Last night’s elections make clear that the ongoing comedy of a hapless GOP struggling to find a suitable House Speaker or Presidential candidate is a sideshow that continues to lull Democrats into complacency. As Obama takes his victory lap and Hilary does her on-deck stretches, Democrats would do well to consider:
- Since Obama was elected, Democrats have been obliterated at the state level, losing more than 900 state legislature seats, 12 governorships. As a result, Democrats only control 7 states outright. Republicans control all branches of 25 state governments. In 11 states where Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, Republicans control the governorship.
- Democrats have not made up for it at the federal level, losing 69 House seats and 13 Senate seats. There are no plausible scenarios that I am aware of for Democrats to recapture the House — and only highly optimistic ones for recovering control of the Senate.
So what? Well, as Matt Yglesias notes in a widely discussed post, elections have consequences. Which include restricting the rights of Democratic supporters. Voting rights face cutbacks in many states, unions face right-to-work laws in half of all states, and the right to abortion is under attack. As Sara Kliff has documented: “States passed a record 205 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2013, more than the entire 30 years prior. As a result… 87 separate locations ceased to perform surgical abortions in 2013. These changes are a clear result of pro-life mobilization in the Obama era.”
Well again, so what? The fortunes of our two political parties shift like tides. Political scientists have even called it “thermostatic”, since the electorate is like a political thermostat, pulling left when conservatives are in power and right when liberals rule. Recent evidence that this is true point out that the biggest changes come in “wave elections”. But we see no signs of a Hillary wave.
Some (including me) worry that because state legislatures draw most legislative boundaries, conservatives will lock in permanent majorities by the dark art of gerrymandering. My argument, that the ability of voters to choose their leaders is fundamentally compromised if leaders can first choose their voters suffers from one distressing fallacy: a lack of evidence. The optics of gerrymandering appear worse than the results (which is not a defense of the practice). Redistricting does not, for example, explain how Democrats can win a majority of votes but a minority of seats — as happens in recent elections. Many political scientists estimate that it produced at most ten Congressional District victories in 2012 — not a powerful explanation for the GOP’s 33 seat majority in the House.
What is to be done? Revitalizing the Democratic Party at the state and local level is challenging for several reasons (Tom Schaller makes the strong form of this argument here, although I don’t find most of it convincing).
- Mobilize poor people. The US has a lot of poor people and Democrats should not cede them politically. Do I blame wealthy Democratic donors for this negligence, as some have? On the evidence, no — but as Democrats have shown, it is pretty easy for a wealthy party to overlook the needs of poor people. Democrats should take seriously that Republicans outpoll them among poor voters in many states.
- Overinvest in small states. The constitution gives the GOP an advantage because it allocates power to small states. As a result, Republicans hold a higher share of Senate seats than the share of voters who back its candidates. Democratic voters are concentrated in cities, which in America is politically inefficient. The solution is to move people, money and organizational talent from dark blue cities to light red suburbs and compete there. Democrats are lousy at this.
- Enlarge the tent. In Silicon Valley and a few large cities, business leaders are often active Democrats, but this is generally not the case. At a time when the GOP frequently spouts positions that every businessperson knows to be nonsense (including and especially on immigration) Dems should develop business leaders who can articulate Democratic positions — or change those that are hopelessly anti-business.
Above all, Democrats should avoid focusing on the comedy that is the GOP leadership struggles or the drama of the Hillary and Bernie show. When the house fills with smoke, it is time to look up from the TV.