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The Professor Who Wants to Inspire a New Generation of ‘Dirty’ Democrats

A conversation with David Faris, the author of the new book ‘It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics’

In the eyes of David Faris, the Democratic Party is losing a war that will influence American politics for generations. Worse yet, he believes the Democrats don’t even realize how rigged the war is against them.

It took some time for Faris, 40, to see American politics this way. Despite growing up in New Jersey with an interest in leftist politics, he chose to focus on international relations while studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania. PhD in hand, he embarked on a journey in 2010 to study governments in the Middle East, spending time in Egypt and Tunisia while writing a book on how digital activism fueled the Arab Spring.

Once he returned to the U.S., though, his attention turned to the chaos of President Barack Obama’s final years in the presidency, and the deepening forcefulness of the Republican opposition to him. The culmination of that opposition, with the election of Donald Trump and GOP control of the Senate and House, left him scrambling for some answers. What he’d taken for granted as a citizen began to puzzle him. Why did so many American politicians trust the “original” language of the Constitution as the first and final word? Why were the unwritten rules of American politics clogging up legislative action? Why did California have the same number of senators representing its population as Delaware? Why wasn’t D.C. a state at all?

And, perhaps the biggest question of all: Why were liberal Democrats in the last 20 years losing so many battles against a Republican front that often pissed off the public with its policy decisions?

In his new book It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, Faris posits that the Dems have stuck to using old-school civility and transactional deals to politic in an era when the GOP has preferred guerrilla warfare. Beyond the tactic, Faris sees major flaws in the structure of American governance itself. The problem isn’t just that Trump became president, Faris says — it’s that he became president despite losing the popular vote by millions.

I recently spoke to Faris (who is also currently an associate professor of politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago) to dig into why Democrats need to deploy more obstructionist tactics as a minority party and ultimately dismantle and rebuild legislative procedures when they regain power — including everything from increasing the size of the Supreme Court to splitting California into seven states.

Before we get into the weeds of progressive political strategy, what were some of the formative political experiences in your life that shaped your perspective?
I remember really clearly the election of 1994 when this sort of group of radical Republicans came into power in D.C. and brought with them a different conception of what political life should be and how we should speak about each other. I was 16 when that happened. It was kind of happening right when my political consciousness was growing. I thought that they were just a catastrophe for D.C. And so, that was an early wake up call for me. The kind of politics that I believed in weren’t necessarily going to win all the time.

Another big watershed event for me was the 2000 election [between Al Gore and George W. Bush]. I majored in political science in college, but oddly, I was an international relations major. I studied comparative politics in the Middle East up until just a couple years ago, actually. So back in 2000, I mean, I was dimly aware that the electoral college is important, but I didn’t know how important till that night.

I remember I was at an election party, and one of the anchors — I forget whether it was Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather or Peter Jennings — looked at the camera and said, “We’re going to have to put Florida back in the ‘Too Close to Call’ column.” I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten over that moment. It was a real eye-opening experience in terms of like, oh well, we have a political system where the person with the most votes can lose the election.

One of the big ideas in the book is that you feel the Democratic Party is using the wrong playbook in terms of fighting things like the Electoral College. Was there a moment where that came into clarity?
Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, I held out some hope that the Republican Party would be punished for some of the things that it did over the course of the last 10 years. Whether that’s using unprecedented blocking tactics to drive down the number of appointments in the central judiciaries from Obama or threatening to default on our credit.

But I think the real moment of clarity for me was the Merrick Garland fiasco, when his appointment to the Supreme Court by Obama was obstructed. I remember thinking to myself, Wow, surely in November people will come out and punish the Republicans for this. Not only did they not punish the GOP, but Republicans won a number of close Senate races in the very institution that had just undertaken this incredible act of escalation.

My instinct was to say, progressives aren’t going to get back into power by being so cooperative and docile with the Trump administration. We need to show our voters that we don’t consider this to be a normal political situation, that we have to fight as hard as we can at every opportunity — even if we lose a bunch of fights over the next two years. We’re not getting back into power with the old upbeat Democratic politics of the early 2000s.

Is there evidence that a broad swath of Democrat voters want that more aggressive edge that a lot of younger progressives root for?
It’s not an accident that the peak of Democrats’ 2018 polling numbers happened in December. Because December was the climax of a year of aggressive obstruction in Congress. Democrats won the fight over a possible repeal of [Obama’s Affordable Care Act], and all odds were against them. But they held together, they worked with these activist groups and it got people fired up. It papered over some of the ideological splits on the left in 2017.

