While Democracy and the Democratic Party may sound similar, the party leaders again showed yesterday that one has little to do with the other. President Obama and party leaders wanted the party’s platform changed to include a reference to both Jerusalem being the capital of Israel and God. The omissions however were not accidental and a high number of delegates opposed the change, which had to be agreed to by two-thirds of the delegates. As shown in the video below, in calling for a voice vote, the leadership was shocked when it appeared that more people voted no than yes — certainly well short of two-thirds in support of the changes. That did not matter. The leadership just declared the vote as having passed by two-thirds acclamation.
Many wanted to be neutral on the divisive issue of Jerusalem but Obama was worried about the political backlash among Jewish voters. Many others wanted a secular platform and to stand apart from faith-based politics. Obama himself has relied on faith-based politics and policies, as discussed in earlier columns. Obama objected to the removal of the word God and seemed to miss the secular purpose of the move, asking him “Why on earth would that have been taken out?” It appears that no one had the courage to answer that question by explaining to Obama that it is not necessarily that delegates do not believe in God but were standing against the use of God for political advantage. Instead, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz insisted that “the platform is being amended to maintain consistency with the personal views expressed by the President and in the Democratic Party platform in 2008.”
The problem is that the platform actually reflects the views of the party members and they did not agree. The GOP had already pounced on the omissions in the platform and the Democratic leadership wanted the issues removed regardless of the opposition of the membership. Waserman Schultz dismissed the omitted language as a “technical oversight” ignoring the obviously high number of delegates supporting the omission. When combined with the rejection of the clear vote, the statement left the convention looking like a Chinese Party Congress. The “technical oversight” in this case proved to be the views of the delegates who were told that they would decide the content of the platform to reflect the views of the party base rather than the party bosses.
In fairness to the Democratic Party, the GOP has relied more heavily on faith-based politics in the past as shown most vividly by George Bush in his first successful run for the White House. The GOP also did not show much commitment to participatory politics in their treatment of Ron Paul supporters. However, many of us have criticized the use of faith in politics as not only demeaning faith but often also injecting sectarian divisions into our political system. It also undermines principles of separation of church and state when politicians run on their intent to advance religious values in government. Yet, it is how the leadership forced through the changes that was the most unnerving for those who watched yesterday.
Party leaders dispatched former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to push through the changes. Strickland started out by noting his credential as an “ordained United Methodist minister.” Strickland announced “I am here to attest and affirm that our faith and belief in God is central to the American story and informs the values we’ve expressed in our party’s platform. In addition, President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and our party’s platform should as well. The 2008 platform read, “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
It took three voice votes and the opposition was clearly loader than the support for the changes. Yet, Strickland simply declared the measure passed despite all appearances to the contrary.
For those long unhappy with the Democratic leadership, it was a telling symbolic moment. Once again, it appeared that Democratic voters (even delegates representing the most loyal activists) are given only the appearance of participation in their party. For years, Democratic leaders lied to their members about their knowledge and even support for Bush’s torture program and surveillance policies until it was revealed that key Democrats were briefed on the programs. The party leadership then worked with Bush to scuttle any effort to investigate torture and other alleged crimes to avoid implicating key Democratic members. Likewise, while the majority of Democratic voters opposed the continuation of the wars, the Democratic party leaders blocked efforts to force a pull out under both Obama and Bush. These controversies were seen by many that the Democratic Party is primarily run to ensure the continuation of a small number of leaders in power with voters treated as ignorant minions. It was a particularly poignant moment in an uncontested convention after Democratic voters were not given any alternative to Obama.
The image of the chair just ignoring the obvious opposition from the floor of the conventional symbolized this long simmering tension. For full disclosure, I have long been a critic of both parties and have argued for changes to break the monopoly on power by the two parties. It is really not the merits of these two changes that is most bothersome. Arguments can be made on both side of such issues. It is the disregard of the views of the members and the dishonesty in how the matter was handled. The illusion of democracy was all that the leaders wanted in the vote.
Notably, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seemed to be ready to acknowledge that the delegates clearly rejected the change on the first vote. He then insisted on a second vote and it got worse. He seemed about to admit the failure of the motion and then called for a third vote which sounded even more lopsided (with not just a failure to get two-thirds but even a majority). Yet, he declared the motion passed to the boos and jeers of the delegates.
In creating the illusion of democratic voting, the delegates might have just as well bleated like sheep in protest. It did not matter. The message was clear that the delegates are just a backdrop to be used by party leaders to celebrate their reign.