A People Powered 21st Century Democratic Party

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET
  • Allison Fine Author, "Matterness: What Fearless Leaders Know About the Power and Promise of Social Media"

A Republican President drives us blithely into an economic recession with gasoline prices soaring. 2008? Nope,1982, although the similarities largely end there. Gas cost 91 cents a gallon then, the first music CD player was sold in Japan, and Michael Jackson was the coolest person on the planet with his glove, monkey and newly released Thriller album. The '70s and early '80s was filled with super words; superstar, superfreak, and, sadly, superdelegates. Before the World Wide Web was born and cell phones emerged from sci fi comic books, the DNC created a new class of nominators for their party's presidential candidates called superdelegates. As the cakewalk has turned into a battle has morphed into a titanic scrum for delegates in the Democratic Party race, these superdelegates have become this year's hanging chads.

As with hanging chads, superdelegates only came to our attention because there is a problem -- a big one -- now that neither Obama nor Clinton can win the nomination on pledged delegates alone. Just under 800 Democratic big shots (who if they were created today would be called venti delegates) will be the deciders. But, the tension over superdelegates is not just a procedural issue, at its core it is a clash of cultures, a struggle between old smoke filled rooms and the bottom-up transparency of the Connected Age.

As Lanny Davis writes here, the original intent of the supedelegates was to open up the process for deciding on the nominee beyond the very small number of inside-the-party primary voters. How ironic! Lanny and his colleagues could have never imagined today's digital world of instant, open information and communications. CNN let's us know who the SuperDelegates are (here), Obama's campaign encourages supporters to send their own stories about their involvement in the race and passion for Obama to the SuperDelegates (here), OffTheBus has researched the superdelegates, and my personal favorite, the Superdelegate Transparency Project, a citizen powered wiki, compiles information about the superdelegates and their connections to the campaigns. I spoke to Ellen Miller, the co-founder and Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation, about this juxtaposition of old and new structures. Her response:

"Politics has for far too long been done in closed-door rooms. The Internet is changing that and the latest example is that citizens are now engaged in figuring out who the super delegates are and what influence they have over the presidential nominating process. The parties can't put this genie back into the bottle."

As much as FoxNews and other MSM pundits are salivating at the idea of a blood-splattered DNC convention in Denver in August, the one thing we know for sure is that these superdelegates are largely past and present elected officials, and particularly the 345 ones who are still undecided, will at some point in June stick their fingers in the air and follow the wind to the candidate with the most popular support at that point. It might take a George Mitchell or Al Gore to get the ball rolling, but once it rolls the superdelegates will roll with it with enough time to pick a vice president over the summer and prepare for the fall's election.

But, the kerfuffle leaves a larger, more interesting, question unanswered, which is whither the superdelegates beyond this election? I emailed this question to Stacie Paxton, the press secretary of the DNC, and her response was, "Any discussions about changing the delegate selection process should take place after the election. Right now, we're focused winning back the White House in November." OK, I know you're busy with the whole future of democracy thing, but the DNC is missing a huge opportunity to be the first political party to reinvent itself for the 21st century.

Political parties are dinosaurs. That is indisputable. Even though more young people are registered as Democrats over Republicans, particularly in the last four years according to the Pew Research Center, their institutional loyalty beyond one election or one candidate isn't as strong as their parents or grandparents. Beyond the magnetic attraction that Obama holds for young, idealistic voters, their relationship with the Democratic Party institution is not strong. Young people are loyal to people and relationships not institutions, particularly if those institutions are opaque and old-fashioned. And, still, there is an opportunity and opening for the DNC to reinvent itself with young people.

Leadership and DNC are not phrases that have normally gone together recently. If leadership did exist at the DNC, the messes in Michigan and Florida, two of the most important states for Democratic victory in November, wouldn't exist today. It's hard to imagine that Ron Brown would have allowed those states to waste all that money on elections that require a do-over. (Full disclosure alert: I worked for Ron Brown at the DNC and am a Hillary supporter today.) As Dan Balz of the Washington Post said on Washington Week last week, "I don't think people have confidence in Howard Dean to be able to do that at this point." But, we're thankfully living in the Connected Age, where we don't need any one person to tell us what to do. We know what to do, and we have the tools to do it.

There's no heading back to the back rooms. Millions of people are already self-organizing meetings and fundraisers, donating millions of dollars online to campaigns, and talking about issues on blogs. The DNC can and should take advantage of this moment in time and start a robust conversation about how our party should work. I'm not suggesting changing the rules in midstream for this election, but they need to start a conversation now so that regardless of the outcome young people stay engaged in the electoral process beyond registering to vote. Millions of young, registered voters who stay home on Election Day doesn't help the DNC one bit. Should state primaries be winner take all delegates? Should caucuses be eliminated? Should superdelegates have some other role to play in party nominations to honor their service without subjugating the popular vote? My answer to all three would be yes, but let's talk about it by wiki, Twitter, blog, IM, Meetup, and email and any other new widgets and gadgets that take hold in the next few months. Let's shape a political party that truly reflects the values and hopes of its members in this new century.

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