The American voters chose to give the Democrats the White House, but denied them a mandate. Even if Democrats somehow squeak out wins in both Georgia Senate races, the Senate will then pivot on Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Not only does this take much of the liberal wish list off the table, it also makes deep structural reform of federal institutions impossible. There will be no new voting rights act in honor of the late Representative John Lewis, no statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and no Supreme Court packing. For that matter, the filibuster will not be eliminated, which would have been the essential predicate for all of those other changes as well as expansive climate or health care legislation. Anything that Democrats want to do that requires a party-line vote is forlorn.
In response to this disappointment, a number of left-of-center commentators have concluded that “democracy lost” in 2020. Our constitutional order, they argue, is rotten and an obstacle to majority rule. The Electoral College and the overrepresentation of small, mostly conservative states in the Senate is an outrage. As Ezra Klein has argued, our constitution “forces Democrats to win voters ranging from the far left to the center right, but Republicans can win with only right-of-center votes.” As a consequence, liberals can’t have nice things.
The argument is logical, but it is also a strategic dead end. The United States is and in almost any plausible scenario will continue to be a federal republic. We are constituted as a nation of states, not as a single unitary community, a fact that is hard-wired into our constitutional structure. Liberals may not like this, just as a man standing outside in a rainstorm does not like the fact he is getting soaked. But instead of cursing the rain, it makes a lot more sense for him to find an umbrella.
Liberals need to adjust their political strategy and ideological ambitions to the country and political system we actually have, and make the most of it, rather than cursing that which they cannot change.
There are certainly some profound democratic deficits built into our federal constitution. Even federal systems like Germany, Australia and Canada do not have the same degree of representative inequality that the Electoral College and Senate generate between a citizen living in California versus one living in Wyoming.
There is also next to nothing we can do about it. The same system that generates this pattern of representative inequality also means that — short of violent revolution — the beneficiaries of our federal system will not allow for it to be changed, except at the margins. If Democrats at some point get a chance to get full representation for Washington, D.C., they should take it. But beyond that, there are few if any pathways to changing either the Electoral College or the structure of the Senate. So any near-term strategy for Democrats must accept these structures as fixed.
The initial step in accepting our federal system is for Democrats to commit to organizing everywhere — even places where we are not currently competitive. Led by Stacey Abrams, Democrats have organized and hustled in Georgia over the last couple of years, and the results are hard to argue with. Joe Biden should beg Ms. Abrams (or another proven organizer like Ben Wikler, the head of the party in Wisconsin) to take over the Democratic National Committee, dust off Howard Dean’s planning memos for a “50 state strategy” from the mid-2000s and commit to building the formal apparatus of the Democratic Party everywhere.
This party-building needs to happen across the country, even where the odds seem slim, in order to help Democrats prospect for attractive issues in red states (and red places in purple states), to identify attractive candidates and groom them for higher office and to build networks of citizens who can work together to rebuild the party at the local level.
A necessary corollary of a 50 state strategy is accepting that creating a serious governing majority means putting together a policy agenda that recognizes where voters are, not where they would be if we had a fairer system of representation. That starts with an economics that addresses the radically uneven patterns of economic growth in the country, even if doing so means attending disproportionately to the interests of voters outside of the Democrats’ urban base. That is not a matter of justice, necessarily, but brute electoral arithmetic.
That does not mean being moderate, in the sense of incremental and toothless. From the financialization of our economy to our constrictive intellectual property laws to our unjust tax competition between states for firms, the economic deck really is stacked for the concentration of economic power on the coasts. Democrats in the places where the party is less competitive should be far more populist on these and other related issues, even if it puts them in tension with the party’s megadonors.
We also need to recognize that the cultural values and rituals of Democrats in cosmopolitan cities and liberal institutional bastions like universities do not seem to travel well. Slogans like “defund the police” and “abolish ICE” may be mobilizing in places where three-quarters of voters pull the lever for Democrats. But it is madness to imagine that they could be the platform of a competitive party nationwide.
That doesn’t mean that we should expect members of the Squad not to speak out for fear of freaking out the small town voters that Democrats like Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia represent. But it does mean recognizing that, unlike the more homogeneous Republicans, the Democrats have no choice but to be a confederation of subcultures. We need to develop internal norms of pluralism and coexistence appropriate to a loose band of affiliated politicians and groups, rather than those of a party that is the arm of a cohesive social movement.
The Democratic Party has a future within the constitution the country has. The question for the next decade is, will we withdraw into pointless dreams of sweeping constitutional change or make our peace with our country and its constitution, seeking allies in unlikely places and squeezing out what progress we can get by organizing everywhere, even when the odds of success seem slim.
Steven Teles, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is an author, with Robert Saldin, of the book “Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites.”
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