What the Democrats Must Do First


AP Photo/Carolyn Kasterr

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joined by from left by Representatives John Lewis, Eric Swalwell, Joyce Beatty, Kathy Castor, and Joe Kennedy, speaks to media at the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill. 

The midterms are over and my newsfeed is filled with pronouncements on what the Democrats should do next. Go bolder. Go centrist. Be inspirational. Be careful. Nominate Beto. Nominate Sherrod. Draft Michelle.

So many opinions. So many reactions. One of my reactions is, Hold on a damn minute! Before we plunge into all these testy debates, could there be a more immediate question on the table? More immediate and more unifying?

The first order of business for Democrats and progressives, it seems to me, is to advance a serious clean elections/clean government agenda, and do all we can to make democracy reform a front-of-mind issue for voters, office-holders, candidates and the media. That project should be at the top of their To Do list for three reasons: necessity, political advantage, and readiness.

Necessity. Consider a few thought experiments with a common plotline of “Even after we accomplish X, it won’t be easy to do Y.” That is sadly true where:

  • X = win the House and Y = win the Senate
  • X = win the Senate and Y = enact meaningful legislation for the public good
  • X = enact legislation for the public good and Y = get it declared constitutional by a federal judiciary packed with corporate stooges like Brett Kavanaugh
  • X = get it declared constitutional and Y = get it implemented and enforced by industry-captured agencies of government.

Climate change, racial justice, economic justice, worker rights, and dignity—progress in every important area of policy demands a fairer political process, a more representative government, and measures to curb the game-rigging power of big corporations, Wall Street, and the ultra-wealthy. That point has been clear for a while now. It should be clearer than ever after the second straight election in which Democrats got millions more votes and Republicans still wound up controlling most of the levers of government.

Political advantage. In a pre-election NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, “the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” ranked just one percentage point behind the economy as the electorate’s top concern. Democrats, with all their ethical shortcomings, held a nine-point advantage over Republicans on that metric.

Integrity problems undid a number of Republican lawmakers this year. I am not just referring to a standout slimeball like Dana Rohrbacher, the 15-term California representative buried in headlines about his links to Michael Flynn, Natalia Veselnitskaya, Vladimir Putin, and assorted other tyrants and fraudsters. Corruption also figured in the defeat ofgarden-variety slimeballs like Randy Hultgren of Illinois. 

I became acquainted with Representative Hultgren and his record through a research and messaging campaign I instigated: the Wall Street Flunkies project. Hultgren was one of our “banker’s dozen”—13 House members with unusually cozy ties to banks and payday lenders, exemplified in his case by sponsorship of a major financial deregulation bill that turned out to have been written almost word for word by one of his top donors, Citigroup. Progressive Democrat Lauren Underwood, who unseated Hultgren in the midterm election, ran on her public health background and commitment to the Affordable Care Act and its coverage of preexisting conditions. But Underwood’s victory also demonstrated the appeal of her campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” which was bolstered by her refusal to accept corporate money and her team’s readiness to call Hultgren out for his special-interest favors to his biggest donors.

“Being able to tie Randy Hultgren’s bank [money] to specific votes and language was very helpful,” an Underwood campaigner wrote me after the election. “Randy also took telecom $ and voted against net neutrality, which is an issue that lots of folks understand. So I think that narrative—I want a representative who isn’t beholden to corporate moneyresonated with persuadables.” Eight of the 13 major flunkies wound up losing their races. The others were Peter Roskam (Illinois), Tom MacArthur (New Jersey), Erik Paulsen (Minnesota), Bruce Poliquin (Maine), and Mia Love (Utah). See wallstreetflunkies.org for an explanation of the project and profiles of the 32 incumbents (13 major flunkies plus 19 minor flunkies) targeted.

Democracy reform proved to be a vote-getter in its own right. Nevadans and Marylanders approved measures calling for same-day or automatic voter registration. Floridians restored the voting power of a potential 1.4 million ex-felons. (Had they been allowed to vote this time around, Democrats might well have won the Florida governor’s and senator’s races. The citizens of Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah decided to hand the task of redistricting to nonpartisan bodies instead of the pols currently running their state legislatures.

Readiness. These issues countedin 2018 and will have far more traction in 2020 if the coming months bring either of two likely developments. Development No. 1: Further revelations of Trump/Republican criminality. (Inevitable regardless of what happens with the Mueller probe and attendant legal proceedings.) Development No. 2: Fresh economic suffering fueled by financial deregulation, chicanery and excess. (More a question of when than if, since we already have the deregulation, chicanery and excess.)

In other words, a big change in the political weather may be brewing, and history (post-Watergate history, for example) portends a powerful anti-corruption backlash that will put Wall Street’s and corporate America’s worst political enablers at extreme risk. That would be a huge opportunity for Democrats and progressives—if they’re prepared for it.

Democrats can prepare by committing themselves to a game-changing set of new rules for elections and government service, and a code of conduct to follow in the here and now. Progressives can do their part by building an institutional infrastructure to get lawmakers and candidates to heed the call.

An agenda could draw on steps already taken at the state and local levels and proposals put forward by Nancy Pelosi, John Sarbanes, Elizabeth Warren, and others. Potential elements include nonpartisan redistricting, weekend voting, runoffs or ranked-choice voting when no candidate gets a majority, and a matching-fund system for candidates who agree to strict limits on big-money campaign contributions. 

A code. A self-selected group of lawmakers should publicly take a Clean Government pledge that goes well beyond the requirements of law. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has sensibly proposed, they could vow never to take money from an industry overseen by a committee on which they serve. They could require every campaign contribution be traceable to its ultimate source, and they could demand a no-future-lobbying promise from key staffers while making that same promise themselves. Perhaps they could wear a literal badge to advertise these commitments.

An outside campaign. For the agenda and code to be meaningful, they must be risky. Those who sign on could have trouble financing their campaigns and winning the approval of the DCCC and other vetters of candidate credibility. In recognition of the difficulty, progressive activists and funders need to create and strengthen institutions both to support the best role models and (in the Wall Street Flunkies spirit) to track and publicize the ethical lapses of others.

Democrats should not be exempt from this scrutiny. Without being sanctimonious or dismissive of the arguments against “unilateral disarmament,” progressives should call on them to reimagine themselves as something more—far better—than just one of two political parties using the existing tools of power to win elections and promote policies.

Republicans, after all, do not see themselves that way. They have assumed the form of a ruling party in a tinhorn semi-dictatorship. They’re in the business of subverting, not wielding, the machinery of democracy. They have taken our country dangerously far in the direction of authoritarianism, nationalist demagoguery and plutocracy. Democrats need to be the solution – the standard-bearers of fairness and integrity.

Some Democrats will decline that honor, of course. Many party elders are settled in their ways, content or more than content with the current arrangements. But others will grasp the magnitude of the occasion and rise to it, and some may even take the opportunity to lament and disown practices they have tolerated and indulged up to now. Those who do could be rewarded for their courage.

In the short run, a strong stand on democracy reform could be a way for Democrats to bridge internal differences, overcome their reputation for quarrelsomeness (to say nothing of their reputation for kowtowing to corporations, banks, and other moneyed interests), insulate themselves against the criticism and discontent of progressive activists, and forge new connections with working-class and other voters and nonvoters whose thinking about political corruption rests on the inaccurate but entirely too justified assumption that “everybody does it.”

In the longer run, politicians who take the pledge could have an easier (or, at any rate, more satisfying) experience winning office. And once in office, their chances of being of practical service to their constituents and advancing the national good would be vastly enhanced. That is the goal that should motivate them and the rest of us.

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