Issue 3: The Party has a Reputation for Corruption
Recap from Issues #1 and #2
At MDP State Central meetings, alternates (elected by their CD to replace absent delegates) should be seated (given a vote) before proxies (personally appointed representatives of individual delegates).
Suppose Congressional District 14 (CD14) elects Tony as a delegate and Steve as an alternate. Tony knows he’s not going to make a meeting, and he gives his proxy to Matt. No one in CD14 voted for Matt to represent them. CD14 voted for Steve, or another alternate, to represent CD14 when Tony, or another delegate, is absent. Matt doesn’t represent CD14. Matt only represents Tony.
The system is rigged that way so establishment bigwigs can hold stacks of proxies and control the Party.
An establishment – as opposed to a legitimate government – is a collection of elected representatives using the power of their office to bend, break, or re-write the rules to their advantage, especially to keep themselves in power or select their successors; or some successors using systems created by the founders of the establishment – knowingly or not. The particular people and organizations in an establishment come and go, while the establishment continues – because the re-written rules remain the rules, and the way we do things becomes “the way we’ve always done it”. So long as there are enough people doing things the way they’ve always done them, the establishment continues.
This is not democracy.
This is oligarchy – the rule of the privileged few over everyone else.
Fixing the Problem
The easy way to fix the proxy problem is for the Party to stop using this deliberately undemocratic language, and follow their founding principles, one of which reads:
The Principle of Democracy – working for equal opportunity for access and full participation of all elements of society in all political and governmental processes.MDP Rules Preamble
The Michigan Democratic Party is a major part of our “political and governmental processes”. When the Party seats Matt instead of the alternate, Steve, they’re excluding the entire district from our “political and governmental processes”. No one in the district voted for Matt to represent them.
If they knew the rules, one of the lawyers or one of the other bigwigs would have brought up the “or by written proxy” sentence, instead of making up elaborate lies about the law to defend “the way we’ve always done it” (Issue #1, Issue #2). They’ve made up lies on many issues, from proportional voting, to notice of meeting, to free memberships, and officers-at-large on the State Central Committee, among others.
They’re supposed to know the rules.
They claim to know the rules.
They don’t know the rules.
They’re just defending “the way we’ve always done it”. Even when we’ve only done it that way since sometime after 1991 (Issue #1). Even when the rules have been deliberately re-written to violate their own principles – so Party bigwigs can have fists full of extra votes.
The first step in fixing the larger problem is getting more people to know the rules, so the establishment can’t bamboozle folks with their lies – either deliberately, or because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” passed down through many hands. The next step is to get more people thinking about what the principles are, and how they apply to real world situations.
The first step in solving the proxy problem is making a motion at the State Central Committee to strike the “or by written proxy” and other sections of the rules related to proxies. I’ll be making that motion at the next SCC meeting. The details of the motion are here. I hope the establishment doesn’t fight it. I hope they’ll support the return to democracy enthusiastically.
I expect the establishment will fight it. Democracy diminishes their power, and they often seem more concerned with holding power than running the Party democratically – or at least more concerned with preserving “the way we’ve always done it” than they are with “working for equal opportunity for access and full participation of all elements of society in all political and governmental processes”.
The Party could just say, seating proxies before alternates is a clear violation of the Principles of Democracy, and is therefore unenforceable in the MDP, not to mention being a clear violation of the plain meaning of Michigan election law (Issue #2). The Party ought to do that immediately, as a signal that they are serious about being the Democratic Party – not just “following the rules”, but also following the principles of representative democracy.
I’ll say it again – a fundamental principle of representative democracy, perhaps the fundamental principle, is that you get to vote for your representatives. Seating proxies before alternates is a brazen violation of that principle.
Rules are the foundation of trust in a large organization where few people know each other well, and most don’t know each other at all. When the rules are not followed, or are tortured or re-written to serve the powerful, trust dies. In many Party units, the average age of members is well over fifty – this is a big part of the reason why. New members join, get a close look at what is going on, and leave. Those with more fight in them run up against the rules the establishment has written in their own favor, or their tortured interpretations, figure they can’t win, and leave. The establishment continues on with only a few new members sticking around. The Party remains a tiny fraction of the Michigan population – we’re not even the 1%, we’re less than the 0.02%.
When I make this argument to Party leadership, and list the many ways the rules and their interpretations go against the Principle of Democracy, or the rules as written, or the several places the rules have been re-written to undermine democracy, there’s a predictable sequence of responses they give me, almost always in the same order.
- Deny the rules say what they say.
- Provide a tortured interpretation of the rules.
- That’s how we’ve always done it, and we’re not going to change.
When I point out this is costing us members, they ask me for specifics. Which breaches of Party rules are driving people away? When I give them specifics, they either try to minimize the incident and dismiss it, or I get some version of “nobody knows about that!” Which is like saying we didn’t get caught by anyone powerful enough to hold us accountable, so who cares?
