Saving America

The 2016 election will certainly be remembered as unique in American history. Never before has a U.S. election been so obviously tainted by foreign interference. The actions of  Russian intelligence to help elect their favored candidate is as egregious as that of Allen Dulles’s 1950’s CIA in Iran and elsewhere. Karmic irony aside, there is much to be learned from the events leading up to the November 8th debacle. Much of what went wrong can be laid at the feet of the Founding Fathers who created a muddled electoral system that has not been updated to reflect the changing realities of the America polity. As has unfortunately become the norm, dark money sowed doubt and outright falsehood among the electorate. But the real responsibility for losing a shoo-in election to a totally unqualified autocrat belongs to the inept leadership of the Democratic Party. Although repairing the damage will take decades, the Party needs to take immediate steps to retake the country from the hands of the wealthiest 1% of us who control the current Republican junta.

Unfortunately, there is little prospect that the fundamental flaws in the U.S. electoral system will be addressed anytime soon. People in states like Wyoming, Delaware, and Alaska like having three times the votes of those living in California, Texas, and New York. And it would take a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College: a steep road indeed. The current primary system is a joke that allows Republicans in the South, through “open” primaries, to select Democratic candidates. Caucuses give extraordinary power to a very small number of voters in insignificant states. (In 2016 caucus turnout was well under 10% while primaries drew about one in three eligible voters.) And the idea that New Hampshire should be a filter for candidates is preposterous. Sadly, we are stuck with this insane, undemocratic system so we need to make the best of it.

If past elections teach us anything, it is that voter turnout is important. Since 2000, overall participation has not varied all that much: in presidential years between 55% and 62% went to the polls, in mid-term elections only around 40% did. However, there is interesting information in the demographic details. In presidential election years 1988 through 2004, turnout among blacks lagged that of whites by 4 to 14 percentage points, with the disparity decreasing over time. When Barack Obama was on the ticket in 2008 and 2012, that disparity reversed with blacks out-participating whites by five points in his first election and by six in his second. In 2016, black turnout dropped back to its historic second place but by only two points. This suggests two things: 1) voter enthusiasm matters and 2) once people start voting, they are more likely to continue to do so.

What does this mean for Democrats? In my opinion, it means stop trying to be Republican-lite. It means appealing to the diversity of voters who make up the Democratic Party. In my mind, there is little doubt that John McCain would have beaten Hillary Clinton in 2008. It is not that Ms. Clinton was a bad candidate, despite the very real right-wing conspiracy arrayed against her; it is that she did not excite the electorate. It is arguable whether Bernie Sanders would have outpolled Donald Trump, but I think it fairly certain that had Ms. Clinton chosen Julian Castro or another Latino as her running mate, she would be president today. Barack Obama was elected by the votes of people who had never seen a reason to vote before. The next Democratic president will ride a similar wave. Although Clinton was the first woman to run as the candidate of a major party, her sex was simply not enough to motivate people to go to the polls. In an ideal world, identity politics would not exist, but this is not an ideal world.

Since 1992, the Democratic Party has been drifting ever farther to the right in pursuit of the mythical “undecided voter.” If the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders says anything, it is that Democrats, especially young ones, want the Party to move back to the left and to champion the ideal of the common good. And this is not a position that has appeal only in the large coastal cities. A century ago, the bulwark of progressivism was solidly in the Midwest. It is a mistake, in my mind, for Democrats to allow evangelical Christians to define rural America. And it is a bigger mistake for us to allow the mean-spirited right wing to define what it means to be a liberal. If one were to listen to them, “liberal” means taxing white people to support lazy black people. Obviously, that is ridiculous. Yet, enough Democrats buy into that trope to shy away from identifying as liberals, preferring to call themselves progressives. Instead, we should be proud to call ourselves champions of freedom, which is what “liberal” means.

The debacle of the Trump presidency has brought the US to a crossroads. Either we liberals get our act together and take back the country from the greedy 1% or we watch our legacy of freedom and democracy crumble into autocracy and fascism. And, no, that is not an exaggeration. In order to restore sanity to the union, Democrats need to take several concrete steps:

1)     Embrace liberalism and European-style democratic socialism. Bernie Sanders proved that this is popular with a wide range of voters

2)     Develop fresh young talent from across the demographic spectrum. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Hillary Clinton, as worthy as they may be, are of my generation, the post-WW II baby boomers. Our time has passed and we need to look to new generation.

3)     Educate voters that mid-term Federal and State elections are as important, and perhaps more important, than the quadrennial presidential contest. State legislatures draw Congressional districts. Taking as many state legislative seats as possible in 2018 and 2020 will determine the balance of power for a decade. The upcoming mid-term election is particularly important because the 116th Congress will quite likely determine whether the corrupt Trump regime will be impeached and removed from office.  

4)     Nominate blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other minorities for office. In 2016, only 45% of Hispanics voted. Latinos make up more than 25% of the eligible electorate in California, Texas, and New Mexico, roughly 20% in Florida, Arizona, and Nevada, and more that 10% in New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Connecticut, and Illinois. Increasing Latino participation in the electoral process to the same level as that among whites and blacks would make Democrats unbeatable.

The big difference between us Democrats and the Republicans, is that we welcome the diversity that is modern America. We need to change our slates of candidates to reflect that. We believe that we are all a community and have a responsibility to look after one another. We must articulate that credo in the face of right wing lies and enthusiastically embrace the democratic socialism that brought the country out of the Great Depression. But most of all, we need to get off our butts and VOTE!

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