But something cracked in January when Senate Democrats shutdown the government over [potential changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy protecting immigrant children]. They closed down the government for, I don’t remember how many hours, but less than a day. Then they caved and got nothing for it. Since that moment, they worked with Republicans to give 17 Democrat votes on the Senate to the rollback of Dodd-Frank financial regulations. Overall, I’ve seen more of the old Democratic Party in 2018 than the party that I saw last year. And that’s depressing.

I think one big thing to note is that compromising can be more fair if the Democrats have better representation through some of the reforms that you talk about, including by getting more Senate seats.
If we could make D.C. and Puerto Rico states, the Democrats would hold the Senate right now. At least in the Senate they would have much more leverage to pursue compromise. The galling thing about the Dodd-Frank rollback is that Democrats didn’t get anything in return for it. They gave up 17 votes to pass this thing that they could have blocked if they’d just hung together.

At the end of the day, Democrats should have a majority in the Senate right now. Since 1992, they’ve gotten 30 million more votes for the U.S. Senate than the Republicans. But Republicans have controlled it for most of that time period. The institutions create disjuncture between what the people seem to want according to how many people vote for the various candidates, and the actual results of our elections. That’s the fundamental unfairness Democrats have to address the next time they get into power.

I was intrigued by a phenomenon you describe in your book that, for many voters, party loyalties lead them to shift their policy preferences away from those being offered by the other side.
It seems relatively new in the sense that partisanship didn’t used to be as hardened as it is today. Super-majorities of both parties now view everyone else in the other party extremely negatively. The majority of American people say that they don’t want their kids marrying someone from the other party. So, it’s like partisanship has become increasingly hereditary. That means that people develop loyalty to the party above and beyond anything specific the party actually does.

You see that with the dramatic change in the favorability of Vladimir Putin for Republican voters. That was overnight. All of a sudden a substantial number of Republicans now view the president of Russia favorably. So when we’re thinking about the Trump coalition, you can’t expect policy changes that hurt Trump voters to necessarily change the minds of Trump voters.

We talk about, say, soybean farmers being harmed by these new tariffs or something, and our instinct is to assume that at the next election Trump will be punished by these soy farmers. But everything we’ve seen recently suggests that they won’t change their minds about it and point the blame elsewhere.

When you write about how bipartisanship was relatively “normal” in post-World War II politics and has completely gone haywire today, do you have a theory as to why that shift has occurred?
The consensus in the field of political science is that the realignment that took place in the 1960s just took a long time to shake out. This was mostly white Southern Democrats leaving the Democratic party and joining the Republicans. And it took a long time for the voters in these areas to actually abandon the Democratic Party with them. If you run around to some of these extremely Republican states today like West Virginia, you’ll see that Democrats still have a registration advantage. But cycle after cycle, more of those voters just finally changed their allegiance.

One of the reasons they see so much bipartisanship and so much closeness between the wings of the party in, say, the 1960s is that there was a significant number of Democrats who were more conservative than the most liberal Republican. But to understand the shift, consider the big, super important meta-issue of civil rights. The question was, should the United States treat minorities equally and pursue policies to remedy past injustices? Some people weren’t willing to follow the national party down the road of equality because they were more racist than they were Democrats.

More recently, it sure felt like the Democrats struggled to contend with racism in the runup to the 2016 election. Even just how to talk about it.
We see that play out under Donald Trump. For all of the talk of economic anxiety in the white working class, the average Trump supporter is wealthier than the average Clinton supporter. And for these voters in the Midwest, for instance, whose livelihoods were saved by the Obama administration’s intervention to save the American auto industry, they just don’t care. People just weren’t willing to credit the Democrats with that victory because they were more emotionally motivated by the racial changes taking place in American society.

One of the challenging conundrums, especially for young progressives, is what to do, if anything at all, about this bloc of Trump supporters. I mean, it seems like a war of ideology culturally and politically, but is it even one worth focusing on?
I don’t know that the next Democratic presidential candidate should intentionally alienate Trump voters. Let’s not call them “deplorable” again. But I also don’t know think you’re going to peel off a ton of those people either. A lot of Trump supporters, just like a lot of Democrats, are committed partisans. They like the president, in spite of everything that we see. So a large-scale campaign to recapture lost Trump voters isn’t going to pay enough dividends to win the election.

