Like so many of you, I am in deep despair. I cannot believe that we will spend the next four years with a foul-mouthed, thin-skinned, misogynistic, race-baiting demagogue as our President. I cannot believe that he won over a highly-qualified, well-respected stateswoman who had more job experience than any non-incumbent in recent memory. I cannot believe Russia successfully interfered in our election and smeared her name. I cannot believe the FBI injected itself into the race 11 days before the election, only to say, “whoops, never mind,” after the damage was done. I cannot believe the Electoral College thwarted the will of the people for the second time in five elections.
But most of all, I cannot believe that this awful, venal, willfully ignorant man will have the full support and control of the entire Federal apparatus – the executive branch and all its agencies, both chambers of Congress, and soon after he is sworn in, the Supreme Court and several of the Federal Circuit courts. Beyond that, his party will control the majority of statehouses and governorships in the fifty states. We are witnessing the imminent destruction of 80 years of work in progressive politics. Civil rights for everyone who isn’t straight, white, cis-gender, and male are in severe jeopardy. Our social safety net is going to be shredded, even while our economy is turned upside-down. Our federal lands are going to be sold off to the highest bidder. Our last chance to maybe prevent the most devastating effects of global climate change, gone.
I completely understand why people are looking primarily right now at how to cope with the impending damage in small ways; marches and protests, donating to charities that will help the impending victims, showing solidarity with their more vulnerable friends and neighbors through words and small deeds. But soon we have to fight back. We didn’t start this fight, but like with any bully, they will only leave you alone if you stand up to them and beat them.
See, here’s the problem: it’s our fault. Democrats, liberals, progressives, the Left, however you want to identify yourself. We focused so ardently on the Presidency after the Reagan and Bush years, that we allowed our entire political infrastructure to atrophy and rot underneath us. The reason that, for the third election in a row, the House of Representatives will have more Republicans than Democrats, despite receiving millions fewer votes, is that we took our eyes off the ball. We allowed extreme, amoral GOP operatives to systematically target and take over the majority of state legislatures in 2010. The whole exercise took less than $30 million, less than a single month’s worth of Presidential campaign spending. Because of the 2010 census, these newly-empowered radical legislatures carved up the congressional districts in such a way that from 2012 onward, it is practically impossible for the Democratic Party to win a congressional majority again before 2022. The prospects for state government are nearly as bleak.
So here’s what we have to do: we have to play to win in 2020 and 2022, so that we can repair the immense damage that is about to be done to our country. What follows is an ambitious, cold-blooded (some would even say cynical) look at what we have to do to build reliable governing majorities.
At this point, you may be asking, “Why would I do this? Screw the Democrats, they don’t represent me and my views.” But please, if you love this country, face reality: two-party politics is the only avenue for governing under the current rules. I have some ideas below that will help take a hammer to that system, but it won’t happen overnight. Please read on and see if you can get on board.
#1: Register New Voters
Start today. Get to people while they’re still mad. Don’t wait until they get complacent and/or dejected. Get them while they’re fired up. Whether you realize it or not, you probably have a network of people you know who are about to be hurt by the Trump agenda and aren’t registered to vote. They might be LGBT; they might be Latino; they might be black; they might be Muslims; they might be immigrants; they might be underemployed and depending on Medicaid, or lower-middle class but reliant on Obamacare for their ability to get health insurance.
The best time to mobilize people is when they’re already mad as hell. Don’t let them fall back into apathy.
Every state has different rules on who can be a voter registrar and what they have to do. Some require training and registration. Part of the reason Democrats are having so much trouble getting new voters in Texas, for example, is because of the absolutely bonkers rules they have for voter registrars. Find out what you have to do, and put in the effort. In most states, voter registration is a non-partisan activity; try working with MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, or the League of Women Voters.
Getting these new voters registered will make them eligible for petition drives and other forms of political participation that don’t just happen in even-numbered years. We need them.
