Last week, the Republicans closed a convention that was long on no-names but short on substance and energy. And this week, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) found itself kneecapped. Over the weekend, WikiLeaks launched a database revealing that plenty of staffers at the party’s headquarters wanted to do what they could to ensure Bernie Sanders was not the Democratic nominee. The brouhaha led to the resignation of Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a six-year U.S. representative from Florida whose tenure as the party’s chair could be described as rocky at best.
Yes, her removal from the party’s leadership reveals cracks in Democrats’ veneer of unity. It also shows that 20 years after email has become the chosen means of communications at work, people still have a lot to learn about how to handle this medium.
Wasserman Schultz was already under fire from many within the Democratic Party’s hierarchy. As a spokesperson for the party, she was the most painful and boring public speaker for the Democrats since Walter Mondale. Her role in scheduling debates on Saturday nights during the Democratic primary season was arguably a ploy to minimize exposure for Sanders. But it was also a clumsy tactic that failed to showcase the candidates to a broader audience, including that small but influential group of swing voters. She lacked the chops to serve as an effective fundraiser and was accused of appointing key supporters and aides to plum DNC positions.
An article on Politico described Wasserman Schultz as a person disliked by both Clinton and President Barack Obama; both wanted her out, but neither wanted to make the move and deal with what had become a huge headache and constant bumbler coming from the Sunshine State.
The media were quick to pounce on the red meat in these emails, which alternated between disturbing and bizarre. DNC staffers at one point wanted to target Sanders’ faith, an odd strategy considering Wasserman Schultz, like Sanders, is Jewish. Furthermore, American Jews have long been an important part of the Democratic coalition. There were also plenty of personal attacks against Sanders, who many Democrats resent because he was long registered as an independent until he decided to run for president.
But politics is a nasty business. When John F. Kennedy ran against Herbert H. Humphrey in the 1960 Democratic primary, Kennedy's campaign distributed anti-Catholic newsletters that were attributed to Humphrey's campaign. Kennedy won that primary and eventually the election. George W. Bush's 2000 campaign was revived thanks in part to surrogates spreading rumors about John McCain's personal life during the South Carolina primary.
The crew behind the WikiLeaks release, along with many partisans, suggest that the DNC’s clear preference of Hillary Clinton shows democracy is being undermined. That finding is a stretch. The truth is that neither the DNC nor the Republican National Committee (RNC) are “small-d” democratic or even “small-r” republican institutions. They do not exist to ensure a fair political process. Both parties exist to support political office nominees who they think are the best candidates -- and have a history of rewarding loyalty and connections. If the DNC thought Sanders was a slam-dunk, its leaders would have pivoted from Hillary. If the RNC thought allowing delegates to vote their “conscience” and not for Donald Trump would have salvaged the party’s hopes, they would have allowed a tweaking of the rules last week during their convention in Cleveland.
In fact, despite the controversy over the primaries and whether they are “rigged” or fair, we forget that this process is relatively new. The 1968 presidential campaign was the last time party insiders decided who would be both parties’ nominees for president. The Democrats, reeling from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, chose Humphrey over anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy; Richard Nixon, who had previously lost a presidential campaign to John F. Kennedy and then a governor’s race in California two years later, was rewarded by the GOP for his loyalty and work in campaigning for Republicans across the country.
The shift toward the primaries determining party nominees was slow. The Democratic freak-out over George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 campaign led to the inclusion of many “super delegates,” which Sanders claimed was undemocratic. Four years later, Republican party elders were arguably behind Gerald Ford’s nomination over Ronald Reagan, when he was narrowly selected at a nail-biter of a convention even though he won a clear majority of votes during that year’s primaries.
What should bother citizens is that while both parties operate as private organizations, they take copious amounts of public funds in running their campaigns. The real solution is to tell both the Democrats and Republicans to do what they want, but with no taxpayer money from any level of government at all. The federal government’s funding of presidential elections has declined since it peaked in 1994, but both parties still enjoy a remarkable advantage over third parties. A reform of both laws and funding of campaigns could help open up the process to minor parties. Neither the Democrats or Republicans, however, want to see that happen as they have succeeded ensuring they are entrenched in the voting process with no alternatives.
Wasserman Schultz’s fall (no, she did not get promoted), her pathetic attempt to hold onto power, and what could be the end of her political career together offer lessons that reach beyond partisan politics. Any executive or employee in government, civil society, or business needs to learn what should have been obvious years ago: Be careful what you and your colleagues discuss in an email. Meeting rooms, offices and, yes, even coffee shops with espresso machines blaring in the background exist so that conversations can go on behind closed doors or in private. If you think something in an email could be forwarded out of the office -- or, even more dramatically, could be revealed after a hack -- then you should not write or text it.
We can debate whether the Democrats were undemocratic, but what is clear is that many of them were arrogant and, certainly, short-sighted.
Image credit: Medill DC/Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.