Sunday, July 27, 2008

Of rules, justice, and Democrats

Because organizations like the DNC have rules, and because people like to know what rules say, I have made some effort in this space to present relevant DNC rules applicable to the current situation faced by The Democratic Party.

But, rules must be applied. As we have seen before with this year's DNC, the rules are not always applied straightforwardly. Moreover, often, especially in party politics, the rules do not rule the day. They only rule the day and rule the day fairly if the person in charge of applying them makes them work that way. Furthermore, even strict adherence to party rules does not not necessarily guarantee substantive fairness or even courtesy to all viable candidates for the Democratic nomination.

I have no idea under which circumstances if any Senator Clinton would be willing to accept having her name placed in nomination; I have even less of an idea of the circumstances under which Senator Obama would decline to have his name so placed.

What I have a firm grasp of is what justice (and good sense) demands from Howard Dean: It is not enough that he promise to abide by the Party's rules (which can be variously interpreted or even amended to jigger a result if that is how the Party leadership wants to treat their own rules). He must extend, on behalf of the DNC, an equal welcome to the two Democrats whose historic campaigns qualify them to have the option to be placed in nomination.

Consider this analogy. The rules laid down by the U.S. Constitution as amended by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments required the states to treat blacks equally as whites. That was and is the rule. Yet in Plessy v. Ferguson, the then Supreme Court upheld the proposition that separate was indeed equal, thereby interpreting the Constitutional rules so as to allow for a host of state laws and policies that demeaned and devalued black people. Ultimately, in Brown v. Board of Education, a later Supreme Court declared that separate was not, and could not be, equal, certainly in schools.

One way to think about the shift from Plessy to Brown is as a change in the interpretation of the Constitutional rules in light of empirical evidence about the effects of segregated schools on black students. But I think a better way to think about the shift is to regard it as a change in attitude, not toward the rules (or at least not only the rules) but toward the people - black and white - governed by them. By the time of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's expectations of white people had changed; as had the Court's disposition toward the claims of black people. The Court no longer catered to the expectations of white separatists; and the Court sought more genuine and complete justice for blacks and all Americans who rejected the bigotry reflected in and perpetuated by "separate but equal".

Right now, Dr. Dean and the rest of the DNC leadership seem to be adopting a Plessy-like attitude toward Party rules and also toward the two candidates most affected by them. Dr. Dean says, basically, that of course the rules will be followed (and any suggestion to the contrary makes the interlocutor not a "real" Democrat or a supporter of Senator McCain's bid for the presidency). But Dr. Dean is not out there fighting for genuine and completely equal treatment of Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. In Plessyesque fashion, he purports to be mindful of this obligation under the Democratic Party's rules, but he condones and commits conduct suggesting he does not take the obligation with requisite gravity were he truly dedicated to meeting it.

Were Dr. Dean to shift to a more Brown-like attitude, he would not rely upon technocratic promises about the rules (which he knows can be manipulated and modified to achieve a particular result). He would adopt a stance of genuine equal opportunity for both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. He would, on behalf of the entire DNC, call for each candidate to have a genuinely equal opportunity to seek being placed in nomination while making it clear that both candidates are equally free to decide at any time that she or he does not think it wise to do so. Rather than grudgingly concede that one candidate can exercise a right granted under the rules while simultaneously trumpeting the falsehood that the other candidate is already the Party's nominee, Dr. Dean could refuse to play this game any more. He could be a real party leader and announce that the DNC affirmatively wants to see both very successful candidates treated equally at the convention, and that true equality involves each candidate being encouraged to stand for nomination in a true celebration of democratic principles.

While I am most definitely not holding my breath for Dr. Dean to suddenly commit to this more robust attitude toward fairness, I will continue to urge him and the rest of the DNC leadership - including all the superdelegates - to make the shift. Let every superdelegate and every senior DNC official express a desire for true equality and true democracy everywhere, including at the Democratic National Convention coming up this August. As a rank and file Democrat, I would delight in knowing that party's leaders and key players want to put these principles into practice in Denver, thereby adding luster to the modern Democratic Party's tradition of demanding equality and justice for all.

(If you share this view, you may want to check out The Denver Group and support its ongoing efforts to persuade Dr. Dean and the rest of the DNC leadership to join that tradition. For more information, go here. If you have specific suggestions for The Denver Group, please contact The Denver Group directly.)


Blogger 1950democrat said...

The world outside the internet is calling, so I must run.

Dean and co were able to confuse people by saying "Of course the FL/MI delegations will be seated, of course they will get to vote...." -- without addressing the real issues of whether their votes would be allowed to affect the outcome of the nomination.

I think the same thing is being done now. Dean etc are offering things that sound good -- "name on the ballot" -- but would not satisfy all the real official hoops of actually becoming the nominee.

It seems to me that one need here is an acronym or slogan that can be easily spread -- like "PUMA" or "Justsaynodeal" -- to indicate something like "Don't give us symbolism, make it count wiht X, Y, and Z." And I could register it as a domain and put up your explanation there of what the hoops are, and other clarifications.

July 27, 2008 at 7:13 PM  

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