A Radical Strategy for Democrats: 2020 and Beyond

Having breathed one or more sighs of relief now that Democrats control the House, consider this: Republicans have manipulated the electoral system and the law to win one, possibly two, presidential elections this century. Republican-controlled state legislatures are less laboratories of democracy than laboratories of minority voter suppression. Methods vary from gerrymandering voting districts to outright voter intimidation. These machinations have proven effective in hamstringing the democratic process; we are left with a national epidemic of voter suppression that extends throughout the system.

Over the next two years we can expect more of the same from a Party desperate to retain power. The most honest Republican slogan in 2020 would be “Win by Any Means Necessary.” Trumping Trumpism will not be an easy task; options are few and  political courage a rare commodity.  Democrats may be the only obstacle between a rogue nationalist president and another electoral coup in 2020.  The Party’s dismal record of capitulating to gerrymandering, voter suppression and rigged elections does not inspire confidence. But the stakes are higher than ever, for both the Democratic Party and the country. Thoughtful Democrats understand this, but the question is what, if anything, they are willing to do about it.

The dark cloud of neo-fascism that hangs over Washington will not self-destruct.  Republicans know that the electoral system contains key weaknesses they can exploit to thwart the will of the electorate. A contested election, or even a narrow win for Democrats, would be seen by Trump loyalists as an invitation to a quick and dirty power grab. The country would face a constitutional crisis or worse. Democrats should be asking themselves now how they would respond to such circumstances. A radical approach to countering Trumpism is necessary if they are serious about restoring the fundamental values and practices of democracy.

House Democrats should declare an immediate moratorium on legislative governance, not with the aim of shutting down government, but to free members up to devote full time to creating a fair and transparent electoral process. There is no more pressing issue. A critical first step would be to create a firewall of legal and technical safeguards around the presidential election of 2020.  They could then move on to re-working the entire electoral system. It would be a unique opportunity for Democrats to consider ways to expand House membership (perhaps doubling) and create a democratic alternative to the Electoral College. Within this operational framework, they could continue to fund federal agencies and programs while exercising strict oversight over Trump and his lackeys.

A simple truism applies: extraordinary times require extraordinary actions.   A two-year policy hiatus by Democrats is a small price to pay to avoid the permanent damage that will result if Republicans retain power.  Enlisting public support will be crucial, so at the outset Democrats should explain to the public what they are doing and why they are doing it. Bringing their supporters on board might not be all that difficult.  New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes about a national pro-democracy movement that is making progress in enlisting public support and influencing election outcomes. He argues that all Democratic presidential candidates should have a pro-democracy agenda and that universal voting by mail would substantially increase voter participation. This is true but increased suppression of minority votes could offset the gains.

Democrats face the daunting task of not simply identifying weaknesses in the electoral system but devising ways to remedy or eliminate them. It will require time, energy and, most of all, commitment. They should temporarily shelve national health insurance, immigration reform, the environment, education, infrastructure and other issues critical to a decent society. A Republican-controlled Senate, a corporate Supreme Court and a white nationalist President will stymie their initiatives regardless, so the Democrats have nothing to lose and much to gain.

The need to act quickly should be obvious: the Republican Party is rapidly moving further to the extreme right. If Democrats dally while the opposition goes full-fascist, it will be too late for anything other than symbolic, and ultimately useless, protests.  It is the game that has changed, not just the rules; an all-out effort will be required to restore integrity to the system.

Republican politicians have perfected electoral practices that allow them to rig votes and win elections. Disenfranchising the opposition is considered part of the game.  Their legislative leaders spend more time devising ways to tilt the election in their favor than they spend governing. They lead by example, and it is all about retaining or gaining power, seldom about acting on behalf of the public. With few solid accomplishments, the more opportunistic ones add fear-mongering and racist dog whistles to their repertoire. It is not lost on them that their white nationalist president excels at spreading fear and loathing and rewards those who follow his lead.  Together they have turned the noble experiment into a bastardized oligarchy that is flirting with fascism.

Trump, the angry white nationalist, now owns what is essentially the core of an angry white nationalist party. Assuming the House Democrats pressure him by probing his taxes, real estate deals, ties to Russian oligarchs, and other areas where he is legally vulnerable, Trump will turn to his base for comfort and support; he has nowhere else to go. The question then becomes whether he will remain content rallying the MAGA caps and instigating the ritualistic chants, or whether he and his most extreme followers move into a full neo-fascist mode.  He is already ramping up the political theater at his rallies and press conferences… a higher dose to get the same high. Expect him to add others, besides Democrats and the media, to his list of “Enemies of the People.” Stalin and Nixon will smile.

As Trump continues down this sordid route, public opinion could force Democrats to charge him with treason and begin impeachment hearings. If impeachment follows and the charges are serious enough, the Senate might convict him; but Democrats would be fools to count on that. Trump has made it clear that he will resist all efforts to curb his power; it would be a serious mistake to think that he would allow legalities to thwart him. The safest strategy is to avoid all distractions and diversions and go to work preparing for the worst in 2020. At this perilous time, there is no better way Democrats can serve their constituents or their country.