Just to Be Clear: The DNC and RNC Are Too Weak to ‘Rig’ Anything

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Meet the Press: Schultz, Priebus
These two people were never in charge of their parties' nominating processes.Photo: William B. Plowman

Until quelled by speeches from progressive leaders culminating with Bernie Sanders himself, the Democratic National Convention was briefly convulsed by angry Sanders supporters enraged by hacked Democratic National Committee emails indicating malice toward their candidate. This grievance, and its background in earlier claims that the nominating process was “rigged” for Hillary Clinton, was best illustrated by the sight of delegates with tape over their mouths bearing the legend “Silenced by DNC.”

It’s all fine political theater, and in the broadest sense the “Democratic Establishment” did indeed help Clinton win the nomination. But the idea that it had a lot to do with the DNC is questionable in the extreme. As Dana Houle explains:

The DNC had no role or authority in primary contests, which are run by state governments. Clinton dominated the primaries. The DNC, through state parties, had a bit more influence over caucuses … where Sanders dominated Clinton.

None of the thousands of leaked emails and documents show the DNC significantly influencing the results of the nomination. Furthermore, if it is true that last fall Clinton campaign chair John Podesta tried but failed to have DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz sacked, the underlying premise of the entire WikiLeaks dump—that Wasserman Schultz machinated to deliver Clinton the nomination—is hard to believe.

The DNC, however, was a behemoth compared to its Republican counterpart, which was about as thoroughly humiliated by Donald Trump’s nomination as one can imagine.

The influence of the national parties has been weakened by a variety of factors, including its declining role in financing campaigns. Here’s Houle again:

Because of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2009, the roles of the national committees have been greatly reduced since the 1990s. For the Democrats, serious research is done by American Bridge, and polling and independent expenditures related to television, online efforts, and fieldwork are done by super PACs. There’s just not a lot, comparatively speaking, for the Russians to have found in the DNC’s servers.

Beyond that, partisan polarization has, ironically, made the organized parties almost superfluous. We are seeing right now that most Republicans are perfectly content to line up behind Donald Trump, despite his repudiation of big areas of Republican orthodoxy, his lack of conventional credentials, and his contemptuous attitude toward playing by anybody’s rules but his own.

Perhaps the illusion that the DNC is "silencing" Sanders supporters is a function of that most atavistic of events, the last redoubt of the old-school party, the national convention. It’s true that technically the podium, the schedule, and the intended message are all controlled by the presumptive nominee, the DNC, and the floating army of professionals and volunteers who come together every four years to put on these TV shows. But as yesterday’s developments in Philadelphia demonstrated, control is too strong a word for the party’s leverage even at conventions, and both Team Clinton and the DNC had to depend on "insurgent" politicians to bring the day to a successful conclusion. 

So no, the national party committees are not "rigging" much of anything, not because their leaders lack the desire and motivation to do so, but because they don’t really have the means. If "insurgents" in both parties eventually succeed in conquering these institutions entirely, they’ll find they’ve occupied a largely empty fortress protecting a political museum.