A 'brokered convention' designed to block Bernie Sanders would be a poison pill

Nathan Robinson
Photograph: Erin Scott/Reuters

Something deeply troubling happened during last week’s Democratic presidential debate, though it was overshadowed by Michael Bloomberg’s spectacular implosion. Towards the end, the candidates were asked whether they believed that the person who receives the most votes should be given the Democratic nomination. The only candidate who said “yes” was Bernie Sanders. All of the others said they wanted the “process” to “play out”.

It’s not surprising that the non-Sanders candidates don’t want “winning the primaries” to determine who the nominee is, because by that measure, it’s very unlikely to be any of them. Sanders has lately taken a commanding lead in the polls and is now the favorite to win in the vast majority of states. He received more votes than any other candidate in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which political scientists treat as a strong sign that a candidate will ultimately win. There are growing concerns in the party that Sanders’ lead may be becoming “insurmountable”.

But the other Democrats have not given up. They still hold out hope that they can win through what is known as a “brokered convention”. If Sanders has only a plurality of delegates at the Democratic national convention in July, rather than an outright majority, he might not win the nomination on the first ballot. Under convention rules, this would allow “superdelegates” to vote on the second ballot, and open up the possibility that other candidates can “horse trade” their delegates in order to receive the nomination, even if Sanders won all or most of the primaries and a strong plurality of pledged delegates.

What’s the point in having primaries if party insiders at the convention just override the result?

It may seem ludicrous to deny Sanders the nomination if he wins the most delegates and sweeps the primaries. What’s the point in having primaries if party insiders at the convention just override the result and choose a nominee they prefer? But Democrats who fear Sanders’ takeover of the party, or who fear that a “radical” cannot beat Donald Trump, will argue that democracy needs to take a backseat to the urgency of choosing a “unity” candidate. Michael Bloomberg is reported to be plotting a brokered convention strategy, whereby other candidates would give him the delegates necessary to beat Sanders in exchange for various commitments and handouts. And Democrats are already trying to convince people that brokered conventions are fine, with the former Democratic Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell writing that we “shouldn’t fear” a brokered convention, because it would be “exciting”. The candidates’ answers on the debate stage indicated that each of them is open to using the “process” to subvert the result of the elections, if that’s what it takes to win.

But these strategies are an outright rejection of democracy, and should be treated as such. “The candidate with the most votes ought to win” is a sound electoral principle, albeit one that is absent in many areas of American politics, from the Iowa caucuses to the electoral college. If “superdelegates” swung the nomination to a candidate with fewer votes, it would be confirmation that the country is ruled by elites rather than governed by the people.

Related: Democratic party grapples with rising likelihood of Sanders as the nominee

Critics will point out that in 2016, the Sanders camp briefly floated the possibility of lobbying superdelegates for the nomination. Indeed, and it would have been wrong then, too, if it had happened, which it didn’t. Hillary Clinton won through getting millions more votes, and nobody should have taken it away from her. Not that they ever would have: the superdelegates were overwhelmingly for Clinton, even in states that Bernie won, and the process ended up being far more unfair to Sanders.

It’s understandable that campaigns are getting desperate to win by any means necessary. Elizabeth Warren, after criticizing the other candidates for having Super Pac support, has reversed her position and accepted help from a Super Pac in an attempt to win Nevada. Last week’s debate was the nastiest of the entire cycle, with candidates doing everything they could to tear one another down. But while we can see why they’d want to exploit existing processes however they can, there’s no reason we should let them.

Besides, if a candidate did win through a brokered convention, it would be a disaster for the Democrats in November. Millions of Sanders supporters would be enraged at having the nomination snatched from them and might defect to a third party. Even those who did support a nominee they considered illegitimate would do so only grudgingly. The Democrats might be able to stop Sanders, but in doing so they would destroy their party’s own electoral prospects. It would be a completely reckless and irrational maneuver, and every sensible Democrat should oppose it.

If Democrats decide to take this “poison pill” and have party elites choose their own nominee, voters will need to be prepared to fight back. As Sam Lewis and Beth Huang write in Jacobin, anyone who votes to deprive the rightful nominee of the nomination “should be taking that vote with the absolute certainty that the organized working class in this country will use civil disobedience, mass protest, and primary election challenges to exact retribution and remove them from office”. But hopefully even self-interested Democrats are smart enough to realize that there’s no real alternative to respecting the results of the election, at least not one that would offer a chance of beating Donald Trump.