How Not to Disrupt Politics

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump want a political-system revolution. But, with no plan for what’s next, they aren’t doing a very good job at it.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

If you’re in the business of disrupting business, you identify something consumers want or need—and deliver it via new technology, innovation, and ruthless competition. Google democratized information. Amazon made it easier to shop at home. Netflix let people control when and where they watch movies.

These groundbreakers didn’t just bitch about a problem; they fixed it—and they forced entrenched institutions to adapt or perish.

If you’re in the business of disrupting politics, disrupt it. That would be my advice to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, insurgents from the left and right who represent a challenge to how the two parties pick their presidential nominees. If you want to change the rules of the game, you’ve got to win the game—and to win the game, you’ve got to give voters a clear and compelling plan to change the rules.

This is bigger than the fight over delegates and “superdelegates.” But let’s start there.

Trump is slowly coming to grips with the GOP’s Byzantine system for awarding delegates to the Republican National Convention, where a candidate’s ability to organize activists at district and state conventions might be more important than the will of voters in caucuses and primary elections.

“The system is rigged,” Trump said.

He’s right. The system is rigged for the establishment, because the rules are written by the establishment.

The same goes for the Democratic Party, where more than 700 lawmakers, governors, and party officials serve as superdelegates, representing about 15 percent of all delegates. After landslide defeats in the 1972 and 1980 presidential elections, which Democratic leaders attributed to weak candidates chosen by feckless voters, the elite rewrote the rules to guarantee itself more power.

Hillary Clinton is crushing Bernie Sanders in the superdelegate race, 464 to 40, which means Sanders cannot win the nomination unless he persuades a huge number of Democratic-establishment figures to abandon the establishment candidate. Barring an act of God or the FBI, it’s hard to see how that happens.

So far, Trump and Sanders are merely complaining about the system. Why stop there? Voters already know the system is rigged. Give them more than affirmation: Give them solutions.

Trump and Sanders might promise that, if nominated and elected, they would ensure that all delegates are created equal—no “supers.” Delegates would be pledged to candidates according to the will of voters; no more “unbound” delegates. Primary elections, not caucuses, would determine delegate allocation—and those elections would be transparent, professionally run, and uncomplicated. Iowa and New Hampshire would lose their outsized status. Party contests would be more inclusive because technology can make it easier to vote—whenever and from wherever people want.

I’m sure there are better ideas. I’m shocked that both Trump and Sanders have not moved beyond their whining to explain how they would change their parties’ nominating processes.

There is some history here. Before 1972, party leaders, mostly white men, picked nominees in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. That began to change after the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the parties moved to what historian Matthew Dallek calls a “sensible, blended approach weighted toward the voters, yet leaves room for elected leaders, party officials, and activists to have a say in the outcome.”

What would a better system look like? I don’t know, but given the public’s historically low faith in the two major parties and the fratricidal machinations roiling both the red and blue teams, Democrats and Republicans are past-due for another period of evolution—if not revolution.

That the two most reform-minded candidates are offering so few real reforms is one of the mysteries of this campaign. Trump and Sanders affirm the public’s belief that big money corrupts politics. Trump’s answer is spending his own money (sort of). Sanders’s solution is to reverse the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens’ United, a notion that, even if possible, would only return the nation to what was an unpopular and corrosive system.

What else might they propose?

  • In an era of digital transparency, perhaps a majority of voters would like Congress and the president to require candidates to digitally and immediately disclose all campaign donations and spending. If the Supreme Court is going to forbid caps on political money, equating it with speech, why not seek a ban on anonymous voices.

  • Rigging House district lines to favor incumbents is a practice as old as Congress, but technology has turned the art of dividing Americans into a science—and the result is a record number of districts where one party virtually has a monopoly. It’s why so few House members have an incentive to compromise. Should redistricting be put in the hands of independent boards, for example, technology could help reformers draw more ideologically diverse districts, thus creating a House built to solve problems through consensus.

  • Sanders is a socialist, not a Democrat. Trump is a celebrity, not a Republican. Truth be told, both men would prefer to run as Independent candidates, but a nefarious alliance of Republicans and Democrats has long rigged the game against outside competition. In business, a lack of competition hurts the product. Same for politics. This duopoly needs to be busted.

There are scores of other examples where the political system is not giving American voters what they want or need: positive change, or disruption that replaces what doesn’t work with something better.

Trump is disruptive, but negatively so. Sanders is probably not going to beat Clinton, and Clinton is an institutionalist who lacks the public’s trust. If you’re in the business of disrupting politics, you’ve apparently got no business in this campaign.