Over the course of Obama’s presidency, the Democratic Party lost nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures, in some cases to Republicans with far-Right agendas. In 2009, they held 257 seats in the House of Representatives. By January 2017 that number had dwindled to 194. During that same period, they lost 12 Senate seats and the number of Democratic governors more than halved. In large parts of the country, the party no longer has any influence at all.
In It’s Time to Fight Dirty, political scientist David Faris offers an intervention. If Democrats can re-take the presidency and both chambers of Congress in 2018 and 2020, their first order of business should be “procedural combat” on a par with Republican obstructionism. A superior policy agenda, alongside Trump’s gross ineptitude, should be enough for Democrats to win. But staying in power and laying the foundation of “a functional modern social democracy” will require deeper, structural change and fighting fire with fire.
Recall Gandhi’s profound insight that “an ‘eye for an eye’ makes the whole world go blind”. At a gut level, beating the Grand Old Party at its own game feels like a miserable, even macho, strategy that would perpetuate the depraved race to the bottom that American politics has become. And yet what options do Democrats really have?
The red wave of the past two decades and the ascendancy of Donald Trump were fuelled by shrewd and nihilistic procedural manipulations – from extreme gerrymandering to the debacle over the Republicans’ refusal to ratify Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court – that have thrown asunder traditional norms of governance (and decency) and exploited loopholes in our nation’s poorly designed Constitution. Instead of using good policy to lure voters, Republicans rigged the rules in their favour and in effect disenfranchised large swathes of the US electorate. Faris is not wrong to point out that Democrats might have to destroy the city in order to save it.
The meat of the book comes when he lays out the particulars and makes his case – which he substantiates masterfully with historical precedent, existing models and legislation, and analyses of the challenges ahead. Pointing to the undemocratic structures of the US Senate – in which the most populous state (California) and least populous (Wyoming) get the same number of Senators – he suggests increasing the number of states from 50 to 58. Granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, for example, would give both territories voting rights and due representation in federal elections. Though a heavier lift, he also suggests breaking up California into seven states, so 14 instead of just two Senators would represent 38 million people.
Faris also suggests major reforms to the House, such as doubling the number of Congressmen to match population growth, and instituting proportional representation instead of “winner takes all”. That would prevent gerrymandering, and open the door for more involvement by third and fourth parties. No party could command a majority of seats without having won the popular vote. For the judiciary, Democrats should end lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court and pack it with new, more liberal and progressive justices. They should also pass a National Voting Rights Act, suggests Faris, to eliminate racist and undemocratic voter-ID laws, restore voting rights for ex-felons and automatically register all Americans to vote.
Such reforms would indeed level the partisan playing field. But that’s assuming Democrats are up to the task. Missing from the analysis are the powerful forces behind the GOP’s sharp right turn. Since the 1970s, when social movements precipitated a crisis of profitability for US corporations, rich ultra-conservatives waged a class war to recover declining profits, using widely cherished concepts such as liberty, freedom and choice. Their thinktanks, academic institutes and media outlets were considered fringe by most mainstream conservatives, until a fresh generation of wannabe plutocrats – such as Charles and David Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife and John M. Olin – used their fortunes to build an incredible propaganda machine and infiltrate the Republican Party. Democrats have George Soros, Tom Steyer and the Center for American Progress. But these don’t touch the level of long-term and ubiquitous political organising by the Kochs, American Legislative Exchange Council and countless shadowy others.
There is also the trouble with the Democratic Party itself. Faris’ generous, almost romantic, depiction of Democrats as bastions of civility and progressivism doesn’t jive with what most of us witnessed in 2016 – from political operative David Brock’s offensive portrayal of Bernie Sanders as a “racist” to email leaks that had Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and other Clinton acolytes more than willing to “fight dirty” against progressives in their own party.
No doubt the DNC’s hubris in 2016 aggravated the mounting disdain for Democrat elites emanating from both sides of the aisle. But the roots of the backlash run deeper: not only did New Democrats fail to address the needs of working-class Americans, but in far too many instances they expressed open contempt for them. Beyond the procedural manipulations that Faris identifies in his book is the sociological problem of Trumpism – a response to corporate-led globalisation and the worldwide financial crisis that has helped legitimise right-wing hostility toward “big government” run by liberal elites. As living standards and working conditions for working- and middle-class people have steadily decreased, scapegoating narratives have become more and more seductive.
Can a fundamentally divided Democratic Party unite around Faris’ agenda, or even win in 2018 and 2020? It’s hard to tell. Despite recent Democratic victories in state and local races, divisions remain over policy staples and the rules governing the party’s own elections. The DNC will soon vote on a slate of electoral reforms recommended by a Unity Reform Commission composed of Sanders and Clinton representatives. At the top of the list is the issue of superdelegates, influential leaders with grossly excessive influence in the presidential nominating process. In 2016, most superdelegates pledged their support for Clinton before voting even began, which put her way out in the lead. That dysfunction came to a head in California when the Associated Press called the primary in her favour before the state’s residents even had a chance to vote. Democrats’ use of superdelegates purposely tilts the process towards establishment candidates, in clear violation of the principle of one person, one vote.
The DNC will also decide on voter registration. Many states use closed primaries, whereby participation is limited to registered party members. In New York, nearly 4 million unaffiliated voters were disenfranchised in the 2016 party primary because of arcane rules that set the registration deadline at 193 days before election day. More than a third of under-30 voters – Sanders’ core constituency – weren’t registered to any political party. When they tried to join the Democrats, the party turned them away.
If Democrats can’t agree on a policy vision and simple democratising fixes to their own elections, how can we expect them to fight in lockstep for Faris’ “out of the box” agenda? More worrisome, however, is the question of the “blue wave” on which his proposals rely – which could easily lose force if Democrats continue to ignore the interests of working people and remain steeped in struggles for “the soul of the party”.
The unthinkable happened in 2016. But today the stakes are exponentially higher. A defeat this time around would confer legitimacy on Donald Trump’s presidency, all it represents and thereby harm the country for generations to come.
Heather Gautney is a professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York and the author of Crashing the Party: From the Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement (2018).
It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics
By David Faris
Published 19 April 2018
David Faris, programme director of political science at Roosevelt University in Chicago, grew up in Audubon, a small town in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where having “friends whose parents were truck drivers and bank tellers had a lasting impact on my understanding of the economic and social challenges facing working people in America”. He went on to the small, liberal arts Drew University in New Jersey, where he encountered people from very different backgrounds, including the “fabulously wealthy”, and began studying comparative politics and the contemporary Middle East. This led to a PhD in political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Between 2006 and 2011, Faris spent a total of two years in Egypt studying how opposition movements were using the internet to challenge the regime – a time he remembers as “full of hope and optimism for the future of the country”. He was “deeply disheartened” when “a renewed tyranny closed off all possibilities for dissent and political change”. He was also fearful of “ending up on the wrong side of the government’s wrath”, particularly after he was “accused by journalists on Egyptian national television of being a Mossad agent who orchestrated the uprising”.
Having decided not to return to Cairo, Faris became fascinated by the 2016 presidential primaries and started to focus on US politics.
Academic political scientists have a key role, he believes, in “provid[ing] some of the answers to big, cause-and-effect questions that journalists might have about politics but might not have the time and resources to effectively investigate [such as] ‘What is the impact of immigration flows on public opinion?’…The insights of scholars in my field are very clear about the impact of US electoral structures, and I am so happy to have the opportunity to share that accumulated knowledge, along with my own ideas, with readers.”