Whatever you may think of Nietzsche more generally, he got this one both right and wrong. It depends on the context. In a culture of mutual knowledge, where society values at least fairness over force, everything is still subject to interpretation, but whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of mutual knowledge – truths that everyone shares, and that everyone knows are shared. Mutual knowledge (Steven Pinker calls it common knowledge) is a necessary condition for the people to manifest their power as a community. A democratic culture requires a relatively high and stable level of mutual knowledge in order to grow and maintain a stable democratic society capable of holding power accountable to the people.
In the story of the emperor’s new clothes, everyone can see the emperor is naked. But they remain silent, they’re not sure everyone else is seeing the same thing. They have shared knowledge, but they don’t know that; they don’t have mutual knowledge. Then the little boy shouts out that the emperor is naked. Only then does everyone know that everyone else knows the emperor has no clothes. Only with this mutual knowledge binding them together are they able to challenge the emperor. A group with mutual knowledge is empowered by that mutual knowledge to act together on that mutual knowledge. When a person at a meeting or election knows how it’s supposed to be run according to the rules, but that’s not how it’s being run, what should they do? If you know the rules aren’t being followed, do you speak up? Call a point of order? What happens if most people in the room don’t know the rules themselves? Are they going to believe you, or the authority running the election? Imagine what happens to the little boy who shouts out the emperor is naked if no one else can see it. Or if everyone else is too beholden to the emperor to allow themselves to openly acknowledge his nakedness. It’s never enough for you to know the rules. It takes a critical density of mutual knowledge to ensure a democratic organization is run openly, freely, and fairly according to the rules.
The Michigan Democratic Party is conducting a line by line review of its rules. If you’re an MDP member, you can go here to participate (make sure you have your membership ID number handy). And please do. I’m on the Standing Rules Committee and we would really appreciate your feedback. If you’re not a member, I’d also really appreciate your thoughts – the comment thread below is open.
If you haven’t read the MDP Rules before, you can find them here, or you can read my annotated version – I’ve added my thoughts, comments and suggestions in some detail in the margins. The annotated Directive on Proportional Voting is also included. I’ve formatted it so it should be easy to use, and to take notes on if you’re using a PDF annotation program, or if you print it out. The formatting makes it appear much longer than it really is, don’t let the page count discourage you.
Also, I have a presentation ready to go for any group interested in learning more in person. I’m happy to go anywhere in Michigan to speak on the MDP Rules, what’s in them, what’s not, what should be, and why it matters for our core mission of electing representatives who will fight, and win, for the people, not the powerful. Get in touch through the contact form here to arrange a time and date. So far I’ll be in Lansing on June 27th (tentative) and we’re arranging a dates for Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, as well as other areas. I’ll post the events to the calendar when they’re finalized.
Below is a summary of the key issues distilled from my review of the MDP Rules, with some commentary. Re-writing the rules along the below lines would be an intermediate step between where we are now, and a grassroots democratic organization that wins consistently because of how it organizes.
In reviewing the MDP rules, we should consider four principles paramount.
- MDP Rules should be clear, consistent and easy for everyone to understand.
- Election Procedures should be simple, proportional wherever possible, and fully explained.
- The MDP Rules should ensure transparent and democratic processes throughout the organization.
- Grassroots thinking should be the basis for the MDP.
Accessibility and Style
The MDP Rules are written in technical and complex language that is difficult for many to follow. Often, the reason for a passage is obscure, or a requirement is given, but no procedure for following it is provided. In the annotated document, where changes have been suggested, we’ve tried to use clear and direct language, and provide any required procedures and explanations. It is clear from our review that the entire document should be re-written to make it clear, specific, and more accessible to everyone. Terminology should be clear and consistent across all MDP documents. The entire document should be re-organized to make it as easy as possible to learn how the MDP functions by reading the MDP Rules. In effect, the MDP Rules should serve the dual function of establishing rules and serving as a how-to manual for democracy in the Democratic Party. We will have an example available within a few weeks.
Election procedures should be as clear and simple as possible. The MDP Rules as currently written allow each MDP Unit to choose how it will conduct its elections, with very few restrictions, allowing for confusion. By clarifying exactly which procedures should be used when, we promote a clear and consistent understanding of how to run a democratic election in the MDP. Broad mutual knowledge – not just individual or shared knowledge – of exactly what to expect is a necessary condition for open, free, and fair grassroots democratic elections.
To accomplish this:
- The MDP has both single-seat offices (such as Chairperson), and multi-seat positions (such as SCC Delegate-Female). Wherever possible, positions with multiple seats are preferred to single-seat offices, to provide the maximum opportunity for proportional representation.
- Any position with multiple seats should be filled by slate voting using the Hare quota to ensure all groups among the electorate as close to maximally-proportional representation as possible.
- Where there are single-seat offices, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) should be required.
- Slate voting using the Hare quota and Ranked Choice Voting are the only two systems needed. When properly implemented, this satisfies the core democratic principles that each member is equal in their political power and are as equal as mathematically possible in their representation in party government.
- Plurality winner first past the post voting should be forbidden (the Appeals Committee has ruled it acceptable, despite the plain language of the MDP Rules as written).
