Republicans have an insight: Votes matter. That’s why they work so hard to suppress them.
They believe that the smaller the total, the greater the weight of their voters. Understandably, a party encumbered with a sweepingly unpopular platform—and disencumbered by attachment, sentimental or otherwise, to democracy—values the vote so highly that they do all they can to diminish, compress, and redistrict the opposition into oblivion. In particular, Republicans pull out the stops to restrict the franchise and manipulate the electoral map to jam minority votes into the smallest possible number of congressional districts. The practical Brothers Koch get the message, as do the Republican operatives who, by gaining the power to redistrict, “built a firewall against the popular will,” to quote David Daley’s important study of victory through gerrymandering, Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. These operatives, to quote Daley again, know the value of “writing a check to the Republican running for state representative in Pennsylvania’s 130th.”
The right has had a big decade trashing democracy by blocking the registration of poor and minority voters, as well as felons. Voter-ID laws, efforts to curb early voting and to restrict voting hours, and other legislative moves have been part of their onslaught, and disinformation also helped massively. In 2009, the propagandist James O’Keefe issued a heavily fabricated exposé—amplified by allies Andrew Breitbart and Fox News—that succeeded in taking down Federal funding for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. The organization collapsed. ACORN had gotten a net of 865,930 voters registered in 21 states in 2008, according to John Atlas, the author of Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Organizing Group. ACORN had been more effective at reaching poor and minority populations than Rock the Vote, the NAACP, or any other registration groups. “We’re still suffering from the destruction of ACORN,” Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party told me. “Nobody has replaced ACORN.”
The right’s organizers conduct themselves like generals outfitting and assembling their troops, not like single-issue advocates. You don’t hear a lot of nonsense from the nutcase right about the two parties as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The right is on message, and the message is that voting is too important to proceed without interference. Voter deregistration through ID and other laws is one tactic; rigged redistricting is another; a third is the administration’s recent decision to pose a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
The party that embraced Donald Trump has decades of experience in exploiting oligarchic and antidemocratic elements in the American political structure. Consider only one remarkable fact, largely taken for granted, old news—that is, not news at all—in a news torrent that daily defies disbelief: Thanks to an 18th-century Constitution designed to resist popular pressures, two of the last three presidents—Republicans, not incidentally—came to power while losing the popular vote. The horrors of the Iraq war and its spillovers throughout the Middle East, the triumph of Citizens United, the surges in white supremacy, xenophobia, and gun violence, the triumph of falsehood throughout our political culture, are directly attributable to the triumph of oligarchy and the withering of democratic life.
After years of talk, progressives now scramble to play catch-up. Agitation and lobbying against the Republicans’ fraudulent health-care bill had the feel of a movement; so does the post-Parkland gun-control movement led by electrifying high schoolers. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, which often needs to be belabored in order to stick: The indispensable requirement for improvement is the vote. In an emergency, fundamentals come first. For all kinds of structural reasons there may be no remedies with the vote, but there are surely no remedies without it.
Republican power is the crux of the emergency, and no matter how many forces and factors landed us here, the crucial test of the so-far impressive resistance is whether Republicans are defeated at the polls.
This is not a fool’s errand—it can be done.
It already has been done. Consider not only the Senate victory of Alabama’s Doug Jones but Democratic gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, and inroads into Republican dominance in Virginia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and rural Wisconsin. At this writing, Democrats have flipped 37 statehouse seats in elections since November 2016, while the Republicans have flipped none. One of the districts in question, in Oklahoma City, had gone Republican steadily since 1995. In November 2016, the Democratic candidate, a teacher named Jacob Rosecrants, lost there by a 60–40 margin. On September 13, 2017, Rosecrants won a special election by the same margin. In this election, the Democrats surpassed their totals in both the 2012 and 2016 presidentials.
Over the past year, there has arisen an on-the-ground left, not much heralded, a mostly unphotogenic web of organizations and organizers—often new to politics, until awakened by Trump’s victory—which was accelerated in the January 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches, and does not make the mistake of thinking the revolution will be brought to you on Twitter. This practical resistance recognizes that during the coming months, the most effective stratagem for undermining white bigotry and big-money dominance is to run compelling candidates, many of them women, and to register voters, especially in swing or swingable districts, where registration and turnout will determine who controls the House of Representatives, even the Senate, and who will be in a position to shore up or undermine voting rights and all consequent laws pertaining to immigrants, guns, abortion, you name it. In some districts, the compelling candidate will be left-populist; in others, center-left. At the local level, in state legislative elections, registration and turnout will matter, too, not least because the results will affect redistricting after the 2020 census.
The prospect of near-death has concentrated the progressive mind. The upwelling evident in the women’s marches has taken root in the form of local projects, many of them aided by the Indivisible and Swing Left infrastructure. Three crucial organizing lessons are being widely learned:
• Mobilization must galvanize organization.
