On Theories of Political Change In a Time of Republican Madness

So Jamelle Bouie wrote a post recently arguing that Bernie Sanders’ theory of political change is wrong:

“Now, in my view, the only way we can take on the right-wing Republicans who are, by the way, I hope will not continue to control the Senate and the House when one of us [is] elected president,” he said at Tuesday’s presidential debate. “But the only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together.” Sanders will build so much enthusiasm and inspire so many voters that he’ll come to office with the votes he needs to pursue his plans.

But there’s a problem. We’ve seen this story before.

Barack Obama entered office on a Democratic wave. He won a strong majority of the popular vote—flipping Republican states like Indiana and North Carolina—and helped Democrats win 255 seats in the House of Representatives and 56 seats in the Senate. With a sure mandate and a largely unified party, Obama was primed for success. And he got it, sort of. Over two years, Congress passed an ambitious stimulus package, health care reform, financial reform, and a bevy of smaller measures, from the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to a bill to reduce the crack and cocaine sentencing disparity.

At the same time, this was a slog. Despite an economic crisis and a supportive public, Obama couldn’t win Republican support for major policies. Just three Republicans crossed the aisle to vote for the stimulus, and one of them switched parties in the face of a backlash from GOP voters in his state. Without Republican support—and facing filibusters at every turn—Obama had to corral every Democrat, which gave leverage to centrist and conservative Democrats like Sens. Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Evan Bayh. It’s how we got the “Cornhusker kickback” (which was later removed from the bill).

It didn’t matter that party voters were behind Obama and his priorities; if the White House didn’t accommodate every Democrat, its agenda would stumble and fall. And even after Democrats won 60 seats—Al Franken entered the Senate in the summer of 2009—the challenge remained. We can criticize Obama for everything he didn’t do as a legislative leader, but the truth is that his plans were steered, in large part, by the right flank of the Democratic Party.

I sort of agree: since the Republican Party is in the hopefully terminal stage of the devolution from TR’s Bull Moose to Glenn Beck’s Prion-Infested Condemned Cow, it’s ludicrous to expect that any Republican would break ranks at this point–of course, it’s not entirely clear to me what Clinton’s plan is (neither of them have really talked all that much about possible executive branch moves, except for Clinton hinting at gun control). There’s no negotiating with Republicans at this point–and what Democrats would have to give up would be too costly (where I disagree with Bouie is that, were the Democrats to regain legislative majorities, an active base could lean on the conservative Democrats).

But this is all politics at the federal level. Unfortunately, as we’ve witnessed with the rise of ALEC, there’s a lot of damage that can be done at the state and local levels. While the issues that Black Lives Matter broached have been raised during the campaign, much of the hard work and progress will occur at state and local levels: electing sheriffs and politicians who will enact better policies, pressuring prosecutors to make more humane sentencing decisions, promoting state open disclosure laws, and so on. This is where an activated base is critical since, at the state and local levels, Democrats are getting hammered (boldface mine):

The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Indeed, even the House infighting reflects, in some ways, the health of the GOP coalition. Republicans are confident they won’t lose power in the House and are hungry for a vigorous argument about how best to use the power they have.

Not only have Republicans won most elections, but they have a perfectly reasonable plan for trying to recapture the White House. But Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot. Democrats aren’t even talking about how to improve on their weak points, because by and large they don’t even admit that they exist.

Instead, the party is focused on a competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether they should go a little bit to Obama’s left or a lot to his left, options that are unlikely to help Democrats down-ballot in the face of an unfriendly House map and a more conservative midterm electorate. The GOP might be in chaos, but Democrats are in a torpor….

The worst part of the problem for the Democratic Party is in races that are, collectively, the most important: state government.

Elections for state legislature rarely make the national news, but they are the fundamental building blocks of American politics. Since they run the redistricting process for the US House of Representatives and for themselves, they are where the greatest level of electoral entrenchment is possible.

And in the wake of the 2014 midterms, Republicans have overwhelming dominance of America’s state legislatures.

In what Democrats should take as a further bleak sign, four of the 11 states where they control both houses of the state legislature — Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois — have a Republican governor. This leaves just seven states under unified Democratic Party control.

Republicans have unified control of 25 states. Along with the usual set of tax cuts for high-income individuals and business-friendly regulations, the result has been:

•An unprecedented wave of restrictions on abortion rights
•The spread of union-hostile “right to work” laws into the Great Lakes states
•New curbs on voting rights, to further tilt the electorate in a richer, whiter, older direction
•Large-scale layoffs of teachers and other public sector workers who are likely to support Democrats

While Yglesias might be overstating the complacency issue, he is absolutely correct in identifying this as a real problem. But I don’t see how Clinton, whose campaign revolves around her, not the principles of the Democratic Party (as ragged as they are in this day and age) and who has given no signs that she would govern as anything but a New Democrat–which is to say, she will demotivate the base–could possibly fix this. Most of these statehouses and governorships have been captured due to low voter turnout. I don’t really see Clinton mobilizing the Democratic base to turn out.

Change has to start at the states, especially by 2020, which is the year Congressional redistricting occurs. I’m not sure Clinton’s policies–which probably won’t go very far either–would mobilize the base to turnout, and vote up and down the ticket.

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1 Response to On Theories of Political Change In a Time of Republican Madness

  1. Min says:

    Three things struck me about the Bouie piece. First, he put words in Sanders’s mouth. Sanders said that millions of people need to be mobilized. He didn’t claim that he would do that. Second was Bouie’s defeatist tone. He mentioned that in 2009 the Dems had 60 votes in the Senate, in addition to a majority in the House plus the Presidency. True, that did not produce much in the way of change, especially for the economy. But that was only 6 years ago. Now the Dems are on the ropes? The Reps looked on the ropes then, and they have made a stunning comeback. Third, Bouie states that the Dems have moved to the left. Now, the Dems have been moving to the right for at least 25 years, if not longer. Now they are moving to the left? If so, isn’t that in no small part because of Sanders?

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