I’d rather see a strategy of enlarging the Democratic coalition with casual Democratic voters — i.e., the people who didn’t turn out. There’s a large group of people who’ve lost hope about their economic lives who aren’t Republicans, and who aren’t racist. Those are our voters. And the political science supports the idea that elections are won and lost on the margins by who inspires their people to turn out. If we had the 2012 electorate in 2016, we would have won.

Why is it that Democrats haven’t used the kind of unified, ideological tactics used by Congressional Republicans? When might young progressives see the party coalesce around major policy ideas like universal healthcare?
The Democrats are probably three cycles behind the Republicans in terms of bringing more ideological politics into the heart of the party. You do see a new transformation in the way the political leadership is talking about things like abolishing ICE and supporting Medicare for All, which has become a litmus test for national candidates. The Bernie Sanders wing of the party may be losing more individual races, but winning the broader messaging war about what the party should stand for. And when that process is complete, maybe in 2024, you will see a Democratic Party that’s much more ideologically motivated than it seems now, and less willing to compromise.

You can look at that as good or bad in terms of the future of American politics, but that’s where the Democrats are heading, and it’s good in the sense that it’s a change from having one really ideologically minded, ideologically rigid party using all of the powers at its disposal to pursue its agenda versus this other pragmatic group of compromisers.

The obstruction of Merrick Garland, Obama’s pick for Supreme Court, by the Republicans in 2016 was a huge moment in American political norms. I read a story recently about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer privately asking Trump to nominate Garland for the open seat left by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s departure. This seems exactly like the kind of milquetoast tactic that won’t lead to anything, right?
First of all, Schumer’s gotta go. Not out of his seat, but he can’t be the leadership of this party anymore. The last few months have made that clear. This dude doesn’t understand the partisan environment he’s working in right now. To me, it expresses this deeply sad and desperate desire to return to a political world where norms and informal rules meant something.

What they should be doing instead is talking to their voters about the fundamental unfairness of the Supreme Court appointment process itself. It’s not that complicated to explain to people that this is a lottery that lucky presidents win, and unlucky presidents lose. Jimmy Carter got no appointments in four years, Trump is gonna get two in two years. That’s an opportunity for Democrats to go out and rabble-rouse around this issue.

Overall, I need to see Chuck Schumer get angry. He needs to be angrier. He looks like he’s fine. You’re the leader of the Democratic Party right now, you shouldn’t fucking be fine.

In the book, you describe how difficult constitutional amendments would be in real life, as attractive as they may be to some ambitious progressives. But you mention other ideas that don’t require them, including adding more Supreme Court justices to the bench to fight a conservative bias, which could be achieved through more conventional legislation. I’m curious why Republicans, when they had unified power, didn’t do that in the past themselves.
I think it has to do with the events of the 1930s, when [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] proposed that idea to expand the court for his legislative benefit, and failed, even though Democrats had majorities in that Congress. This is one of those lessons of American history where everybody has an understanding that this was wrong — it almost destroyed his presidency, et cetera. Another reason nobody has done this is that court-packing is a maneuver that’s often pursued by authoritarian leaders to lock in their power and destroy the opposition.

So, there are good reasons not to do this, but to me, there’s no difference between manipulating the spirit of the Constitution to hold a seat open, and then steal that seat, versus just adding justices. In my mind, the Merrick Garland incident completely changes the rules of American Supreme Court appointments. Republicans aren’t talking about court-packing because they don’t have to. They have the majority in the high court now, so for the important decisions that they want to see made, they don’t need to do it.

To be honest, I’d hope that the threat [of court-packing] alone would forge a truce, and the ideal truce would be that Justice Neil Gorsuch resigns, and then we jam through a constitutional amendment that defines the number of seats on the court and makes the appointment process more routine, with justices getting 18-year terms and every president getting two picks. That’s what would be best for American politics.

Another thing that seems more possible is statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, which you mentioned. Why hasn’t this happened yet? It seems to be a common sense idea that could resonate with the American public generally.
There was a push for statehood for D.C. in 1993. There was even a vote in Congress, and it went down in the House about two to one. The dialogue at the time about D.C. statehood was extremely racist. If you go through the congressional records, there were Republican members of Congress openly wondering whether it’s acceptable to have a majority-minority state. And it was defeated largely at the hands of the remaining white Democrats in the South who were about to get wiped out in the 1994 midterms.