#2: Focus on Winning the 2018 State and Federal Races
We’ll get to 2020 in a minute. For now, we have to turn our attention to the 2018 races. Because of the hostile gerrymandering we face in so many “red” states, we are going to have to approach this tactically. We need candidates who can win in Republican-dominated districts. This means going “big tent” and recruiting candidates that may not follow the party line on some issues. Which issues we can afford to bend on is going to vary district by district. In some, we may have to support Second Amendment absolutists. In others, we may have to hold our noses and accept candidates that aren’t good on environmental issues. The most important thing, especially in state-level races, is going to be that “(D)” next to their name. We have to get them into office, and then we have to support them again in 2020, because having control of the redistricting process is, literally, the most important thing we have to do if we want to take back control.
At the Federal level, the thinking is much the same. We need to narrow the advantage for the Republicans in the House and Senate, denying them the freedom to play to their right flank when producing budgets and legislation, and force them to come to the center. Or, if they won’t play ball, stone-walling their attempts to dismantle our country piece by piece. Mitch McConnell proved one thing over the last eight years: obstruction doesn’t hurt the minority party, it hurts the President. If the Trump administration is the economic disaster it promises to be, we might catch a tailwind, but it will matter for nothing if we put up the wrong candidates. You can’t run a Sierra Club-approved candidate in West Virginia or Kentucky. That’s just reality. Electability, electability, electability. Republican operatives already know that this will be the most important fight of the next four years. We have to take it just as seriously.
#3: Fight for Redistricting Reform
Some states (mostly blue ones) have independent redistricting commissions, who draw legislative and congressional districts without regard to party affiliation of voters. Others have bi-partisan commissions whose recommendations are then ratified by the state legislature. However, this is not uniform across the country.
The temptation is to just try and seize control of the redistricting process and redraw the lines to benefit Democrats. We have to resist that temptation, or we’ll be right back in this same mess in 2030. We have to push for reform everywhere. Remember, we have time, demographics, and changing attitudes on our side. We can win in fair districts on the strength of our ideas.
Find out what the process is for a citizen ballot initiative in your state, if there is one. Figure out if there is a group already spearheading an effort there. If there isn’t, see if there are national groups that can help with logistics and money. If there isn’t a ballot initiative process, start a pressure campaign on your state legislators.
#4: Work to Jumpstart Real Voting Reform
It would be naive to think that, if Jill Stein and Gary Johnson weren’t on the ballot, left-leaning voters and #NeverTrump-ers would otherwise have voted for Hillary, perhaps delivering to her the margins she needed to win the battleground states she lost. The far more likely case is that they simply wouldn’t have voted. There are a range of philosophies when it comes to voting, and you can’t fault those who choose to view it symbolically rather than tactically. Now, a dispassionate analysis of first-past-the-post voting systems says they are wrong, but you won’t win that argument (I’ve tried).
In that same vein, the disadvantages of plurality voting mean that we settle in to a two-party system almost by default. This isn’t good for our political parties. It forces them to be too broad, too unwieldy, to be effective in articulating policy issues that please all their members. Coalitions can’t be built after the ballot, so they have to be built beforehand. This results in candidates that can’t please everyone, and end up looking callow and feckless in trying.
Thus, it would be better for everyone, Democrats and Republicans included, if there were a way to allow voters to express their first choice safely, thus satisfying their need to vote symbolically, while still giving them a way to throw their support behind a candidate who can actually win. The answer, as I’ve written before, is Instant-Runoff Voting. IRV is not the most comprehensive method of ranked preference voting, but it is elegant, easy to understand, and can be implemented on existing voting hardware. It has the additional advantage of ensuring that the most broadly-acceptable candidate ends up winning, almost every time, with a majority – not just a plurality. We can say that, no, a majority of voters did not support Donald Trump as their first choice. Yes, a larger plurality supported Secretary Clinton. But what we cannot say is that she has a clear majority of voters backing her.
So, just like the ways above that we can approach ending the scourge of gerrymandering, we can bring real change to the ballot box by starting or supporting IRV voting initiatives in one or more states. This one’s a longer term project, but once we crack that first state, and the major parties see that it doesn’t immediately unseat them from their positions of power, but rather allows their candidates to claim a popular mandate with a true majority, I predict the practice will spread quickly. So see if you can get a citizen initiative started in your state; if one gets started in another state, donate to the campaign in whatever way you can.
