rare space for deal-making and being replaced by a laser-focused public spotlight that leaves less flexibility and often loses sight of the bigger picture, posturing has come to be more and more a substitute for deal-making, the true essence of governing.

Fairness and Earned Advantages

An important role for political elites and party apparatuses doesn’t mean they should be able to do anything regardless of how their rank-and-file members feel and the public as a whole feels; it doesn’t mean that the party can, or should, make it impossible for major change, prevent new ideas and new candidates from competing, seek to formally disqualify new blood, or work as an organization in its entirety to stack the deck as favorably as possible against a competitive insurgent. But it also sure doesn’t mean that they are going to roll out the red carpet for a candidate like Sanders, do everything to his liking, make it as easy as possible for him to compete, and not throw up some obstacles or play some defense.

Fairness doesn’t mean you start off with an equal voice at the table to one of a political party’s longtime standard bearers, and it sure doesn’t mean that people at the table aren’t and don’t have a right to rally behind that standard bearer. The crowd of people who choose to not be registered Democrats covetously standing around the table sure doesn’t automatically get to control the table, its menu, dishware selection, doilies, tablecloth color, and music selection, no matter how loud and proud they are. Yes, like any new member of a sports team or business or organization, there are dues to be paid, and the people who are already there and there for some time have certain natural advantages that come from their relationships with the parts of that organization and the people working in it. The blood, sweat, and tears borne of these ties, earned over time, are themselves example of the dues these people paid over the time they have put in and sacrificed. 

To suggest that a new person should immediately be given such benefits without actually earning them, or that the people who have such benefits should forfeit them even though they have earned them by building relationship over time through sacrifice and teamwork, is, frankly, absurd in the extreme. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any institution anywhere that allows for such a system where the neophyte is given the same respect, access, and support as the veteran. What is fair to expect is that the rules governing their behavior be the same in the event of competition; but the athlete who puts in more time, training, and works better with his teammates has every right to such advantages, having earned them, just as much as the new athlete has every right to expect that the rules on the field (if not the locker room) will be the same for all.

The Case of (& for) Superdelegates

The question is all about degree, and the superdelegates are a case in point: should Party leaders—those who are most loyal, work the hardest, have put in the most time, and have been in the trenches for years—have an actual say in the Party’s nomination process? Well, of course, why shouldn’t they!? And why shouldn’t they collectively have a meaningful say, separate from their votes as private citizens and being able to endorse candidates and weigh in on the race throughout? This is not giving them any more power voting-wise in a general national election than any other citizen, for we are talking about their own Party’s nomination process, not the general election. 

Think of corporate boards: the board votes on major decisions, not the employees. Well, the Democratic Party basically gives employees the main say, but has a small board that also weighs in. I actually like the idea of superdelegates, because it shows the Party actually is and means something, that it carries a certain weight; in this way, then, the Party is more, far more, than simply the sum of its voting members’ collective will and whatever its voters decide at any given time. Superdelegates allow the Party to have a rightful say as an organization in their organization’s nomination process. The people’s voice still reigns supreme in the outcome, as delegates bound by voters’ votes (“pledged” delegates) represent over 85% of all the delegates, with superdelegates accounting for less than 15%. And throughout the entirety of sueprdelegate history, a majority of superdelegates has never, ever voted for anyone other than the candidate who had secured the most pledged delegates. 

For the next presidential election, Clinton and Sanders supporters on the Party’s rules committee have agreed to, and are moving on, a proposal that would bind about two-thirds of the superdelegates to the results of the state voting contests but would still allow Senators, House Representatives, Governors, and other prominent Party leaders to vote as they please, preserving the identity of the Democratic Party as something more than just the temporary will of voters at a given point in time.  

One thing is for damn sure: Republican Party officials sure wish they had had superdelegates who could have stopped Trump, and if the Democratic Party nomination process had resulted in someone like Trump, I sure hope the superdelegates would have gone against such a candidate, as intended

Another scenario is worth consideration: what if Sanders had gotten essentially a tie with Clinton or even earned slightly more votes and pledged delegates than she did, but, as is currently the case, she still won the vast majority of registered Democrats and Bernie Sanders won on the backs of non-Democratic independents; in such a situation, there is a good case to be made that the superdelegates should favor her and push her over the edge to victory since 1.) they would be acting to shore up the will of the actual members of the Democratic Party 2.) independents are far less reliable voters than Democrats and their turnout is consistently lower, too 3.) the Party owes actual Democrats far more than independents, whose support is fickle 4.) both Sanders’ approach to politics and his actual policy proposals are objectively delusional given political realities 5.) Sanders would certainly do worse than Clinton in a general election given that his views and methods are so far out of the mainstream and so far to the left of most Americans in a country where 47 out of 50 states contain more self-identified conservatives than liberals and since the polls that earlier showed him as performing better than Clinton in a general election are demonstrably historically inaccurate. Of course the Party would be smart to (and would likely) move their positions a bit closer to those of Sanders and his independent backers in an effort to win them over, but to back Sanders for the nomination, for all these reasons, would have been a bad move, even a suicidal one. However, if a majority of registered Democrats had picked Sanders, the case would be much harder to make that the superdelegates should support Clinton and they likely would not have enough votes to give her the nomination, all things being equal.