People know the Party’s reputation for corruption. The DNC went into open court and argued they’re under no obligation to follow their own rules. Right here in Michigan, the MDP was hit with one of the largest FEC fine on record, for a scandal involving gambling revenue. I could list many more instances of the establishment doing things that support that reputation. We can argue about whether it’s deserved or not, but that’s the reputation. Doesn’t matter what you think about it. That’s the reality among the electorate.
You don’t get the electorate you might wish for, you get the electorate that is.
Seating proxies before alternates so a handful of bigwigs can have extra votes is exactly as bad as it sounds. It fits right in with the Party’s reputation for corruption – deserved or not.
Because it is corruption – intentional or otherwise. Even if there is some innocent explanation for the “or by written proxy” and “shall be cast only in” (Issue #1) lines inserted into the rules (there isn’t), the practical effect has been the same – the representatives we voted for aren’t being seated, pieces of paper are being elevated before duly elected representatives attending in person.
Newcomers get a hint of it here and there, maybe they run up against some of it hard, like I did. They find out there’s a free membership option, but it’s hidden. Why would the Party hide it? They see their district Chair create thirty vice-chair positions, so he can sell titles to buy votes. They run and get elected as an alternate, but rarely get seated – because a few bigwigs have fists full of proxies.
People notice what’s fair and what’s not. They know hiding the free membership option isn’t fair. It’s deceitful. Lying by omission is lying. Their first official interaction with the Party is joining, and we take the opportunity to lie by omission. We don’t even pretend to hold their trust in high esteem. The Party is getting better at this. Recently, they started accepting free memberships online. They still try to hide it – it’s all the way at the bottom in a tiny font, but it’s there. Credit where credit is due.
There are many more problems. The Chair of the Appeals Committee deliberately looks the other way when the establishment breaks the rules. The State Central Committee adds voting members by simple majority – this year, about 33% of the voting members were added this way. The rules say the SCC can add as many officers-at-large “as in its judgment may be proper” (2018 Rule 7.1.1), but 87 seems a little much for a committee that only has 172 voting members to being with – that’s more than a 50% increase. They’re talking about adding more at the next State Central meeting. Those 87 can also be solicited for proxies.
I’ve seen incredibly excited, hard working, dedicated members get turned off by the rule-breaking, the establishment culture, the wall of social, cultural, and systemic inertia, and leave. They tried to work with the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party isn’t democratic. They notice when their vote doesn’t matter because the system is rigged to favor the establishment. Some of them were alternates, traveled long distances to State Central meetings, and watched people not from their district cast their district’s vote. These are our natural allies. We’re driving them away from the Party.
People notice when they don’t even get a vote because the system is rigged for the establishment.
There are just 15,000 members of the Michigan Democratic Party. Most of them don’t show up to Party functions. Typical State Convention attendance was 2,500 people before the progressive movement. The only significant upticks in membership came from progressives. When we organized after 2016, we doubled the usual size of the State Convention. When we organized for Dana Nessel in 2018, we nearly tripled it. In the middle of an ice storm.
These folks were dedicated. They showed up through adversity, for someone who will fight for them. They’re not going to show up for a Party that at the first opportunity lies to them, and follows up by systematically denying them an equal opportunity to have their voice heard and their vote counted equally. When the Party denies them an equal vote, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is about the worst reason imaginable – so Party bigwigs can have extra votes is the worst reason imaginable. It’s naked oligarchy.
That’s not good enough.
The Democratic Party has to do better.
If we want people to join and new members to stay, we have to show them the Party is run fairly, transparently, and democratically. We have to actively fight the Party’s reputation. We need to be upfront about the problems in the party, and take bold, proactive, direct action to right them. We have to do this openly and publicly. Matter-of-factly – “this is the way we’ve done things in the past, and we’re not going to do that anymore”.
If we want to bring in new people and keep them coming back, expand the membership base, the Party has to make a choice.
Do we want to interpret our rules according to the principles at their foundation, “full participation for all members of society in all political and governmental processes”, or do we want to use tortured interpretations and undemocratic rules that undermine those principles – but keep the establishment in power?
The vote belongs to the district, not the delegate. The district elected the alternates to represent them. The proxy doesn’t represent the district. The proxy can’t make an argument, or listen to debate, or draw its own conclusions – it’s just a piece of paper. The democratic thing to do is ban proxies entirely. That would be a significant step towards democracy in the Michigan Democratic Party. The motion I’m proposing at the next State Central meeting does exactly that.
If we’re going to be the Democratic Party, we had better live up to the ideals of democracy. Otherwise, we’ll always be seen as hypocritical and therefore corrupt by the broad population. We’ll never shake the reputation.
Do we want to be a large, inclusive Party?
Or do we want to be a tiny, exclusive club?
If we want to grow the Party, there is no choice.
The Party line?
What was the MDP membership after many joined to get Dana on the ballot? How does that number compare now?
I’ve heard my district chair take note of the big drop in membership numbers from ’18 to ’19, then quickly dismiss it as “oh, it’s just the people who joined to vote for Dana.”
WTH. I ask, “Have you no interest in retaining those members? Do you not reflect on yourself and wonder what you should have done to engage them?”