• Screen-to-screen is no substitute for face-to-face.
• Resources help—money, recruitment, staff—but only when there are on-the-ground projects to help.
It is terribly hard to assess the scale or staying power of a resistance, whose nature is, after all, to be organized horizontally and to stay under the radar. There’s often little more evidence than stray anecdotes and an inventory of websites. But evidence mounts that the on-the-ground left is a movement, not just a moment—or rather, that the exalting moments of the Women’s March have blossomed into a movement. It was a good sign that the Women’s March anniversary in Las Vegas on January 21 adopted the hashtag #PowerToThePolls. A common slogan at the New York Women’s March the day before was “Grab Him By the Midterms.” The agonized, fiery, and evidently well-organized high school activists of Parkland, Florida, have issued clarion calls for political campaigning. If high school students sustain their passion and throw themselves into the midterm elections, they could change more than a few political games.
An organizer holds a voter registration clipboard as demonstrators gather during the March for Our Lives protest for gun legislation and school safety outside city hall in Cincinnati.
They could also, along the way, outdistance many college and university students, who have yet to mobilize to register voters in swing districts. So far as I can tell, with exceptions like NextGen organizations funded by the eco-activist Tom Steyer, the campuses have not become launchpads for progressive social movements extending off-campus. While the campus-based left busies itself fighting against free speech and microaggressions in the name of incoherent theory, the fight for legislative representation is where the action is. On the national scale, the campus left is a bugaboo that freaks out the right, a tempest in a sandbox, more effective at setting itself up as a target of convenience than a contributor to any national power shift.
But while left-wing groups argue about identity and struggle to get their discourse ducks in a row, other campus forces are wheeling to face the oncoming elections. Given bottom-scraping student turnout in midterm elections (14 percent among students at the University of Michigan in 2014), many campuses are promoting registration campaigns, often with administrative cooperation. Northwestern is one university that officially promotes registration as the bedrock of real-world politics. Taking up an initiative originally promoted by Michael Peshkin, an engineering professor, the student registration rate there exceeds 90 percent.
Similar efforts are under way elsewhere. Turbovote partners with universities to makes it easy for students to register and get absentee ballots (which some Republican-controlled states treat as so valuable they need to be kept scarce). A New York Times article on this phenomenon notes that “about three dozen House races considered competitive this year were won in 2016 by margins smaller than the number of college students living in the district.” In reaction, Republicans try to block out-of-state college registration with fraudulent claims about voter fraud. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether student registration will translate into get-out-the-vote campaigns in the fall.
Even some activists who voted for Jill Stein have reconsidered their habit of railing against Democrats as if the party were nothing but a fortress of Wall Street power and a nest of neoliberal creeps. The new mobilization recognizes that the Democratic Party so commonly and often deservedly railed against is frequently a shell. In those states where the party retains some clout, it has three functions: 1) dialing for dollars, 2) selecting candidates, and 3) perpetuating the fossilized power of the wheelhorses, whose main goal is to perpetuate their clubby positions. Ryan Grim and Lee Fang have written about how old-boy (and sometimes old-girl) networks fight to keep kept their grip on candidate selection. But in much of the country, “the Democrats” can barely be said to exist. They are not a party in any serious sense of the word. They do not recruit members. They do not debate policies and priorities. They do not spend money to hire staff to get things done. In the past, they have not even competed for open seats.
But a shell party cannot be a fortress of plutocracy (or of anything), or an electoral juggernaut. Rather, it will be defined by whoever shows up to act in its name. Consider California, for example, which includes 9 of the 70 congressional districts that Swing Left considers to be competitive this year. The voting-age population in these nine districts adds up to a bit more than five million. In January 2018, the number of registered voters there came to a bit over 3,330,000—about two-thirds of the total who were eligible. The total actually voting in November 2016 was about 2,360,000—less than half the voting-age population, and only 71 percent of those registered.
In one of these California districts, the 25th, including Los Angeles County’s northeast quadrant and running eastward from there, the incumbent Republican, Steve Knight, won in 2016 by 6.2 percent, or 16,349 votes. The Cook Partisan Voting Index ranks the district even, and the Democrats have a slight edge in registration. One Democratic contender outraised Knight during the last quarter of 2017, while another came in just behind the Republican.
In what was once a heavily white working-class district, one-quarter of registered voters are Latino now. In the L.A. segment of this district, the East Area Progressive Democrats number 830. Hans Johnson, the group’s president, estimates that roughly one-third of them are new to political work since November 2016.
