The 1968 Democratic National Convention remains notorious mainly because of bloody clashes in the streets of downtown Chicago, where thousands of antiwar protesters encountered what a federal commission later called a “police riot.” Passions were also fraught inside the convention hall. From the podium, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut denounced “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”
But it’s less well known today that much of the mayhem in the streets and the angry dissent inside the amphitheater a half-century ago stemmed from the well-grounded belief that the Democratic establishment had rigged the nominating process for its candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Many of the delegates for the two antiwar contenders at the convention, Sens. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, were incensed at the party’s disregard for the will of the voters.
The superdelegate system remains a burr in the donkey’s saddle, threatening to further undermine party unity.
About 70 percent of the votes in the presidential primaries had gone to antiwar candidates, including Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated the night of his election victory in the California primary in early June. Yet the party conferred its nomination on Humphrey, a supporter of the still-escalating Vietnam War who had stayed out of the primaries ― but still ended up with more than two-thirds of the delegates at the national convention. The undemocratic process deepened the divisions inside the party and weakened public support for its ticket, aiding Richard Nixon’s narrow victory in the November 1968 election.
Since then, the Democratic Party’s rules for selecting a presidential nominee have greatly improved. In 2016, voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses were able to choose 85 percent of the delegates to the national convention. But the other 15 percent were “superdelegates” ― party officials and Democrats in Congress and state offices ― who enabled Hillary Clinton to become the far-ahead front-runner in the delegate count well before a single voter had cast a ballot in the nomination contest.
By mid-November 2015, 11 weeks before any state primary or caucus, Clinton had already gained a public commitment of support from half of all the superdelegates ― 359 out of 712. That boost from party insiders gave her a major lift with fundraising and burnished the media narrative of pre-primary inevitability. It was an advantage that angered many Bernie Sanders supporters (including me) who saw it as unfair.
Widely unpopular at the grassroots, the superdelegate system remains a burr in the donkey’s saddle, threatening to further undermine party unity in the quest to regain the White House. Top DNC leaders seem to have recognized the problem, and the full DNC might be on the verge of fixing it.
At the Chicago meeting this week, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee are scheduled to decide on the rules for selecting the 2020 presidential nominee. On the agenda, with strong support from DNC Chairman Tom Perez, is a proposal that would effectively eliminate the voting power of superdelegates on the first ballot for the nomination. (The party’s national convention has not gone to a second ballot since 1952.)
The proposal has received almost unanimous support from the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which is overwhelmingly dominated by party officials who backed Clinton in 2016. Sanders supporters are enthusiastic about the change. But significant pushback is underway from sectors of the party establishment. Some Democrats in Congress and a number of officials in state parties are now vocally making clear that they do not want to lose their superdelegate voting privileges.
A historic showdown is again looming in Chicago. And for the long term, the stakes could turn out to be just as momentous as they were in August 1968. Fifty years later, the national Democratic Party can take a big step toward becoming worthy of its name.
Norman Solomon, the national coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org, was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. He is a co-author of the report “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis,” released last fall. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.”