The original Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley, met her downfall when she disdainfully observed that paying taxes was for "the little people." Make way for the new Queen of Mean, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). This time it's not about taxes, but about the very essence of democracy: voting.
Hillary Clinton began her run for the White House assuming she could phone in her campaign. But the American people didn't get the message. Hell hath no fury like a control freak thwarted. Because she lags behind Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in electoral delegates and popular votes, her Presidential ambitions are likely to rest on the Democratic Party elites known as superdelegates. Clinton appeared on the Today Show, fresh from her Ohio victory, and let slip what she really thinks of the electorate.
When asked whether those party insiders had a responsibility to align themselves with the popular vote, she responded: "That's not the way the process works.… [Superdelegates] are to exercise independent judgment. It's very important that they exercise that judgment based on who they believe will lead to the best nominee.… Superdelegates are supposed to take all that information on board and supposed to be exercising the judgment that people would have exercised if this information and challenges had been available several months ago."
O.K., I get it. Despite all these heady months of spirited, hopeful, and, yes, joyful participation in caucuses and primaries, it's alright that our votes are ignored because we are simply not in the loop. If the superdelegates override the popular will, it means we were just playing "democracy"—like playing "dress-up" or "doctor." When it comes to the serious work of choosing the Democratic nominee, the little people must step aside and let the insiders do what we would have done if only we had known better. We told ourselves our voices mattered. What were we thinking?
Senator Clinton's endorsement of the elite's right to override the people's vote puts her smack in the middle of the 20th century and its dominant leadership model. That model was invented to concentrate and manage complexity at the top, when most of the rank and file was uneducated and considered ill-equipped for meaningful participation. Large centralized hierarchies, including political parties, unions, corporations, and government bureaucracies, were its hallmark. Information stayed at the top. Only commands flowed down.
This kind of leadership found support in the notion of "false consciousness" that originated in the philosophical writings of Marx and Engels. They thought the working class was incapable of perceiving the nature of its own oppression. Any contentment a worker felt was therefore an illusion brought on by an inability to grasp economic reality.
False consciousness became a dangerous idea. Once monarchy ended, it provided the intellectual cover the new elites needed to justify their power. The thinking was, those at the top "know better" based on their expert training and access to information. They therefore had a responsibility to impose the "correct" solution, even in the face of popular opposition. So party bosses could rule from behind the scenes, and corporate bosses could safely ignore employee or customer views. (Recall how Henry Ford's "they can have any color as long as it's black" led to the demise of Ford's (F) Model T.)
Soviet leaders famously used "false consciousness" to legitimize their authoritarianism. ("But collective farming will be fun!") President Bush says he has to do what is "right" based on intelligence information, even though it means ignoring the public outcry against the Iraq War.
Now Senator Clinton has implied Obama supporters are the sorry victims of false consciousness. In a classically elitist catch-22, the proof of their delusion lies in their inability to grasp her superiority as a candidate.
So it's time to bring in the experts to set the people straight.
Since the last brokered Democratic convention at mid-century, the huddled masses have been reborn as a nation of wired individuals. The greatest symbol of this shift is education. In 1900, only 2.3% of the United States' young adults were enrolled in college. By 1940 that proportion had inched up to 9.1%, but by the end of the century it had exploded to 55.7%. With tens of millions of blogs, 211 million Internet users, and more than two hundred million cell phones, these folks don't want to be cogs in some vast machinery of Big Politics or Big Business. They want a voice and they want their voices to matter. They don't want to simply take orders; they do want to make a difference.
This demand for voice is especially acute among the approximately 90 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 43. According to a major recent study of civic engagement by Rutgers Professor Cliff Zukin and his colleagues, these Americans are "disconnected" from conventional 20th century-style political activity, though they are deeply involved in community work where they can experience directly the results of their efforts.
Senator Obama's campaign has defied this trend, igniting hope among the young that the 20th century might finally be over. These "disconnected" Americans have gratefully made his campaign the richest, most broadly funded in political history. They have rebooted the Democratic Party in the process. Are its leaders really so freeze-dried they will squander this gift?
My teenage children watched Senator Clinton on the Today Show, mouths agape. They attended our local caucus with me and saw hundreds of our friends and neighbors gathered in the elementary school gym on that Sunday afternoon, despite an ugly Maine snowstorm. They listened to the thoughtful searching debates and saw us cast our votes. How could anyone suggest we didn't know exactly what we were doing? "What's the point of electing someone who doesn't believe in the American people?" they asked. "If she wants to ignore us now when she's only a candidate, what will she do as the President?"
Leap of Faith
Hillary Clinton has laid bare the urgency of Barack Obama's call for a new kind of politics more effectively than he could have done in a lifetime of speeches. We are already knee-deep in a new social paradigm based on inclusion, voice, and shared responsibility. If it still seems a little vague, that's as it should be. By definition, such a paradigm can't be imposed from the top. A new kind of politics, like a new approach to management, can only emerge by trial and error. It's a process of invention we must all share, just as no group of experts could have decreed Facebook, YouTube, Craigslist, or the blogosphere.
By planting her flag on the side of the elites, Clinton has crystallized what's at stake. The rules that give super-powers to superdelegates are anachronistic. The Democratic Party is on a collision course with history, racing to secure its place as the General Motors (GM) of U.S. political life—inwardly focused, out of touch, irrelevant. Senator Clinton should reject those rules and take her own leap of faith into a new century where most of us are already at work building a different community.
She should signal her trust in this community and insist the nomination be decided by popular vote and electoral delegates. Embracing the tactics of elitism might mean a nominating victory for Senator Clinton, but it would be a death knell for the Democratic Party. The biggest losers? That would be the American people.