Early last week, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) announced that she would be resigning her post as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Her decision came in the aftermath of a July 22nd WikiLeaks release of some 20,000 internal D.N.C. emails which revealed efforts of top-level D.N.C. staffers to undermine Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s bid for his party’s nomination.
In one email exchange, one high-level D.N.C. staffer suggests that outing Mr. Sanders, a Jew, as “an atheist” could “make several points difference” in key southern primary races. Other email chains revealed outgoing D.N.C. chairwoman Mrs. Wasserman Schultz’s deep frustration with the Vermont senator’s campaign manager, whom she calls “a damn liar” and “an ASS” in two separate May correspondences.
Supporters of Mr. Sanders are enraged, as the leaked emails validate their suspicion that the D.N.C. worked behind-the-scenes to help Hillary Clinton win the primaries. Aware that this deep-seated anger could preclude party unity, the D.N.C. has scrambled to appease Mr. Sanders’s supporters, forcing out Mrs. Wasserman Schultz and issuing a statement condemning the “inexcusable remarks” found in the emails.
On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email. These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process.
— D.N.C. statement, July 25th
But these moves are empty gestures. Regardless of who is installed as the D.N.C. chairperson, the Democratic Party infrastructure will continue to favor political insiders and established party leaders over populist revolutionaries. Party leaders are political elites who have demonstrated sufficient loyalty to the party, its principles, and its members holding public office to earn a leadership role. Choosing party leaders this way makes sense, as it ensures that the goals of the party are well defined, but it also makes the party less receptive to outsiders who seek radical change.
However, it is important to note that a party infrastructure which favors establishment candidates cannot easily override the will of voters. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama rode a wave of popular support to slip past Mrs. Clinton—then too the favored candidate of party elites—and clinch the Democratic nomination. And this year, though Mr. Sanders received the support of a vocal, energetic segment of the Democratic electorate, Mrs. Clinton carried a clear majority. She won nearly four million more votes and 400 more pledged delegates than her opponent over the course of the primary season, and she performed better in states with high-turnout primaries. Had Mr. Sanders earned this level of support, he would have captured the Democratic nomination, regardless of the wishes of party leaders to the contrary.
The only tool through which the Democratic establishment may directly affect election outcomes is its cadre of superdelegates. Comprising a little more than 700 of the 4,763 delegates up for grabs, these superdelegates can make the difference in a close nomination fight. This year, though Hillary Clinton handily defeated Bernie Sanders in terms of the popular vote, she still needed 163 superdelegates to secure the nomination.
Having witnessed the Republican primary elections, where party leaders were too weak to stop Donald Trump, the Democratic establishment is loathe to do away with superdelegates. These unpledged delegates guard against the rise of populist demagogues by giving party leaders a voice in the electoral process and prevent candidates who would struggle in a general election contest from securing the party’s nomination.
The departure of Debbie Wasserman Schultz will not cause the Democratic Party to do away with superdelegates or to implement other reforms reducing the power of party elites. Rather, her resignation pays lip service to Mr. Sanders’s supporters, assuaging their anger while preserving the influence of the party establishment over future nomination contests.
In the meantime, Mrs. Wasserman Schultz will retain her national prominence. Immediately after stepping down from her role as D.N.C. chairwoman, she was appointed the honorary chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, where she will help “elect Democrats in every part of the country” and will continue to serve as a national surrogate for the Democratic nominee.