Democrats Are Blowing Their Best Idea
In the weeks leading up to the conclusion of the special counsel investigation, the hottest topic on the minds of Democratic presidential candidates was the Mueller report…while the hottest topic out of their mouths was a series of proposals to change the fundamentals in American politics: rules for elections, the size and shaping of branches of government, and the very makeup of the United States.
The one was driving the other. For the last two years, Democrats have been trying to navigate the tricky base politics of impeachment. The more strategic thinkers in the party, like Nancy Pelosi, see that absent an absolute smoking gun of criminality (and maybe even then) in the Mueller findings, impeachment is ultimately a political sinkhole that only helps President Trump, not to mention a short term sugar rush that fails to fix the underlying problems in our politics.
While the bulk of Democratic voters agree, they are still hopping mad about a President, senate, Supreme Court makeup, and overall political system that they see as illegitimate. So presidential candidates have responded by channeling that rage into the idea that we need to fundamentally reform a broken system of elections and government.
In doing so, Democrats have actually stumbled onto the right Idea, but the wrong set of ideas. There is definitely a crisis in American politics and government. And Democrats should make it their number one priority to solve it.
But the current proposals – packing the Supreme Court, getting rid of the Electoral College, splitting states like California into multiple states to pick up Senators and electoral votes – are fever dreams, mostly about serving red meat to the furious Democratic base for the purposes of positioning presidential candidates in the Democratic primary than a thoughtful effort to fix what is broken in our country; let alone a more strategic political move by Democrats to right some of the wrongs of the curious construction of our electoral system and gerrymandering.
In fact, all this talk is penny wise and pound foolish. By tilting so hard to nonstarter ideas that will strike most voters as gaming the system for partisan advantage, Democrats are squandering a golden chance to do our country – and themselves – a tremendous amount of good; poisoning a well that could be critical to the future of the country and their own party by making reform a divisive Democrats vs. Republicans issue.
Reforming our government and our elections – taking a serious run at fixing our basic politics – is both an urgent need for our country and a proven political winner.
Major functions of American government and our electoral system are indeed critically broken. In two of the last five Presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote lost the election; and we now have a President who was one of those two, is consistently at ~40% popularity, and yet who believes in and oversees an Executive Branch with unprecedented levels of unchecked power to carry out a mandate that he doesn’t have. The situation is upside-down from the basic idea of how people in a democracy grant power to executive leaders to carry out their will, and the people are accordingly angry.
Congress is even more dysfunctional and sundered from the will of the voters. In the Senate, partisan legislation and judges are being muscled through with bare majorities of Senators who actually represent a minority of Americans, as low as 43% (though to be clear, this goes both ways – major Democratic policy proposals including the Affordable Care Act were similarly passed with the barest of majorities). In fact, given the power of the US Senate, we’ve entered an age of minority rule, one in which Democrats can win 12 million more votes in the 2018 elections and still lose Senate seats. And the situation is only going to deteriorate, since by 2040, 70% of Americans will be represented by just 30 senators.
The House is, if anything, even worse. Democrats had their biggest wave election since 1974 in 2018, winning by 8 points nationally and netting 10 million more votes, and yet they netted only a slim majority after gerrymandering likely cost them 16 seats that voters would have otherwise given them.
As a result, only 40% of Americans believe that elections are fair, and an all-time low of only 18% trust the government in Washington (which is understandable since it shuts down on average every two years). 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. More broadly, the parties have devolved into such a state of tribal warfare – which the President seems determined to fuel – that sober analysts have talked about a second civil war.
Anyone who cares about our democracy and the future of our country should be alarmed. But of course, Democrats should feel an extra measure of alarm – they are right to feel that their party and their views have borne the brunt of the breakdown and that the deck is now preposterously stacked against them.
But they should take heart from the fact that some effective reforms that would also re-level the playing field are enormously popular. As discussed in a previous piece, measures to protect and expand voting rights really jump out in polling, getting support from up to 87% of Americans…very few ideas in today’s America are as popular. More important, 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 win margin of 60 percent. These results are even highly bipartisan: for example, in Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill lost her bid for re-election to the US Senate at 45 percent, while a redistricting initiative passed with 62 percent. And, these kinds of initiatives won everywhere, even in purple or fully red states. In fact, ten were passed in states Donald Trump won in 2016, including Missouri (Trump won by more than 17 percentage points), Utah (Trump by more than 18 percent), and North Dakota (Trump by more than 35 percent).
So there’s a big problem to solve. What would a smarter approach to solving it be? Democrats should start by considering three rules to coalesce around a reform plan:
1. Any idea has to improve a function of elections or government by making it better reflect voter intent, rather than just amounting to engineering more control for your preferred political party. State-level laws to more equitably create districts and reduce gerrymandering pass this test. Supreme Court-packing schemes do not.
2. Reforms can only be based on achievable actions from government. Rules to create transparency on money in elections pass this test. Constitutional amendments to get rid of the electoral college (which require super-majorities that are not realistic in the current polarized environment) do not.
3. Choose political reforms that a majority of Americans support. There are ample effective, popular measures to choose from, for example on opening up access to voting, that pass with flying colors. Ideas like splitting up states, to which Americans are downright hostile, do not.
And what would an actual policy agenda look like? Here are four areas chock full of workable, beneficial ideas that pass the rules above:
1. Reduce the Influence of Money. The goal of some advocates of “getting money out of politics” is just not going to happen. Those who want to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision have their hearts in the right place, but the reality of the Court means they will to wait decades. Rather, counter-balancing and reining in the influence of ultra-rich individuals, corporations, and interest groups who chose to operate in the shadows is much more achievable and would make things better. State-level results show that mechanisms to increase the leverage of small donors (as House Democrats have proposed) by matching their funds can work. Similarly, actually enforcing existing rules by reforming and empowering the Federal Election Commission, and crafting new rules around transparency (especially for social media spending), can level out a system that is rife with abuse.
2. Protect and Expand Voting. There are workable ideas from making election day a federal holiday to passing the Automatic Voter Registration Act which would automatically register eligible voters to vote unless they request not to be enrolled. State-level reforms to replace partisan redistricting with non-partisan commissions have gained steam and usually (though not always) lead to less gerrymandering. Purple-to-red Florida just restored voting rights to people with prior felony convictions. Broadly, these kinds of measures to protect voting are highly popular and among the biggest difference makers in election reform.
3. Reduce the Power of the Executive Branch. The concentration of power in the president and executive agencies has made the presidency even more of an all-or-nothing contest between the parties. While further empowering a dysfunctional congress might seem unappealing (though some power could also be devolved to states), it is the best way to make the federal government more reflective of real voter preferences (and there are a number of ways to make congress more functional, for discussion at another time). There are a number of ideas that could fit this bill, from re-assertion of the War Powers Act to codifying executive ethics rules to increased oversight of agency rulemaking, but the most fundamental ingredient is real leadership – demanding of presidential candidates that they be willing to sacrifice for the future of the country and work with congressional leaders to undo decades of power accretion by the executive.
4. Secure Elections Against Foreign and Domestic Interference. Congress is beginning to look at enacting serious safeguards against manipulation of social media platforms (as well as their inherent power). These would go hand in hand with reforms making election spending more transparent, and punishing abuses heavily.
At the end of the day, of course Presidential candidates (actually, just about all politicians) are going to continue to toss out wild ideas to activate their base and get a leg up. But smart party leaders, or those who aspire to leadership, need to keep it contained. There is spade-work to be done on a real reform agenda, and if Democrats can muster the discipline to focus on it and prevent reform from becoming yet another partisan fault-line, the benefits for their party and our country will be felt well beyond this President or the next election.