National Guard Troops create a barrier between anti-war protesters and the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, August 26, 1968

When we look back on the 2020 election cycle, one clear theme will be the tension between reform and revolution that Democrats have wrestled with since the primary season began.

A second may be the need to reform the rules regulating the party’s primaries and caucuses.

Case in point: the lead editorial in yesterday’s New York Times seemed to scream exhaustion with the current system. “The Primaries Are Just Dumb” it proclaimed. The editors then proposed a reform. The current system of voting for a single candidate, they argue, should be replaced by ranked-choice voting. A method used around the world and in some places in the United States, it asks the voter not to choose between candidates, but to articulate a preference among them. In essence, it forces consensus by triggering votes for lower-ranked candidates when a voter’s first choice does not meet a fixed threshold for support.

Now, I don’t think this is a terrible idea. It prevents runoff elections, for one thing. Perhaps more importantly, it addresses a problem that has been enhanced in the era of digital political media: as a voter’s affection and identification for one candidate grows, all the others become – not just second choices – but completely unacceptable.

By contrast, ranked-choice voting asks voters to make comparisons between candidates. It is said to produce more positive campaigns in which candidates must target appeals to all voters in hopes of moving up their ranking. It also acknowledges that voters do, and should, prefer different governing philosophies within a democratic system in which a range of choices are acceptable. We might imagine, for example, that the Sanders campaign might have a calculated interest in reigning in some of its more scorched-earth Twitter supporters, instead of inferring (as Sanders did during the Nevada debate) that they were all Russian bots.

On the other hand, the history of American electoral reform argues has unanticipated outcomes: while ranked-choice voting is an answer, it is likely that it will reveal other flaws in the system.

For example, the system of binding presidential primaries and caucuses that the New York Times now seeks to correct was itself a reform, produced by the chaotic campaign season of 1968 and a brokered convention that produced Hubert Humphrey’s failed presidential bid.

Super Tuesday, imagined that year by Southern Democrats as a moderate brake on an increasingly liberal party, now threatens to catapult a socialist to an insurmountable lead and crush the candidacies of at least two, if not all, the moderates in the party who are not billionaires.

Perhaps the most recent unanticipated consequence is the difficulty Sanders now finds himself in. Convention rules that he promoted now prevent party elders, elected officials, and former officeholders known as super delegates from voting until the second ballot. In response to the almost insurmountable lead that Hillary Clinton had among superdelegates in 2016, one that might have allowed Sanders to win a majority of committed primary delegates but lose the nomination, Sanders himself backed a 2018 reform package to “prohibit superdelegates from voting for president at the party’s 2020 convention, unless the outcome is already assured or it deadlocks, which hasn’t happened in decades.”

What Sanders did not anticipate was that he might enter the convention with a plurality and need those delegates to win the majority that party rules still require. Some super delegates have already indicated that they are willing to risk alienating the Sanders wing by blocking a Sanders candidacy at a brokered convention, which would be the first since the Democrats snubbed Estes Kefauver in favor of Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

But perhaps it is campaign finance that is the most striking object lesson in how progressive reforms can backfire. For example, small donation fundraising, which plays such a prominent role in Sanders’ claim to a popular mandate, has itself helped to weaken popular support for more significant reform to the electoral system: mandatory public funding of campaigns.

Passed after Watergate, the campaign finance reform bills that culminated in the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 traded limits on outside money for federal matching funds, hoping to stem partisanship and corporate influence.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (2009) summarily killed all of these reforms. Yet, even prior to Citizens United, they were on the ropes. Candidates like McCain, Howard Dean, Ron Paul, and Barack Obama learned how to use the internet to create insurgent candidacies from funding juggernauts supported by millions of enthusiastic voters who could be repeatedly tapped for $5 or $10 by email.

Both Dean and Obama, when they hit eye-popping numbers early on in their campaigns, opted out of the reformed system entirely. Rejecting matching government funds freed them to raise unlimited funds to compete with what they characterized as deep-pocket Republican candidates rolling in corporate PAC money.

Keen-eyed readers will note that of the four candidates who pioneered the practice, only one succeeded in becoming president: the one who was able to win over corporate donors as well. And a look at FEC records will reveal that Barack Obama had even more big-money donors in 2008 than he did in 2012 after Citizens United took effect. In the two cycles, he raised almost $600 million from these sources (a number, to put it in perspective, that the self-financed Michael Bloomberg, should he stay in the race, will surpass sometime next month.)

Sanders’ success at small donation fundraising, and in the first three primary contests, is uncontested. Sanders has also done, to a lesser degree, what Obama did: take corporate and PAC funding. According to OpenSecrets, millions of dollars flowing into the Sanders campaign come from donors affiliated with Alphabet Inc (Google), Amazon, Microsoft, Kaiser Permanente, Apple, AT&T, Walmart, and UPS. His PAC funding is also impressive: one spent almost $650K as of February 21, 2020. Elizabeth Warren, the other small donations giant in the race, refused PAC money until recently. Because of that, she is punching well above her weight with individual contributions. But her profile of contributors affiliated with major corporations, although they have given her less, is not dissimilar to Sanders.

But should small donations, in the absence of spending limits, actually fuel the partisanship —and prevent consensus choices – that other reforms have been designed to address? I would suggest that they do.

Should we give up on trying to build better systems, just because our attempts sometimes have perverse unintended consequences?

Of course not. And because reforms will always have unintended consequences, they should not be taken on lightly. Reimagining the current primary system because it has produced a democratic socialist that millions of Americans appear to be prepared to support enthusiastically does not seem like reform. It seems perversely undemocratic, at a moment when Democrats should be distinguishing themselves forcefully from the illiberalism that has taken root in the Republican party.

If Sanders truly wins the most delegates, it would be the essence of what it means to rig our electoral process to force consensus around a candidate that stands for incrementalism and moderate change. Instead, the party must meet the challenge of the radical vision expressed by both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and that Sanders voters have rallied around in such large numbers.

And more democracy – not less – is what any candidate that represents the Democratic party in 2020, should be about.

Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.