Will the Democrats Survive Miami?

by Alexander Bickel | July 15, 1972

A commission on party structure and delegate selection and a commission on rules were set up by the 1968 Democratic national convention in the hope of avoiding a repetition of itself; and everyone immediately began to fear that the two commissions, particularly the first, would help bring about exactly what they were meant to forestall, and more of it even than in 1968. New requirements would be imposed on the process of delegate selection, the state parties would not yield to them, and the 1972 convention would be a shambles of credentials contests and little else.

It isn't turning out that badly at all. The process of delegate selection has undergone quite a change as a result of more widespread and genuine compliance by state parties with new requirements than the most sanguine reformer should have permitted himself to expect back in 1969, when the requirements were first promulgated. Silent, absent, or just plain tired potential majorities do no better under the reformed process than they did before. But vigorous, intense partisans can find their way in, and if not met by equal vigor and intensity on the other side, they prevail. That's democracy, and it is better than no democracy. If the previously established leaders of the party want to recapture it, they'll have to hustle, and if they hustle, maybe they can.

Of course there have been numerous credentials contests, but there are standards under which they can be fairly adjudicated, or in light of which they can be compromised and settled, if there's a will. The danger to the survival of the Democratic Party has come not, as feared, from enforcement of new rules of delegate selection, but from a lawless attempt to override them in the California case, and from a misguided proposal to restructure the party into a centralized and disciplined organization on the European style, which Congressmen James O'Hara and Donald Fraser, the current chairmen of the rules and party structure commissions, will bring to the convention floor. Not the reform rules of 1969, but lawlessness and nostrums in 1972—these are the dangers, as unexpected as they are serious.

The most difficult of the credentials contests has been the one concerning Mayor Daley's group of uncommitted delegates from Illinois. Though duly elected in district primaries, these delegates had been slated, which is to say, selected as nominees with party endorsement, by procedures that were effectively proof against insurgency, or against participation by outsiders, as insurgency is now called. So one of the credentials commission's trial examiners found after a hearing. He concluded that requirements on slate-making promulgated in 1969 had been grossly violated. Mayor Daley's people hardly bothered to deny the charge. Their chief argument was that election cures all. It is, in their view, a kind of absolution. But the delegate-selection requirements, unlike some more demanding preceptive systems, do not provide for absolution, by election or otherwise. They are, by contrast, rather like law that way.

Other provisions of the new rules that the Daley slate was charged with violating deal with discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex and age. In addition to forbidding overt discrimination, of course, these provisions require affirmative action. But they are easily misunderstood. Quotas are not called for, and this is explicitly noted. Rather state parties are required to encourage participation, including the "representation of minority groups [and young people and women] on the national convention delegation in reasonable relationship to [their] presence in the population of the State."

It would have been better if the new rules had been content with requiring state parties affirmatively to encourage participation without suggesting quotas, however faintly, even while disowning them, just as it would be better if Senator McGovem quit promising proportional representation to everyone save only the Amish and the Hassidic Jews on everything from the Supreme Court and the Cabinet to the Bureau of Animal Husbandry. But to encourage participation is something else. It has most often not been done in the past; it is right and reasonable, and it should be and is required. The Daley group was found to have scarcely done it, and absolution by election was, again, not available, although remission by some form of compromise might have worked, as it did in anumber of other contests.

The trouble with the Daley people is too bad. It may hurt in November, and it goes to show that the rules on nondiscrimination ought to be clarified. But the party will in the long run be strengthened by the decision in the Daley case, as any institution is strengthened which visibly and painfully submits itself to the process of law, and obeys the rules it has made for its own govemance. And that is precisely why the lawless decision on the California delegation is such a disaster.

California has long had a winner-take-all primary: the winner of a majority or plurality of the popular vote takes all the delegates, as in the general election he takes all the electoral votes, and as in the general election in all states he would take the governorship or the senatorship. That may be desirable or undesirable, but whichever it is, the 1968 convention knew about it, naturally, and so did the commission on party structure and delegate selection. There is wholly convincing evidence that the convention never intended to decree abolition of the California primary, and there is absolutely conclusive—and uncontroverted—evidence that neither did the commission.