The Case for Closed Primaries

Yes, Americans have constitutionally guaranteed rights to vote for their representatives and their president, but no Constitutional or inherent right to weigh in on who the political parties will provide as their candidates for president; that’s for the parties to decide.

Basically, independents are lucky when they get to participate in a party’s nomination process, but it is their decision to not affiliate with a party that prevents them from voting during a party’s nomination process if they live where there is a closed primary. If a person chooses not to affiliate with a party, that’s a good indication that that person does not share the values of that party nearly as much as the people who do choose to affiliate with it. And political parties are all about citizens with shared values organizing to gain political power for like-minded purposes. So what gives an independent and inherent right to participate in any party’s nomination process? Nothing, nothing at all, except it a state party organization feels generous and, instead of a closed primary, it holds an open one.

Sometimes this can lead to mischief: according to various exit polls, in West Virginia’s open primary, anywhere from a huge minority of Bernie Sanders voters to a significant majority of them indicated they would be voting for Trump in November; as Trump had already basically won the Republican nomination contest, it is possible some of Trump’s supporters wanted to hurt Clinton, who had also virtually won the nomination but was in a much tighter race with Sanders, by voting for Sanders. With restrictions on primary participation, such mischief is more than possible

In addition to this mischief, open primaries prevent parties from having any control over who weighs in on their nomination process in those contests, leaving them open to possible takeovers, and kill the major incentive for people to register and become real members of a party, supporting it over time. It essentially weakens the middleman roll that parties and elites play between voters and individual candidates, leaving them more susceptible to demagogues and increasing the likelihood of voting based on personality rather than on a set of shared values and principles.

Conclusion: Fair Does Not Mean Surrender to the New Guy & We Still Need Political Parties to Be an Actual Thing

The point is, the Party and its officials have every right to support the candidate they think best represents the party’s ideas and values, who has supported the Party through thick and thin, and has the best chance of winning and the best ability to govern. As the conservative RedState pointed out, with this e-mail “scandal,” people were complaining about the Democratic Party doing what the Republican Party already does openly and to a far more intense degree. In fact, virtually any political party anywhere will favor its own longtime loyalists over outside critics; if there was an American “Democratic Socialist Party” that was the only major U.S. political party besides the Republican Party, and Hillary Clinton was a “democrat” trying to push the Democratic Socialist Party hard towards the center, you can sure bet that the people at the Democratic Socialist National Committee (DSNC) would be discussing ways to marginalize her and protect their favored candidate. This is just basic, elemental politics and basic, elemental human and organizational behavior.

In the end, allowing a fair vote (sometimes only among registered Democrats and sometimes allowing independents, per those local decisions), laying out and enforcing the same rules for all candidates, and not directly giving one candidate material resources that another is not offered is about all that can, and should, be expected. Asking people working within the Party to not privately express or have preferences, to avoid discussing strategy to benefit one candidate or another as part of private internal discussions that mention actions that will be given no official sanction or approval by the party apparatus, or to not put up any even informal resistance to a hostile takeover is an absurdly delusional expectation that goes against human nature and the modus operandi of any organization.

Well, going back to the DNC e-mails, Bernie was allowed to compete in the Democratic Party primary even though his actual standing in said party for this election was questionable; both he and Clinton had to compete under the same rules, and while the Party “favored” her in so much as the vast majority of registered Democrats supported her and obviously the vast majority of officials in the Democratic party supported her, there is zero evidence that any of the voting was conducted in a way designed to benefit Clinton over Sanders and suppress Sanders voters, or that any material benefit was given to the Clinton campaign that was not offered to the Sanders campaignClinton won because more people voted for her (especially more Democrats), giving her far more pledged than SandersNot the DNC, not anybody or anything, “stole” the election from or “rigged” the election against Sanders.

Many Sanders supporters are furious that these e-mails showed that DNC staffers did not like Bernie Sanders. But he didn’t like them or the Democratic Party well before he decided to run for president. Without any other evidence of anything substantive actually coming from these e-mails, there is no “scandal,” just passionate supporters—mostly people who aren’t even Democrats—of a losing, outsider candidate furious that they were not able to succeed in a hostile takeover of a party they generally both already did not like and with which they chose not to affiliate…

Nothing terribly newsworthy here, let along surprising or improper.

If you appreciate Brian’s unique content, you can support him and his work by donating here. 

Feel free to share and repost this article on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter (you can follow him there at @bfry1981), and here are many more articles by Brian E. Frydenborg. If you think your site or another would be a good place for this content, or would like to have Brian generate content for you, your site, or your organization, please do not hesitate to reach out to him!