Saving our democracy has to be job number one if Democrats win big in November

Saving our democracy has to be job number one if Democrats win big in November
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the classic movie Apollo 13, NASA engineers are debating a plan to save the astronauts’ lives when one interrupts to say look, forget all the other issues – communications, guidance, landing gear – because “power is everything.” Power is the foundation of all other priorities, and without it, worrying about everything else is pointless.


This is also true for the Democrats if they win big in 2020.

There is a glut of burning issues for Democrats to address if they win the presidency –or possibly the trifecta including control of the U.S. House and Senate: the next 12 years is the most critical period to act on global warming; health care is the number one issue for voters; Americans are experiencing a crisis of personal debt.

But as important as they are, the party should put all of them on the back burner. They must focus first on a reform program to protect American democracy. Because power is the foundation of all other priorities, and without it, worrying about everything else is pointless.

This may be a hard sell within the party, which is why, somewhat counterintuitively, it is a good idea to start thinking about the long term now, even before the Democrats have a nominee and despite the somewhat long odds of winning the trifecta. Democrats must be prepared to assume power at a full sprint and with total focus on day one, because even if they get Congressional majorities plus the presidency, they may only get to pass one piece of major legislation.

Why? First, it takes a long time to pass anything substantial – the Affordable Care Act was signed 14 months after President Obama’s inauguration. And second, simply by trying to do Democratic stuff, the party will almost certainly trigger a major political rebound effect. Historically, that is a virtual certainty, since “the party that doesn’t hold the White House has gained seats in every midterm election since 1946,” and as political scientist Matt Grossman explains: “…policy victories usually result in a mobilized opposition and electoral losses. Or, put another way, voters usually punish rather than reward parties that move policy to achieve their goals.” Remember the TEA party?

The upshot is that given the unmitigated disaster of the Trump era, Democrats in a theoretical majority next January would find themselves with many wounded patients and serious triage to do. But they might only get to operate on a single patient.

That brings us back to “power is everything.”

The policy issues that Democrats care about most deeply are urgent, but they are also generational endeavors: none will be solved in a single two-year congressional cycle. For example, the goal of ending poverty among the elderly was tackled in 1935 with the Social Security Act, but the law was then expanded, reformed, funded, or otherwise changed via new legislation an average of eleven times per year between 1983 and 2004, which was actually a rather slow period for change. Any hope of lasting impact on major issues – for example, on climate, where the effort must be global in scope – depends on this kind of constant attention and sustained action.

That chance will be lost if new policy in 2021 is built on a foundation of sand that the next political wave in 2022 will simply wash away. What is the value of passing further health care reform, or a green new deal, if it is undone mere months later by a government put in place by a minority of voters? Or to put it another way, if your house was damaged in an earthquake and you got a big insurance payout, would you spend the money on a fancy new kitchen, or would you invest first in firmer foundations?

The only hope of a major, lasting change of course on any policy item is first to address the structural problems, loopholes, and raw political manipulations that Republicans have undertaken in what political scientist David Faris calls “an escalating process of institutional and procedural warfare” in our political system over the last twenty years.

The problems have become dire: the very future of representative government is hanging by a thread. Today, Senators who represent a minority of Americans, as low as 43%, can muscle through legislation and confirm judges to lifetime positions on the bench, and this is merely a sneak preview of a looming age of minority rule. Democrats won 12 million more votes in the 2018 elections and still lost Senate seats, and by 2040, this systemic distortion will bend democracy beyond recognition, since 70% of Americans will be represented by just 30 of the 100 Senators.

The House is almost as bad. Democrats had their biggest wave election since 1974 in 2018, winning by 8 points nationally and netting 10 million more votes, and yet they ended up with only a slim majority after partisan gerrymandering cost them 16 seats that voters would have otherwise given them on a level playing field.

As a result, only 40% of Americans believe that elections are fair, and an all-time low of 18% trust the federal government (which is understandable since it collapses into a shutdown every two years on average). Congress can’t pass a budget, almost never achieves a bipartisan policy initiative, and by 2014 had become one of America’s most reviled entities. President Trump’s recent actions are tearing away the tenuous vestiges of an independent judicial system. And the parties have devolved into such a state of tribal warfare – which the President seems determined to fuel as his only potential pathway to a second term – that even sober analysts have talked about a second civil war.

Continuing to play by a set of skewed, rigged, or downright manipulated rules within such a fundamentally broken system is a prescription for unending disaster (Democrats’ traditional willingness to do just that was pointedly skewered in “Our Cartoon President,” which has Senator Chuck Schumer declaring “the team that best follows the rules always wins”).

The good news is that Democrats have woken up and made a solid start at building a package of pro-democracy reforms. The first act of their new House majority was the introduction of the For The People Act of 2019, which would have mandated critical structural improvements in three areas: campaign finance (voluntary public financing for campaigns, small donor matching, reining in Super PACs), ethics (forcing candidates to release their taxes, for one thing) and, most importantly, voting rights (making election day a federal holiday, getting rid of partisan gerrymandering, expanding voter registration, etc.). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has vowed to fight it to his last breath, which should be an indication to Democrats that pro-Democracy reform is what Republican leaders fear most.

However, the past year has demonstrated that Democrats urgently need to go further. They must fundamentally rein in executive power – even from a future Democratic president – because the imperial presidency is so prone to abuse. The recent bipartisan law to dial back presidential war powers is a start (and a surprising rare success). They must also enact new guardrails for judicial independence, including making the Justice Department an independent agency (like the Federal Reserve) to keep a president from selectively directing the administration of justice. They also have to craft strict penalties for ignoring congressional subpoenas to end the Trump-Republican pact to shred the Constitution and thumb their nose at oversight.

And many have argued for even deeper reforms. Some of these readily fall within the power of a congressional majority to legislate and are hard to argue against – such as further restricting or eliminating the Senate filibuster, granting statehood to Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, and increasing the number of seats in the U.S. House (which has not been updated in a century) to make it more representative. Others would require a constitutional amendment or much more severe restructuring of the country – like eliminating the electoral college (which could possibly also be accomplished via interstate compact) or breaking California into several states to reshape the partisan balance in the Senate – which makes them either impractical or prone to cataclysmic backlash.

Importantly, moves to reassert American democracy are also strongly backed by voters. Measures to protect and expand voting rights get support from up to 87% of Americans, while election reforms win hands-down at the ballot box: in 2018, fourteen of sixteen statewide reform measures aimed at expanding access to voting passed, with an average and highly bipartisan win margin of 60 percent. These kinds of initiatives won everywhere, even in purple or fully red states. Ten were passed in states Donald Trump won by landslides in 2016, including Missouri, Utah, and North Dakota. This is not incidental. The sheer popularity of these kinds of reforms makes them more resilient once enacted, and gives them a much better chance to survive even if Republicans retake congress or the presidency.

In 1999, Bill Clinton made “Save Social Security First” his rallying cry. Now, the Democrats’ single-minded purpose must be to Save Democracy First. They may get one shot, and if they are not prepared to take it, everything else will be for naught.

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