Now, before there were any reform resolutions at the 1968 convention and before there was any commission to implement them, each succeeding quadrennial convention was entitled to be, and in some measure sometimes was, a retroactive law unto itself. The only restraint —but one which was most frequently effective—was a sense of decency in not defeating justified prior expectations. But the 1968 convention resolved to make law, and appointed the commission on delegate selection and party structure to make it. That law—the commission's new rules, approved also by the Democratic National Committee—governed the primary campaign. Under the new rules, the California primary was legal, and each candidate had his chance in it. Every man, woman, and child, if any, who voted to overturn the California result on the credentials committee ought to be ashamed of himself and ought never again appeal to law without blushing.

So much for lawlessness. The O'Hara-Fraser nostrum is a document entitled, "A Proposed Charter of the Democratic Party of the United States." It is the latest manifestation of a hankering after one or another form of European parliamentary system which has always afflicted segments of liberal opinion in the United States. Our parties are vonglomerates, the thought runs, when they ought to be vertically integrated industries. Then they would be more effective in producing ideologically coherent policies, and the consumer would be more satisfied. As it is, presidential candidates are handicapped in taking a firm and crisp programmatic stance, and when they come into office, they have to start bargaining all over again, because their parties are not lined up behind them in Congress in disciplined ranks. In fact, their parties are no parties, really. They can include everyone from Barry Goldwater to Jacob Javits, or James Eastland to George McGovern, essentially because anyone can join any time on an ad hoc basis for this or the other caucus or election without feeling or pledging long-term allegiance, or if yielding any allegiance, then yielding it to the state party, and not to any national party with anideology, a soul and a will of its own.

The way to cure all this is to create a national party with a permanent membership, and let it then define and run, not only itself, but what used to be the state parties as well. That is what the proposed charter would do. Membership would be free and open, but only enrolled members could participate in party affairs, and movement in and out for one caucus or one primary would be difficult. Moreover, the party would have clear policies, continuously formed by standing bodies and by a biennial national policy conference. No one who did not accept those policies would feel very keen about joining. Minorities within the party would, no doubt, continuously splinter off, and once gone would stay away, while the party became continuously purer and smaller.

Unless the country went to a multi-party system—to facilitate which we would have to abolish the electoral college—the Democratic Party would go the way of the Whigs, and be replaced by another major party. If we did go to amulti-party system, with everyone pure and tight within his own party, Presidents would be even less able to govern in accordance with a coherent program. Deadlocks between Presidents and Congresses would be even more deadlocked, compromises would be even messier, and frustration even greater, as we waited for one John Tyler after another to serve out his four years. The temptation would be to abolish the four-year term and make the President responsible to Congress. Then we would be like the third French Republic, or like Italy now. The millennium would have arrived.

None of these horrible things will happen if the proposed O'Hara-Fraser charter is adopted. Not a chance. Rather the Democratic Party will just vanish. It will go down in a glorious ideological sunset.


The two major American political parties exist to form loose and untidy initial coalitions for purposes of electing Presidents and organizing Congresses. The presidential and congressional coalitions are often not the same ones. But they influence each other. They thus help to make the Madisonian system of checks and balances by which we govern less chaotic than it might otherwise be. It is a system that requires us to generate widespread consent before we act, and ensures that no one wields absolute, sovereign—and dangerous—power even for a moment, at least in peacetime.

To perform their function, the American major parties need to be open and substantially overlapping. Ideology, clear unity of purpose and interest—these are for factions, which do not by any means disband after the election. Parties are for gathering in factions and for holding them together, however tenuously, for a time and for some purposes.

The Democratic Party nominated Grover Cleveland in 1892, William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and 1900, and Alton B. Parker in 1904. It nominated John W. Davis in 1924, Al Smith in 1928, and then FDR in 1932. In 1968, George Wallace being absent and John B. Connally present, it ran Hubert Humphrey. Now, with George Wallace apparently back and John Connally gone, it looks as though the party may have been captured by another Bryan. A well-defined national party, dominated by its permanently committed membership in convention and then in policy conference and in between times in a national committee and a national executive committee and then in convention again, is not going to perform in any such fashion. It won't be any vehicle for shifting coalitions. It will be an organized ideology.

The effect of the new delegate-selection rules has been to open up the Democratic Party, to enhance its suitability to its function. The proposed O'Hara-Fraser charter would close it. Oh, the charter has all the populist, participatory trappings anyone could wish, and it would close the party in a different way than Boss Hague's Democratic Party in New Jersey was closed in the 1930s, but it would close it. Fewer and fewer people who agreed totally with each other would come to own it. Perhaps they'd like it, but it wouldn't be much use.

This article originally ran in the July 15, 1972, issue of the magazine.


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