The “single step” that Dems and liberal left allies could do is not directly policy related or even a matter of rhetorical repositioning, but, instead, a vast procedural project: put all available resources into revising the antiquated, frequently anti-democratic (small d) protocols of American politics.
As sharp observers of American politics like Jonathan Chait, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have argued, the “dysfunction” in Washington of which everybody speaks is because we now have two ideologically homogeneous parliamentary style major parties trapped within a presidential system of government with separation of powers. The Speaker of the House of one party has as much power and legitimation in our system of government as does the president of the other party. Thus John Boehner can claim accurately that he and his caucus were as much elected as Barack Obama and are entitled to equal political power; the result is, on domestic policy, stalemate. Divided government does not lead to the vaunted bi-partisan compromise beloved by centrist pundits, but, instead, a zero sum contest between the parties to block the agenda of the other party, yet displace any accountability for doing so. Our parties don’t merely oppose, as do their counterparts in other advanced democracies; they obstruct.
Yet American voters have little knowledge or interest in these procedural wrangles, and tend to assume that a presidential party should obtain “results.” The only real result, however, is increasing alienation and contempt from voters for a now ludicrously anachronistic system of government which not only fails to address critical areas of public policy, but also does not reflect that the preferred policies of the presidential candidates they elect unless voters over three election cycles also elect a Congress in both houses from the same party—and also elect at least 60 Senators of the president’s party, too.
This is all nuts, and veneration for the Founders should not obscure the fact that they did not anticipate political parties as they themselves were to join a few years after the Philadelphia convention, let alone the disciplined ones we have today—and further, one as ideologically extreme and polarizing as today’s Republican party.
So, sure, there are plenty of great policies that would help white working class people (and working class people of color, too). You can read about them in, for example, Lane Kenworty’s Social Democratic America, which lucidly lays out Americanized versions of the kind of universal social welfare programs found in Western European countries. Or read the work of Dean Baker, who takes on our system of crony capitalism, which rewards incumbent rent seekers with subsidies and tax breaks, enriching pharmaceutical corporations and patent monopolies at the expense of patients and consumers.
But before we can even talk about how to appeal to white working class voters, or analyze the vexed nature of a Democratic Party heavily influenced by Wall Street, we have to do what we can to eliminate the procedural snafus the founders built into the system. In short, unless we change the protocols of our national political system, the Democratic Party, no less than the GOP, will be reduced to provincial status, creating in blue states a liberal analogue to the revanchist extremism we now see in the red states of the South and parts of the Midwest.
Ideally, we would build to the moment where we could call together a second constitutional convention, and transform our political system into a parliamentary one. Following a single election of one governing party, there would be clear lines of authority to propose and implement policy, and then clear lines of accountability for the success or failure of those policies.
This convention will convene right around the time we are collecting the first proceeds from Thomas Piketty’s global wealth tax. In the meantime, we should build on what Senate Democrats did last year, and organize to eliminate the supermajority filibuster for legislation, and not only for federal judgeships and executive branch positions. With all of its flaws, the Affordable Care Act is something of a modern miracle—it required every single Democratic senator to vote for it. It’s hard to imagine that either party can obtain 60 seats in the Senate again anytime soon. In order to pass progressive legislation—anything from liberalized unionization laws to a national child care program—it is essential that bills become laws via a mere majority, just like they do on the rest of the planet earth (and in the rest of the United States, too). This still leaves the challenge for the Democrats of winning both houses of Congress and the presidency, but, if they did, the party could fairly come to the electorate with a comprehensive program it could actually shepherd into law.
Other procedural changes that voters don’t think about, but pundits, politicians, and other progressive elites need to include switching from the lifetime tenure of justices on the Supreme Court to 18-year terms. It’s often forgotten that, among this Court’s many failings, it is also, arguably, the more pro-business and anti-employee and consumer Supreme Court in US history. Shortening the terms of the justices—which many experts argue could be done via legislation–will prevent the luck of the actuarial tables from foreclosing a liberal left court majority for decades, as per the situation today. Progressives must also do whatever they can to federalize and rationalize our national election system. Republicans are systematically seeking to suppress the votes of Democratic voting blocs, and, at present, there is no constitutional protected right to vote (yes, hard to believe, but true.) Currently, the secretary of state, the state officer in charge of making and enforcing election rules, is a partisan figure. A state-by-state national movement to end partisan electioneering—which, effectively, means ending Republican voter suppression—is essential.
Public financing is yet another area where progressives must do what they can to make changes. “We” have a few billionaires on our side, but, in general, plutocrats prefer the party of the lowest possible tax, the least possible regulations, and the weakest possible unions. Again, voters little neither know nor care about electoral fundraising—but electoral fundraising cares about them. Gerrymandering is not quite as much of an obstacle to Democrats as some observers believe, but, on balance, Democrats would improve their odds to retake the House, if neutral commissions devised House districts.
This is all but a grand prelude. The procedural struggle will only clear away the brush and permit Dems and the liberal left to compete for white working class votes. Only about 55% of Dems are white, compared to close to 90% of Republicans. Democrats today are the representatives of urban, cosmopolitan, multi-racial, atheist, feminist and gay America. Many white working class Americans, especially men and especially those over 55, feel threatened by the enormous cultural and demographic shifts in American life since the sixties. So merely proposing “common sense” proposals like those in Kenworthy’s book won’t compensate for the mistrust many white working people feel toward the Democratic Party. There are too many anecdotes about white people without insurance who reject the benefits of Obamacare merely because of the name of the president who signed it into law.
So there’s no easy sell here—the cultural anxieties are real and grounded in profound historical transformations. The best thing that Democrats and lefties can do is try to make it as procedurally easy as possible to get themselves elected, enact the programs they support, and protect those programs from evisceration in the federal courts. Only then will the party see whether it will get a political reward for these changes. The white working class will need to see if these laws benefit them first. But there won’t be any such reckoning unless the left the rules of a game it currently can’t win.
Rich Yeselson is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.