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The Democrats Don’t Have to Keep Losing

Get ready for another two years of de facto President Mitch McConnell. We talked to political scientist and professor David Faris about the broken institutions holding back real democracy — and what it will take for Dems to get their power back

Like the rest of us, author, political scientist and professor David Faris awaited Election Day with a mix of nerves and optimism, plus a wide selection of hard liquors to settle the mind. And since last Tuesday, Faris has been mulling the unsatisfactory dregs of an otherwise celebratory win for Joe Biden. 

On the one hand, the Biden win meant avoiding a catastrophe for American democracy unlike any in recent memory. It proved that the Republican Party’s systematic campaign to suppress voters and spread disinformation could be overcome through the will of the electorate. And it portends a calming influence on Washington that will allow a number of critical agencies to operate smoothly again. On the other, Faris can’t shake how the Democrats failed to win the Senate, meaning that a Biden administration will be hamstrung to establish any bold policies in the face of a pandemic and a generational economic disaster. 

“A Biden administration without the Senate means we’re going to be ruling for executive orders, all of which can be reversed by the next president,” he tells me. “I have real mixed emotions, to say the least.” 

Even for a self-proclaimed optimist like Faris, it’s a bit much to take in. But as he wrote in his stellar 2018 book It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, the battle was always going to be a frustrating one, with a lot of steps backward and forward thanks to the inherent contradictions in the American democratic process. To that end, I recently spoke to Faris to revisit the agenda from our last conversation during the 2018 midterm season, and to look ahead at how generational struggles within the Democrat ranks can reshape the image of the party. 

First of all, what were your impressions of how the election shook out for Democrats? It looks like Joe Biden will oversee another divided government, unless the party wins Georgia, which would make it a 50-50 Senate. Without it, the Republicans get a slim majority. What can you do with that?

In theory, the gap means that there are majorities to be had on certain issues. In spite of the fact that we’re not going to get Medicare for All through this Congress or anything like that, they still do have to pass budgets and fund the government. They’re going to have to come to terms on a stimulus bill for COVID. They’re going to have to come to agreements on the rollout of a vaccine. It’s not like Republicans can just walk away and say we’re not going to play ball at all for the next year. 

But what we learned from even back in the Obama era, particularly after Republicans took the Senate in 2014, is that creating gridlock in Washington benefits the out party, while also having negative impacts on the president’s party, the president’s approval ratings and the president’s re-election odds. I wouldn’t expect Republicans to change anything now, because it worked to get Trump elected. Frankly, it worked pretty well for Democrats for the first two years of Trump’s presidency in the sense that they didn’t roll over often for him, and hung together through the battles over the Affordable Care Act. 

So I think it’s going to be two more years of pretty unseemly partisan conduct in Washington that ordinary people are going to have difficulties seeing. You know, what’s the benefit of any of this for them?

It feels like it’s been this way for far too long, with a lot of inaction as the result. I can’t imagine bipartisan projects happening when Mitch McConnell maintains control of the Senate. 

I would describe this as our 12th year of having Mitch McConnell as the de facto President of the United States, and I don’t like it. It’s not good for the United States. He’s a bad person, and he has pretty sinister goals. He doesn’t really care about the health of this democracy, and he doesn’t care about helping people. He has a set of extremely rigid ideological goals that are melded with, I think, decades worth of partisan grievance. I see it expressed in this [COVID relief] package of his.

In the big picture, there’s still a powerful sentiment in this country that a divided government is actually good. That this is what it means to have congressional checks on the president. So if you want a unified government in D.C., which the Dems do, you have to tell the people why you want it and why it’s important. And you have to make sure you’re making the case that the Republican Party’s policy priorities are bad. You have to make the case that the party, as an institution, was captured by Trump, humiliated by Trump and is still doing Trump’s dirty work now. 

In this cycle, the Democrats didn’t make that case. They didn’t want to diss the Republican Party at all. They did the opposite — watch the Democratic National Convention. Again, it was a very effective ad for Biden, but it also had the effect of laundering the reputation of the Republican Party, giving people — probably right-leaning independents, primarily — a way to say, “I’m super-tired of Trump, but I definitely don’t want to give Democrats power in D.C. And why should I?”

Well, that messaging is going to be critical for this runoff race in Georgia, which the Dems’ hopes are clinging to. There’s already a fight over tactics — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has declared that overly progressive rhetoric will lose the fight, pissing off a lot of progressives in the process. So what gives? 

The messaging question is really something that has to be left up to state party leaders. And to me, getting into this ideological narrative of should they run on the Green New Deal or run away from it is kind of missing the point. They really have to make the case that Democrats need to govern the country. 

It would be a disaster for the two candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, to splinter in messaging with one being the moderate and one being the progressive. They need to campaign together. Get one bus, put ’em on it. [Laughs] That’s silly, but trying not to get into divisive policy here is good. Not because I disagree that policy debates are real and important, but because the case they need to make is, “Who do you want to be President of the United States? Do you want it to be Joe Biden, the person that you voted for three weeks ago? Or do you want it to be Mitch McConnell?” 

Tie [Georgia senators] David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to McConnell. Tie them to the obstructionism. Repeat all the crazy things that McConnell has already said, like how Biden’s not getting a cabinet, how the Republicans are going to force their picks. That’s the case we’ve got to make in Georgia. We’re not going to settle a left versus center-left debate in the next 10 weeks or whatever until the runoffs. We just need to win, and if we win, it’s possible to talk about things that aren’t on the table with a Republican Senate — things like getting rid of the filibuster, statehood for D.C. and a new voting rights act.  

