Democrats Still Aim Too Low. They Need a ‘small d’ democratic Platform
In a 1995 interview for his book Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama, then a Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, called for a society based on collectivism and the common good. He argued not just for the Democratic Party’s popular policies of the day but also a type of government, a vision for America, that transcends parties and harkens back to the broader notion of Western democracy, ‘small d’ democracy, wherein there’s a distinct separation of powers between the branches of government, human and civil rights guarantee freedom for everyone, and, most importantly, free and fair elections maintain a government that represents the people. The rise of Trumpism is a feature — not a bug — in how Washington has been transformed in the past three decades into a machine to benefit politicians, corporations, and the rich. Now Democrats must make it their number one priority to reclaim ‘small d’ democratic principles in their policies and platform.
Where are we now?
Many of the popular progressive proposals of 1995 would not be out of place in 2018. In The Wilderness, a new Crooked Media podcast that consolidates a broad range of Democratic views, Obama’s former head speechwriter Jon Favreau attempts to take a 10,000 foot view of the party’s current trajectory with an autopsy of the Democratic Party aimed at defining a clear, progressive vision for Democrats to rally around. He undertakes sincere conversations about race, economic inequality, and immigration to propose “bold” policies for progressives to inspire voters. This pie in the sky platform is a laundry list of progressive Democrats’ 2018 favorite hits:
- Universal healthcare
- Progressive tax reform including increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit
- Stronger unions
- Tuition-free public colleges
- A $15 minimum wage
- Immigration reform
- Criminal justice reform
- A stronger social safety net
- A federal jobs guarantee
- Responsible environmental policy
This wish list is progressive, ambitious, hopeful, and emblematic of a party fatally terrified to challenge the status quo. We hear slight variations of it from candidates up and down the progressive bench heading into the 2018 midterm elections, and we’ll continue to hear most of these same proposals 10, 20, and 30 years from now because this platform is fragile. Its ideas are too vulnerable to sabotage. Even if a backlash to Donald Trump drives progressive congressional majorities in 2019 or propels a Democrat to the White House in 2021 who implements some of these policies, they won’t stand the test of time.
We’ve seen this before with the National Labor Relations, Voting Rights, Dodd-Frank, and Affordable Care Acts. These aspirational — and meaningful–policies have been threatened or gutted against the wishes of most Americans for the same reason Republicans hold 55% of the House despite receiving only 49% of the votes. It doesn’t stop there. Republicans occupy 52% of the Senate despite receiving only 42% of all senatorial votes, and the current occupant of the White House received just 46% of the popular vote, millions fewer votes than his opponent.
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Corey Booker, or any of the other presumptive candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 cannot currently say to the more than 75% of Americans who don’t live in a small set of swing states that their vote for president will matter. These leaders should be asking themselves why the presidency can be won with just 23% of the popular vote, why it will likely be determined by 18% of voters again in 2020, and what they’re going to do about it now.
How have Democrats received more votes than Republicans in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections despite winning only 4 of them? Instead of asking themselves how to get back to 2008-level voter turnout, Democrats should be asking themselves why the Unites States has trailed most other developed nations with less than 60% turnout for every presidential and midterm election going back half a century.
In all three branches of government there’s a disconnect between who’s running it and who most people want to be running it. The Supreme Court has not reflected public opinion for decades, and the outsized importance appointing judges plays in federal elections is due to an archaic relic of Reconstruction. Thousands of legitimate voters are turned away from the polls every year, and millions of tax-paying American citizens in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia still don’t have voting representatives in Congress. This is, of course, all in addition to the increasingly influential role super PACs and corporations play in politics.
These are not anomalies. They’re the system working as it’s designed. Why?
The system is broken. Legitimate and justified voter dissolution is the result of the slow deterioration of our liberal democracy over many decades. Ironically, this corruption — or at least the perception of it — fueled the anxiety and pessimism that created space for Trumpism to thrive. Before Democrats can implement any of their idealistic social and economic policies and expect them to endure, they must address the root cause — instead of just the symptoms — of this corruption.
Today progressives are a silent majority. That has to change. Democrats can only fix the government by engaging an entire generation in the democratic process.
Favreau says Democrats should do this by running against corruption in 2018. This approach is unlikely to pay off in the long run because Democrats don’t win running against Republican schemes. They lost in 2016 campaigning against protectionism, racism, and cutting taxes for rich people because voters just weren’t inspired to show up for these talking points in big enough numbers.
Instead, Democrats must run for big democratic ideas. They must run for honesty, transparency, fairness, opportunity, and equity. They must campaign on a platform — a distinct set of proposals — aimed at engaging people by expanding the share of the electorate participating in the political process. They must fix the system at its foundation, and the few ruminations we currently hear from mainstream Democrats in the form of repealing Citizens United or calling for campaign finance reform are good but not enough on their own.