The midterm outlook depends on mobilizations energized by such activists, either in their home districts or within a couple of hours away. Many of them are first-timers fueled by disgust with Trump—which is an excellent starting point. By no means do all the activists who hold the future of democracy in their hands profess themselves progressive—and that’s fine. The prospect of allowing a Republican House to run interference for Trump concentrates the mind, presenting majority coalitions with a superb common enemy in Trump. There’s ample room for political divergence as long as a core of progressive economics, abortion rights, and a blockade against Trump is preserved. Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol have inventoried dozens of such groups and write in Democracy that the current mobilization is decentralized, face to face, and thriving “outside of the metropolitan cores where local Democratic Party patronage structures still persist.” Their on-the-ground research shows that women are “very much in the vanguard, making up about 70 percent of the participants and most members of the leadership team.” The new activists are running for school boards and town councils. That is, they are in training as citizen leaders.
Putnam and Skocpol argue that these activists are changing the Democratic Party, especially in “purple suburbs, mid-size cities, big towns in red regions.” As they see it, “The cumulative result will be local Democratic Party leadership across much of America that is slightly more progressive and much more female than it was, although not much more socio-economically diverse.” What is going on to energize activists in the metropolitan, less-white urban cores is harder to ascertain.
Since Trump came to power, even critics of the party establishment recognize that something has changed because of the work of Indivisible, Swing Left, Emily’s List, MoveOn, and other outsider groups. Indivisible, the most promising offshoot of the 2016 debacle, has on-the-ground groups everywhere. In no small part because of their energy, organizing know-how, and clarity, they have budged the usually hapless Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, DCCC, which is fitfully struggling out of its typical lethargy and formally partnered with Swing Left.
It’s hard to gauge the strength of the progressive groups, but there are encouraging signs and a sense of momentum. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), the Institute for a Progressive Nevada, and Battle Born Nevada have organized voter-registration drives around the state, working with the Culinary Workers and the Service Employees International Union. They’re registering voters on tribal reservations that lacked places to register.
The upwelling evident in the women’s marches has taken root in the form of local projects, many of them aided by the Indivisible and Swing Left infrastructure.
Much of the current activity sees Democrats from the urban core working several districts away. In Los Angeles over recent months, Representative Karen Bass, who represents an overwhelmingly Democratic, heavily black and Jewish district, has organized bus forays to send volunteers—chiefly women—to three nearby Republican districts, not just registering voters but activating local Democrats. She pays organizers out of her campaign budget.
One new group in bright-blue Berkeley is working with local Democrats on voter registration in a Republican-held California district, the Tenth, in the Central Valley; the district went for Hillary Clinton by 3 points in 2016. Even the bluest of districts are no more than a couple of hours’ drive from swingable ones. Similar operations are at work in central Virginia.
On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Three Parks Independent Democrats phone-banks monthly into the nearby 19th District upstate, chiefly along the Hudson Valley, where incumbent Republican John Faso is vulnerable. Tactically astute, led by longtime organizer Steve Max, Three Parks (in his words)
bought a list of senior citizen Republicans who don’t vote in primaries. We figured they might be less hard-core. We call to say that Paul Ryan says that Social Security and Medicare need to be cut, please call your congressman, etc. … It’s actually possible to have conversations with voters about the issue. It just happens that almost all of us are seniors ourselves, so the calls are very senior-to-senior, which helps.
Nearby Columbia University is not conspicuously contributing to the effort to get these voters onto the rolls, but the Three Parks activists are not content to wait for them; rather, they plan to recruit at Columbia and other local campuses as well.
In presidential elections, turnout swells. It’s been over 50 percent of the voting-age population every four years since 1972, with the exception of 1996, when it slipped to 49 percent. (In the elections of the 1960s, the figure exceeded 60 percent.) During the midterms, turnout sinks. In 2008, roused by Barack Obama, 57.1 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots. In 2010, only 36.9 percent did so, which enabled Republicans to win the House and obstruct much of Obama’s program. It was in 2010 that the gerrymandering onslaught caught fire. In 2014, the youth vote, which soared in 2008, collapsed to a feeble 16 percent. “Yes We Can” had been replaced by “We Can’t Be Bothered.” It is in 2018 and 2020 that the gerrymandering bulldozer can be turned back.
The abominations of the Trump regime have ushered in a state of emergency, but emergency does not by itself mobilize. It does not by itself spur organizing, which is the steady work of moving the unconverted, the passive, the defeated. It does not by itself counter the poisonous negative ads and district-level microtargeting that will be amply bankrolled by big-bucks donors from the Koch brothers on down.
But that’s not the whole story. The left is back to basics. People power versus money power—it’s an old story. Organizing is not done by algorithm; it is done by intelligent, focused human effort. Demonstrations can be good for morale, even influence, but they are not the same as organizing for the citizenly work of breathing life into withered democracy. Encouraging signs are not faits accomplis, though they are, after all, encouraging. The proof will be in the November turnout.