Democratic hardball and the democracy agenda

Progressives are gradually coming to grips with the true scale of reform and reconstruction that the country must implement in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. At the Washington Monthly, editor-in-chief Paul Glastris writes:

“The fact that America now has only one party committed to small-d democracy changes everything. It’s no longer acceptable for Democrats to look at politics as a way to win the next election so as to jam through a bunch of their preferred policies before the Republicans inevitably take back power. They must instead see the purpose of politics as building sustained power for Democrats, period—but, unlike the other side, they must do this in part by strengthening the democratic process, not by undermining it.”

Indeed. Democrats are coalescing around an increasingly ambitious substantive platform as they ready for 2020 – Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, free college, a $15 minimum wage, and other bold domestic policies. But they must also adopt an equally ambitious procedural platform to expand the franchised electorate and to level a political playing field badly tilted toward emboldening a modern Republican Party unfit to govern.

Call it a “democracy agenda” – an agenda grounded in finally granting full and equal voting rights and representation to U.S. citizens in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; in enacting a New Voting Rights Act that defends against the most pernicious voter suppression laws and affirmatively makes it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot; in giving the people a voice to add seats on the Supreme Court to rectify its current anti-democratic (small-d) lurch.

Those are reforms embraced by political scientist David Faris in It’s Time to Fight Dirty. Faris also proposes even more audacious reforms: breaking California into seven smaller states, and switching to proportional representation in the House.

Giving full political representation to D.C. and Puerto Rico would add four new Senate seats – which would likely be filled by Democrats. Protecting and supporting the right to vote would make it easier for more people to vote – which would likely work to Democrats’ favor. Rebalancing the Supreme Court would allow a Democratic president to tip a 5-4 conservative majority (*if Brett Kavanaugh wins confirmation) into a 6-5 liberal majority.

These might all smack of hardball entrenchment tactics. But the political effects are incidental to the primary impact, which is to expand the franchise and increase democratic representation in American government.

Moreover, if you believe in the moral urgency of the broader progressive substantive agenda, then these procedural steps are vital. Every year that progressives are locked out of a governing majority is a year that the American people are left without progressive reform to expand health care, environmental protection, higher wages, and other basic dignities. The current “back-and-forth” between Republican-dominated politics and Democratic-dominated politics, Faris writes in It’s Time to Fight Dirty, “inevitably lead[s] to worse and worse outcomes for America’s poor and middle classes, and invite[s] true planetary disaster.”

As Glastris points out, over the last 27 years, Democrats have only controlled both the White House and Congress at the same time in four of those years. Those are two fleeting blips at the beginning of the Clinton and Obama presidencies where it was possible to advance a progressive agenda. And progressives controlled the Supreme Court in neither of them.

Democrats can no longer afford to passively wait on the political pendulum to swing their way. The urgency of the country’s challenges, coupled with the radical nihilism of the GOP, demand something different.

In defending the case for Democratic reform of the Supreme Court, I argued:

“The Democratic president that follows Trump will not have a normal presidency. It will be one of reconstruction — of truth and reconciliation. To prove that America is truly better than this, Trump cannot be treated as politics as usual, no different than any other departing president. His presidency must be rendered a shameful aberration; a stain; a grotesque mistake that cannot happen again.”

The same principles apply to the broader democracy agenda above. Trump’s presidency has depended on a restricted electorate. We know, for example, that Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law discouraged voters and may have helped toss that state to Trump. And the absence of political representation for D.C. and Puerto Rico gave Trump an artificial slim Republican majority in the Senate, rather than a probable slim Democratic majority. That alone is the difference between a Senate that advances a right-wing agenda of plutocracy, healthcare repeal, and presidential rubber-stamping, and one that stands up to Trump and instates real accountability.

In the conclusion to It’s Time to Fight Dirty, Faris reminds us that “the undeniable truth is that we [are] already living through a monumental political crisis.” It’s one that progressives cannot afford to squander by letting real reform slip away. Our political crisis calls for a “Third Reconstruction,” as Faris puts it. Crucially, “[t]he most important thing progressives can do to help transform the United States into a more equal, just, and prosperous society,” Faris tells us, “is to win elections.”

To govern in 2021, progressives must rise to the occasion and realize that fundamental truth. Some times in American history call for hardnosed reconsiderations of our political system – how it has been perverted through inertia and deliberate mischief over the years; how it is amplifying select voices and muffling others. Call it hardball if you want. But this is one of those times.

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