Envisioning a ‘small d’ democratic platform
Democrats have long sought to articulate the solution to this corruption at a conceptual level. Speaking as a guest on The Wilderness, Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications under Obama, said:
I think people understand that Donald Trump does not represent the best of who we are. President Obama had a winning message on this in some ways which is that American exceptionalism is defined by who we are as a country, not just our ability to blow things up around the world. That we have a democracy that allows us to get better and that allows us to extend rights and opportunities to more of our citizens, and we set an example of it as a city on a hill for the rest of the world.
The ability and will to change, to improve our democracy by inviting more people to participate in it, is America’s greatest legacy. In Obama’s farewell address, he said “That’s what we mean when we say that America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.” Now is the time for Democrats to once again exceed this high bar. They must fight like hell to drive real and lasting change — to empower people all across the country. Favreau, paraphrasing former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, said:
This is the difference between an America that tries to dominate the world by force and one that looks to lead the world by example. … It’s patriotism based on our belief in a certain set of universal rights and values that we defend around the world and try our best to live up to here at home. That’s the space that Trump and the Republicans have ceded. And that’s the vision [he thinks] Democrats can rally around.
He’s right. This vision — universal rights and values — must be Democrats’ rallying point, and they must not only have specific policies but also an entire platform that is principally targeted at achieving this vision.
Defining a ‘small d’ democratic platform
A ‘small d’ democratic platform focuses on strengthening the core tenets of what it means for a nation to be a democracy. Here’s a list of ‘small d’ policy proposals Democrats should run on because they will get people to the polls by engaging a generation currently exasperated by Washington’s corruption and cement a political landscape that incentivizes collaboration, policies more people actually want, and a system more robust to sabotage by a powerful, self-serving, and well-funded minority:
- Ranked voting in the presidential and all senatorial elections, proportional voting in House elections, and the elimination of the electoral college
- Publicly funded elections
- Automatic or same-day voter registration nationwide
- Redistricting by independent commissioners in all congressional districts
- Term limits for congresspeople and judges
- Statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico
- A pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants
- Reinstating voting rights for Americans who have been convicted of a crime and have served their sentence
- A Department of Justice more independent from the executive branch and more accountable to Congress
- Moving election day to a weekend, expanding early voting, and making election day a federal holiday
None of these ideas are new. Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard, launched a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination for President in 2016 centered around The Citizen Equality Act, a bold piece of legislation aimed at using some of these policies to mend our broken system. However, today these ideas get less coverage from Democratic candidates than the current 2018 progressive agenda. They shouldn’t. These proposals are radical and revolutionary in the right way.
‘Small-d’ policies shouldn’t be just Democrats’ goals, but they are and will continue to be because the Republican Party is unable to operate past its short-term political incentive to staunch voter turnout. When more people show up to vote, Democrats win. Unfortunately Republicans know this all too well, which is why for decades now they have been cranking up the dial on gerrymandering, voter suppression, voter disenfranchisement, and racial fear-mongering.
Campaigning on a ‘small d’ democratic platform
Progressive policy — good legislation that will nonetheless struggle to move the needle because it attempts to succeed in a system stuck operating in bad faith — is currently drowning out a more impactful ‘small d’ democratic platform. It’s a politically irresponsible mistake for Democrats to continue pursuing their normal progressive agenda while sidelining basic ‘small-d’ principles.
The current policies on the 2018 progressive agenda are steps on a downwards escalator. A ‘small-d’ democratic platform is the penthouse.
If progressives embrace a ‘small d’ democratic platform and expand the electorate then their aspirational laundry list will suddenly find itself on a path to becoming reality because most people want it and more people will have a voice in the political process. More people will vote.
This is going to take work, and Democratic politicians won’t get the message without us, the people, using our voices and those of key players outside of government. I’m talking here about people with the ear of the next generation of progressive activists, folks like DeRay Mckesson, John Oliver, Rachel Maddow, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ezra Klien, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lin Manuel Miranda, Michelle Obama, Jon Favreau, and yes, you.
Obama’s 2008 campaign proved that change inspires. Bernie’s unexpected success in the 2016 primary reminded Democrats that they must run on big, groundbreaking changes to attract younger voters. Hillary’s defeat of Bernie showed that voters still want details and a specific roadmap.
A clear-cut ‘small d’ democratic vision will motivate a broader coalition of people to have faith in our government from the local dog-catcher all the way up through the president of the United States. It will shape lasting policy that will not only get but also keep progressive legislation. Barack Obama got this in 1995 when, speaking about collectivism, he said “in the end it does have to be a broad ‘us’. It has to be democracy with a ‘small d’.” It’s past time the Democratic Party was reminded how they win. They must campaign to enable the voices of everyday people to break through the corruption. A ‘small d’ democratic platform is the only way they can bring about the lasting change Americans want and our democracy needs.