#5: Hack the Electoral College
It’s outrageous: for the second time in the last 5 elections, the candidate who won the national popular vote has been denied the presidency because of the Electoral College. This arcane, outdated method of translating from the popular will to the actual winner commits a multitude of sins:
- It results in a narrow group of 6-10 states deciding the presidency, since so many states are “safe” states or too small to matter enough in the electoral math for candidates to devote resources.
- Paradoxically, it magnifies the power and influence of a single voter in low-population states; a voter in Wyoming has about 3.5 times the influence on the Presidency that a voter from California does.
- Because small and rural states get that boost in relative voter efficiency, it causes rural voters to be over-represented. This is exactly the distortion that leads to the current tragedy.
- The lack of uniformity in how states allocate their Electors makes the system ripe for partisan hijacking; a proposal was only narrowly defeated in 2011 to change Pennsylvania’s Electoral system from winner-take-all to by-congressional-district, thus virtually guaranteeing that Mitt Romney would have won about half the state’s electors despite getting shellacked by President Obama. No corresponding red state would have done the same.
These pernicious bugs, as so many of our system’s peculiarities do, have their root in the original sin of America’s founding, the institution of slavery. The EC allowed the Southern slave-holding states to wield far-greater influence in the selection of the President than their voting populations would otherwise have had.
Back when national tabulating and reporting of election numbers was a laborious and difficult task, you could still make a weak argument for the system. These days, our popular vote is tallied on election night right along with the state-by-state projections. There is no use for the Electoral College in a modern democracy. Unfortunately, it would require a long, drawn-out constitutional amendment process to eliminate the EC. Fortunately, however, we can “hack” it: I give you the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).
We need to push all of our various states to sign on the NPVIC. Right now, states totaling 135 Electors have committed, but they are all in “safe” blue states. We need to somehow get red states and battleground states to commit to the plan to get us to the magic 270 number. Once again, citizen initiative processes and sustained pressure on state legislatures are the route to go here.
#6: Start Organizing Now for 2020
This, here, is what we’re playing towards: the Presidential, Congressional, and state legislative elections in 2020. With a strong Democratic candidate for President, we can absolutely win back the White House. Huge numbers of Trump supporters voted for him out of a desire to see him shake up (or even blow up) the political culture of Washington, and restore their economic fortunes. When the exact opposite ends up happening instead – Washington insiders and well-connected members of the donor class end up doing very well for themselves, while the economy and the social safety net get detonated – they will be ready to hand power back to the only party that has shown any capacity for economic management in the last 50 years.
We need, as in 2018, to recruit high-quality, electable candidates at all levels of the ticket. With luck, these will include a number of incumbents that we are able to get in place with the 2018 election. The coattails in this election might very well be big enough to temporarily overcome the Republican districting advantage, if we are well-prepared to take advantage. If not, it will be even more imperative that we take control of the state legislatures, especially in states that don’t at that point have independent redistricting commissions.
Summary: It’s About the Long Game
The reactionary takeover of American politics has been a long time coming. From the time William F. Buckley, Jr. founded National Review in 1955, it was nine years before Barry Goldwater led the movement to its first, embarrassing defeat in 1964. It was another 16 years before Ronald Reagan won election in 1980 and consolidated conservative control of the Republican Party. It took another 20 years before their next standard bearer, George W. Bush, reclaimed the White House and tried to muscle through the unpopular policies they have always longed for. Now, despite the lack of conservative bona fides for Donald Trump, they finally will have everything they need to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society programs they have always wanted to destroy.
We don’t have that kind of time. The next generation of Americans needs the progressive movement more than ever. Our vulnerable fellow citizens need us. Our planet needs us. Our children need us. Nonetheless, there is no quick fix if we don’t want to simply suffer another reversal the next time around. The progressive mindset is always focused, temperamentally, on the here and now. We want the home run, the magic bullet. We have to resist the temptation. We have to go for singles and doubles, too. We saw, in the last four years of President Obama’s term, that holding the Presidency is not enough. We have to lay the groundwork now for success in the next midterms and the following Presidential elections, and we have to use that groundwork to keep ourselves competitive for the next decade onward. We can’t cede control of state government and redistricting to GOP control. The future, and the stability of our republic, is too important for that. Let’s roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
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