- Each multiple-seat position, and each single-seat office, should be voted on separately.
- MDP Rules currently forbid secret ballots. This is a rule left over from when only precinct delegates were allowed to vote in Party elections. It was designed to ensure members could see how their representatives voted. The purpose is good, however, the circumstances have changed. Now that all members have the vote, the rule should be changed so that votes among members are secret, while votes by party office holders acting in that capacity are publicly recorded.
Transparency and Accountability
Notice of Meetings and Elections
Any MDP Unit holding a meeting must publish and publicize the time, date, location, and at least a draft agenda of the meeting as early as possible to afford all interested persons, members and prospective members, adequate notice to arrange to attend. In the present regime of labor laws and norms, a minimum 30 days notice should be required. If an election is to be held at the meeting, the MDP Unit should additionally publish and publicize the list of positions and seats to be filled, the qualifications required to run for office, and the specific step-by-step election procedures to be followed. Notice of elections should be published and publicized early enough for prospective members to have adequate time to join and vote and/or run in the election being publicized. To achieve this:
- The MDP should create a page on their website where any MDP Unit can publish this information. The page should be well-organized and filterable so users can find relevant notices easily; the page should allow users to sign up for automatic notices.
- The MDP Unit should additionally publish and publicize this information to their members and wider community using their normal methods of communication.
- Any vote or election at any gathering for which proper notice was not given should be void.
Access to MDP Documents and Information
The SCC being the highest authority in the MDP, SCC members should have easy and convenient access to all MDP documents and information. MDP members and the public should have easy and convenient access to all documents and information other than sensitive financial or strategic information.
Failure to produce requested documents in a timely manner, after adequate warning, should be a firing offence for employees and cause for removal from office for party office holders. The documents belong to the MDP members, not the office holders. Therefore, the office holders have no authority to withhold the information from the member, nor from their duly elected representatives on the State Central Committee (SCC).
Secret Rules Accumulated through Precedent
The Appeals Committee has a set of precedents going back to at least 1996. These precedents have never been published. Many of these precedents contradict the plain language of the MDP Rules as written, such that no one could be expected to understand the rules by reading them as published. Having never published these precedents, in practical effect the Appeals Committee has created and is maintaining a set of secret rules. The procedures of the Appeals Committee must be re-written to:
- Eliminate the current set of secret rules.
- Prevent creation of secret rules in the future.
- Use the appeals process as an opportunity to educate MDP members and the public about MDP Rules and procedures, rather than only as a method to adjudicate disputes.
- Elected officials found violating the rules should be provided training, including observing and assisting others running the procedures properly. Further violations of the rules should result in increasing penalties, up to and including removal from office under a simplified process, such as majority vote of the official’s constituency.
- Joining the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) constitutes a legally binding contract between the MDP and each member. Failure of the MDP to follow the rules provided herein shall constitute a breach of that contract. Any Member considering herself aggrieved by an alleged breach of the MDP rules shall have standing, after exhausting all appeals internal to MDP, to seek to have a court of general jurisdiction enforce the contract between herself and MDP. Provided, however, that the relief granted by any court in a lawsuit seeking enforcement of MDP rules shall be limited to injunctive and/or declaratory relief.
Democracy functions by building coalitions with sufficient support to win enough representation in government to direct policy. The goal of a (small-d) grassroots democratic party is to enact laws and government policies that serve the public good, in the public interest, for the benefit of all people equally. Electing the best representatives with the right values and policy positions is the core strategy for achieving these goals. The MDP cannot guarantee that a Democrat who fits that description will be available or viable to run in every election. Therefore, to efficiently carry out the (small-d) grassroots democratic strategy, we should be open to supporting non-Democratic candidates. Changing law and policy in the direction of our values should be more important than the party affiliation of the candidate. Our rules should reflect this.
Every person elected to party office should be required to have adequate training on all MDP Rules and procedures, and demonstrate competence with them; training sessions should be open for MDP members and the public to attend. Competence should be demonstrated by incorporating mock procedures (facilitating a meeting, vote, election, for example) into the required training and having the participants evaluate each other.
MDP Rules must allow full participation by every member interested in participating. Michigan is a big state. We cannot burden every member with being present at a single location in order to participate fully. We must have remote participation at statewide meetings and conventions, to ensure as far as possible that full participation is no more a burden on one member than another.
Grassroots thinking has to start with listening to the grassroots. Holding public meetings where the public cannot comment is disrespectful of the people, and discourages participation. All meetings of a grassroots democratic organization should be open to the public, and not just allow public questions and comments, but openly welcome and encourage them.
Corporations are not people and money is not speech. For-profit corporations, trade groups, lobbying firms, PACs including dark money packs, non-profits affiliated with such organizations, and agents of any of these, should be barred from contributing to candidates seeking to represent the people. Non-profits unaffiliated with such organizations, unions, and other organizations accepting only people as members should be allowed to donate no more than their total membership number multiplied by the individual contribution limit. The individual contribution limit should be no more than 10 times the hourly minimum wage in the jurisdiction of the election.
In a grassroots democratic organization, equal political power and equal representation in government are core values. A super delegate, a delegate different than other delegates, has no place in a grassroots democratic organization.