Is the Democratic Primary Really Rigged?

Bernie Sanders supporters are increasingly convinced the election isn’t a fair fight. That's bad news for the Democratic Party.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Who would have guessed things would turn out this way: After sidelining a crowded field of rivals, Donald Trump is the last man standing in the Republican presidential race, while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders continue to fight it out in a Democratic primary that has grown increasingly ugly.

Tensions between Clinton and Sanders supporters are running especially high after the former secretary of state edged out the Vermont senator in a competition for delegates at the Nevada State Democratic Convention over the weekend. Chaos broke out amid protests from Sanders supporters that party officials rigged the process in Clinton’s favor. But in his analysis of the frenzied event, veteran Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston concluded, “Sanders folks disregarded the rules, then when shown the truth, attacked organizers and party officials as tools of a conspiracy to defraud the senator of what was never rightfully his in the first place.” The state Democratic chairwoman even faced a flood of insults and threats of violence in the aftermath of the event.

The incident is nevertheless sure to fuel broader concerns that Sanders supporters have been raising throughout the primary contest. Many believe the election has effectively been bought and paid for by the Democratic establishment. But while Clinton opened up an extremely large early lead over Sanders in superdelegates, she has also won far more votes—3 million more than the senator so far. “The system is not rigged,” said Josh Putnam, a political-science lecturer at the University of Georgia. “The simple truth is that Clinton has won this nomination—and fair and square at that.”

What happened in Nevada could mark the most intense escalation of anger and frustration on display during the Democratic primary. Or it could be a signal of what’s to come at the national convention this summer. As the Sanders campaign presses forward, it must carefully consider whether the senator’s ambition for a political revolution is a goal best achieved by actively stoking the anger of his supporters—and, in a sense, encouraging them to tear it all down. That consideration, in turn, will need to be weighed against whether or not to suggest that Clinton and her team are engaged in illegitimate tactics—an argument that will make it far more difficult for the party to eventually unify and take on Trump.

In a statement Tuesday, Sanders said that the the campaign “believes in nonviolent change, and it goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals.” But he also added, “If the Democratic Party is to be successful in November, it is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect that they have earned.”

It’s true that the odds have always been against Sanders. But there is a difference between a candidate who amasses a competitive advantage playing by the rules and a candidate who actively breaks the rules. Part of what could make the rift between Clinton and Sanders supporters so hard to repair is that the two camps don’t necessarily agree on what side of that distinction each candidate is on, or whether or not there is even a meaningful distinction to be made. Many Sanders supporters believe that elements of the political landscape, such as the campaign-finance system, are fundamentally corrupt. So, in their eyes, even playing by the rules could signal corruption—for example, by relying on money from super PACs. The Clinton wing of the party, on the other hand, adopts a far more pragmatic approach, arguing that it’s necessary to play by the current rules to win the presidency and ultimately enact reform. But the more that Clinton is seen as a corrupt figure—as opposed to a politician simply advocating for a different, more incrementalist model of political change—the harder it will be for her to successfully extend an olive branch to disaffected Democrats and angry Sanders supporters.

There have been increasing indications that the upcoming Democratic Party convention may devolve into protests amid accusations from Sanders proponents that the primary process has been unfair. In early May, Sanders wrote to Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz expressing concern that his supporters would not be adequately represented at the convention. “If the process is set up to produce an unfair, one-sided result, we are prepared to mobilize our delegates to force as many votes as necessary to amend the platform and rules on the floor of the convention,” he warned.

The superdelegate system could easily become a major point of dispute at the convention. For many of the Sanders faithful, allowing party elites to throw their weight behind any candidate they like is emblematic of a broken political process. In reality, it’s very unlikely that superdelegates, in the aggregate, would defy the will of the people. Earlier this month, Jeff Stein at Vox put it this way: “[S]uperdelegates are not the reason Clinton is going to win the nomination. Clinton is going to win the nomination because she is getting many more votes than her rival—and thus winning the pledged delegate total. There is a theoretical world in which the superdelegates subvert the will of the voters and give Clinton the nomination ... We are not living in that world.”

It’s not wrong for Sanders to see corruption baked into the law and the political process as it currently exists. Nor is it out of bounds for his campaign to point out the very flaws he is fighting to change. But the campaign should remain cognizant of the fact that suggesting the entire political process is unfair is quite different from drawing policy contrasts—and more likely to have negative and destabilizing consequences for the party as a whole. It’s easy to understand the temptation to lash out: Sanders fans feel that their voices are not being heard in the political process. But anger and frustration are far more likely to create chaos and confusion than they are to facilitate a productive discussion about common goals—like keeping a Republican out of the White House. If Sanders and his supporters were able to view Clinton as a politician who takes a different approach to politics without vilifying her campaign and her allies, that might not bring about political revolution, but it would provide a better path forward for the party—and put it in better position to beat Trump in November.