And so, it took a long time for the statehood movement to recover from that. But all the chips are in order for this to happen, and it has overwhelming support in D.C. itself. I’m mystified that the Democrats didn’t pursue statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico the last time they were in total power in D.C. in 2009 and 2011. Now, though, you have loud statehood movements in those places that will pressure the next Democratic majority to act on it.

You talk about another elegant reform idea called rank-choice voting as being advantageous for progressives. For people who aren’t familiar with it, why is rank-choice voting useful?
Rank-choice voting is used in a few different countries. It’s how Ireland elects their parliament. It’s how Australia elects their Senate. It’s used in some U.S. cities. Minneapolis uses rank-choice voting. Maine just had an initiative to start using rank-choice voting. What it does for the voter is it gives them the opportunity to vote for the candidate that they want to vote for first, without worrying about wasting their vote.

Pretend you’re in a world where the Green Party has 15 percent support, and that 15 percent support is distributed equally across the country. The Green Party could win millions of votes, 20 percent of the votes in every single congressional election in the country, and lose every single one of those elections. And the reality is, people know that. The American voter is, in some ways, savvier than we give them credit for, and so they don’t consider these other candidates.

What ranked-choice voting allows you to do is to vote your heart, and then give your brain the second choice. So, vote for the Green Party first, and then rank the Democrats second, or vote for the Democratic Socialists of America first and rank the Democrats second. The point is, it would create opportunities for more parties to run and win in our national legislature, and it also would do a lot of other great things like end partisan gerrymandering. Most importantly, it would make our elections more proportional, so that the number of votes cast for each party would more closely reflect the actual election results.

We have a real problem in the House right now where, largely because of gerrymandering, Democrats have to win the national House popular vote by like, something between 5 percent to 9 percent this fall if they want to take back the branch. And Democrats won the national vote for the House of Representatives in 2012, but Republicans still have an enormous majority.

There’s no voting system that can guarantee that that kind of thing will never happen again, but we have too many of these issues in our electoral system. And over time they’ll produce a sense of outrage that’s going to be very corrosive for the existence of American democracy.

Obviously the big progressive politics news this summer is grassroots activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her win in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, over an entrenched incumbent Democrat. How do young progressives who want youth and more ambitious leftist policy ideas maintain this momentum?
You’re not going to win every one of these races. But I think what’s super important is that even when we’re losing some of these races to centrists, there’s an impact. Cynthia Nixon isn’t going to beat Andrew Cuomo for New York governor, but Andrew Cuomo is a new man because of her. He’s talking a different way. He has different ideas. He’s acting as if he suddenly cares about the Democratic base.

That’s the influence of the activist left on Democratic politics. You’re going to see some situations where you get rid of some centrists. You’re going to see some situations where [those centrists] change their policy positions based on activist pressure. And those two things together, over the next three or four cycles are going to produce a much more progressive Democratic party.

You talk about how a lot of Democrat voters are being left in the dark, through attempts from Republicans to make voting more challenging by pushing voter I.D. laws — even though domestic voter fraud is a nearly nonexistent — and through issues like elections scheduled on workdays and the closure of polling places, which disproportionately impacts poor and minority voters. What needs to change?
There are a number of initiatives happening at the state level for things like automatic voter registration that could be rolled into a single piece of national voting legislation. The elections clause of the Constitution clearly gives Congress the right to do so. That means you could eliminate voter ID laws. You could eliminate some of the disenfranchisement laws that affect felons. You could make a national voting holiday. All of this stuff is a simple act of Congress, and it would immediately add millions of Democratic voters to the rolls who are currently unjustly deprived of their right to vote and participate in national proceedings.

It’s both the right thing to do and also a hardball partisan maneuver. The Republican Party is the only political party in the democratic world who’s made it their mission to reduce the number of people who can vote in our democracy. And that deserves a much more robust national response from Democrats.

What’s something else young progressives get wrong about activism and fighting political battles against this administration and the broader GOP?
That you’re not going to win a lot of policy fights when you’re in the minority. At the end of the day, the majority is in Congress and the presidency, and they get to make laws, whether we demonstrate or not. I personally would like to see fewer large scale national demonstrations and more actions that are targeted at particular members of Congress or particular policy issues. Big demonstrations are good because they build solidarity, but I don’t know that it’s had much influence on the Trump administration’s decision-making.