The Democrats’ Existential Battle: Achieving Real Democracy

The Democrats’ Existential Battle: Achieving Real Democracy

To preserve their minority rule, Republicans will keep putting up barriers to voting. The only solution is to deepen democracy.

Stacey Abrams’s contested loss in Georgia, and those of Democrats in other competitive races, are partly due to the compromised condition of democracy itself (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Yesterday’s elections confirmed that Democrats are a national majority party. They have won the popular vote in four of the last five presidential elections and yesterday overcame gerrymandering to retake the House of Representatives. (An example of how much gerrymandering matters: In North Carolina’s twelve contested House races, Democrats won 100,000 more votes overall. Democrats, however, are so packed into super-safe districts that Republicans took nine of those twelve seats.) Their positions are much more popular than Republicans’ when it comes to healthcare, taxes, environmental protection, and the other basic work of a modern state. And Donald Trump is not helping his party nationally; his nativist, racist, fear-spreading campaign helped down-ballot Republicans to crater in educated, prosperous, suburban districts, at a time when the economy is as strong as it has been in twelve years. That takes some doing.

But the results also confirm that the Trumpist Republican Party has a workable medium-term plan to hold power. Republicans beat incumbent Democrats in North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, and Florida. Set aside Florida, which will be much tougher for Republicans if the re-enfranchisement of 1.7 million ex-felons sticks, and you have a plan: Use appeals to white and rural identity, evangelical anti-abortion commitment, and dislike of the Democrats’ elite and coastal cultural profile to build a fortress in the anti-majoritarian institutions established by the U.S. Constitution. The Senate famously favors the hinterlands; the senators who voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh represented about 44 percent of the country. So does the Electoral College, which selects the president, because states’ influence is weighted partly by Senate seats. And of course it is the president and the Senate, not the more representative House, that select the Supreme Court. The jurists who slashed the Medicaid expansion (2012), hamstrung the Voting Rights Act (2013), and decided Citizens United (2010) may be just getting started in discovering ways to undercut progressive legislation.

It may well be that demographics will come for the current Republican Party eventually in Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, and so forth. (It is important, though, not to fall into the essentialist fallacy that ethnic and racial identification will be stable and have consistent ideological meaning—the Irish and Italians might not be the last to “become white.”) By that time, in any event, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell will be dead and inequality and climate change considerably worse. The Republicans have been running a minority-rule strategy for at least a decade, modeled in states like North Carolina, where they built a legislative super-majority on gerrymandering, culturally divisive initiatives (a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, anti-trans legislation, an anti-abortion law that turned out to be mainly symbolic), and voter suppression. Trump’s brutal political genius has been to convince enough white people in an electorally key swath of states that they have more fears in common with one another than they have anything else in common with anyone else.

One worry now is that when Trump is gone, along with the drag his nakedly bigoted fearmongering has put on his party, the modest but important realignment he has fostered will remain. If that happens, Democrats can still pile up national majorities, but some of their suburban House voters will drift back to a more palatable Republican, while the GOP can also rely on some years more of disproportionate Senate power from heavily white small states and north-south border states like Missouri.

There is also good news. The revitalization of state and local politics by Resistance energy, married to other forms of left organizing that predated it, has helped win real electoral victories against bad policing and mass incarceration. Reformers are winning prosecutors’ and sheriffs’ offices not just in places like Philadelphia—awfully important, but a city where a reformer can get significant canvassing help from people who think DSA is conservative—but in Raleigh and Dallas, places that are less ideologically unusual. The fact that the black progressive Andrew Gillum came almost exactly as close to winning the governor’s office in Florida as the white centrist Bill Nelson did to holding his Senate seat is just one bit of evidence that the Democrats can run a much wider range of candidates than “common sense” used to hold. The party’s move toward really universal healthcare, stronger criminal-justice reform, living wages, and other progressive goals is not hurting it. Richard Ojeda, a pro-DACA, pro–marijuana decriminalization, anti-corporate populist who stood with striking teachers last year, outperformed Hillary Clinton by about twenty points in southern West Virginia.

But all these candidates lost. Progressive populism may be the future if the Democrats are going to take and hold Senate seats from Ohio to North Dakota to West Virginia to Montana, but it is not a silver bullet today. Their losses, and Stacey Abrams’s loss in Georgia, are at least partly due to the compromised condition of democracy itself. Disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and the subtler barriers of Tuesday voting for working people with insufficient polling places and voting machines are almost certainly enough to account for Abrams’s and Gillum’s losses. These barriers to voting have become existential issues for Republicans in Trump’s party. The good news is the flip side: Democrats are beginning to recognize that strong democracy is existential for them as well. A renewed national voting rights agenda is the immediate response. Longer-term, there is the question of eventually challenging the Electoral College and even the Senate. (It would not be the first time. Until the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment a century ago, senators were appointed directly by state legislatures. It took a populist campaign to change that.) A Democratic Party that knows it needs to build democracy, not just color within existing lines, is a better party.

Losses in the hinterlands depend less on voter suppression than on voter despair. In the West Virginia district that Ojeda lost, about 174,000 people voted in total. In the North Carolina district that includes Chapel Hill, about 334,000 voted. A Trumpist party can succeed on a mix of disaffection and fear. Right now, Democrats can rally national majorities against that party, but in terms of political power they can only fight it to a draw. They still have big steps to take in defining themselves as the party of real democracy in a country where real democracy has something to offer to large majorities. Until they can thread that needle, they won’t have real power to make political and economic change. Until they have that power, there will be a thumb on the scale of voting fears and resentments over constructive demands for change.


Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a member of the Dissent editorial board.


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