Those would all be generational, transformative policy changes, which reminds me of court-packing to reduce conservative influence on the Supreme Court. It seems like despite all the criticism around the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court — a massive breach of U.S. political norms — we’re not going to see serious conversations about court-packing for a few years. 

Yeah, to be honest, it’s again why we have to win these Georgia races. Winning them allows us to put pressure on Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to start considering these ideas. I do think that the idea of enlarging the court has majority support among Democrats, and that’s a huge change from four years ago. It’s just something that we have to continue to build on, making the case that the institutions themselves are structural obstacles to the kind of change that we want to see. 

Activists need to keep a close watch on this court, and when it does something extremely disruptive and unpopular, they have to seize on that and make the case for winning the Senate back. It could be the 2022 rallying cry. That’s not the conversation I was hoping we’d be having right now, but yeah. [Laughs]

Is the outlook for reforming or abolishing the Electoral College similarly bleak without Senate control, or is this an idea that can inspire populist support? It’s fascinating to see states coming together in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), pledging to give their electoral votes to the popular-vote winner as a matter of procedure.  

In our current political climate, it’s the only feasible way to get rid of the Electoral College. I’ve been saying for years that the only way an amendment would get any traction in the legislature is if a Democrat wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote. That very nearly happened in 2004 with John Kerry, and it would have been a great historical moment — back-to-back Electoral College misfires, one for each party. Then maybe both sides say, “Well, we can all agree this is really dumb.” But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. 

The NPVIC has obstacles, though. That compact is at 196 electoral votes, right now, but the new rule only goes into effect once the total hits 270. This is another place where the down-ballot losses for Democrats were so disappointing. We had the chance to take back the Pennsylvania state legislature, and we had the opportunity to flip some state legislatures in other places like Texas and Arizona, that might’ve put us in the position to win a trifecta for years to come. It seems like we just lost them all. That means we’re still 74 electoral votes short of the bill going into effect.  

So the bad news is that we’re not getting rid of the Electoral College by 2024. The good news is that the voters of Colorado just approved their ballot referendum for the NPVIC. It’s gaining some steam, and reformers feel more urgency after a second consecutive election with an electoral college picture that differs so much from the popular vote.

On a similar note, where are we with reforming campaign finance? Debate over the influence of Super PACs and shadow money seems to have faded in the chaos of 2020. What did this election teach us about campaign spending? 

One thing that’s pretty obvious here is that the structure of the system doesn’t actually benefit Republicans. Sometimes it does, other times it doesn’t. The reality is that the Democrats gave a lot more money than Republicans this cycle. Democratic Senate candidates had more money than God. I mean, RBG died and every liberal in America opened their wallet. And it just did nothing. I mean, the fact that Susan Collins won her reelection by nine points, in a state that Biden carried by nine points… I’m having difficulty processing that. 

The received political science is that candidates who raise the most money generally win. And that’s not what happened here. AOC has a really good point with her criticism of the execution and spending strategy in a lot of races — that money was wasted on consultants and stupid PDF reports that no longer moves an electorate. 

There needs to be a reckoning on money, because it feels like a lot of campaign funds would have been better invested in local organizing, local party orgs and really unsexy stuff that donors don’t want to hear about. Donors want to write a fat check and see the name of the Super PAC on a TV spot the next day, or have a figure like Stacey Abrams to brag about. Frankly, we could just spend less money. It’s a waste of national wealth and resources. Maybe, instead of spending $200 million to lose to Lindsey Graham, we can use it to ensure the legitimacy of our democracy and build out grassroots organizations that can exist after the election ends. When a candidate’s campaign ends, it’s all gone, right? What do we have in South Carolina to show for it? 

Maybe the best example of how money isn’t the priority is seeing how protest and other direct actions have shifted the political landscape in cities without spending huge cash. I mean, L.A. just elected a progressive district attorney thanks largely to local Black Lives Matter organizing. 

In the last four to six years, progressives in these big, ostensibly very Democratic cities have pushed and fought for more progressive policies at the local level, with issues that the cities really do control. To me, this shift toward reform DAs and the like reflects a transformation of the white urban electorate into local majorities for, if not super-radical racial justice ideas, at least real progress. 

This is great because it means we’re getting away from this hyper-nationalization of politics. It gets local activists inspired and involved, and it gets people in states that have zero impact on the electoral college the sense that turning out the vote and being politically engaged matters in a serious way. That their participation can have an impact on people’s lives.

Looking ahead, it’s obvious the 2022 midterms will be a critical juncture for the Democrats once again. How do you think the fight will unfold? 

We will have a chance to take back the Senate in 2022. Republicans just expanded their majority in a midterm year. So it’s been done! It’s been done twice this century because Republicans did it in 2002, as well.

Meanwhile, we just have to keep our eye on the ball. Barrett and her friends on the high court are going to do some terrible things that might finally consolidate public opinion, at least on the Democratic side. The 2022 fight will be on the terrain of gridlock and the Supreme Court doing unpopular things. And it’s going to be another cycle where Senate Democrats win a whole lot more votes than Republicans, but still struggle for control of the Senate. 

In a functioning parliamentary democracy, we would be having a very different conversation right now. We’d be having the conversation of, “Wow, Democrats swept it again. Why can’t Republicans win anything? Why can’t Republicans appeal to those in cities?”

But the dynamic of our system skews our very understanding of politics by empowering a minority at the expense of the majority. And that’s more true than ever this year. So I hope the next two years are a wake-up call to people that if the Democrat Party ever does get power back and can make semi-permanent change, fixing these institutions really needs to be at the top of the agenda. Or else we’ll be right back here again soon.