How to Unite the Democrats

January 09,  2020

With the Iowa caucuses less than four weeks away, the Democratic primary field remains sharply divided between progressives (Sanders and Warren) and moderates (Biden and Buttigieg). The two camps differ significantly on some policy issues, most vehemently over health care and over the taxes on the wealthy that would be needed to pay for the progressives’ various policy ideas. Each camp argues that the other offers candidates who would lose to Donald Trump in November. The moderates, aided by a biased media that insistently presents Joe Biden as more “electable” than his rivals, claim that Warren and Sanders promote policies that are too far to the left to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans in the swing states. The progressives, in their turn, argue that the American people want and need fundamental change in the political system so as to overcome economic inequality. They contend that only their bold policies, and not the small-bore fixes that come from Biden and Buttigieg, can inspire liberal activists and turn out the party’s base.

While the moderates and the progressives each make some valid points, both camps overlook an emotionally resonant and vitally important campaign issue which all Democrats could rally behind, and which would command support among both the party’s liberal base and among independents and moderate Republicans. This is the vitally necessary task of rescuing American democracy from big money, antidemocratic Republican policies, and a president with nakedly authoritarian leanings. Democrats have already taken important steps which position them as the champions of our democracy against the forces which threaten it. By impeaching Donald Trump, House Democrats took a principled stand – for many of them at their own political risk – in defense of our Constitution and democratic norms. With the aptly named For the People Act, passed in January of last year, House Democrats tried to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and make it much easier for Americans to vote. In so doing they strove to combat Republicans’ disgusting efforts to rig elections by taking the vote away from Americans who might not support them.

To restore our badly damaged democracy, and to highlight Democrats’ staunch opposition to the GOP’s efforts to further undermine democracy, Democrats need to take one further step, the most difficult and consequential of all: they need to champion truly effective campaign finance reform. This reform already exists in a fully drafted bill, Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act, which was introduced in the House in December of 2018, but not reintroduced during the present Congress. (Unfortunately Rep. Pramila Jayapal has confused matters by introducing her own Democracy Dollars Act in the present Congress. Her bill is a half-measure that does not go nearly as far as Khanna’s in combating the power of wealthy campaign donors.) Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government would give each registered voter an online account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw this cash for personal use, and would instead go online and assign these “Democracy Dollars” to the candidates of their choice. With about 200 million registered voters, this means $10 billion in public funds for politicians’ election campaigns, as compared to the $6.5 billion of private money spent in the 2016 federal elections. Every serious candidate could fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely with these donations from the voters. This would free our politicians to serve the American people, instead of taking orders from the small minority of corporate executives and wealthy individuals who provide most of the campaign cash today. For a more thorough discussion of the Democracy Dollars reform, please see my blog post of October 5, 2019.

If the Democratic Party embraces Democracy Dollars, Democrats can show the voters that they finally intend to fix a political system which every American knows is broken, a political system in which our government is for sale. Democrats can offer the fundamental change which Donald Trump promised (in the vaguest of terms) in 2016, and which he has clearly failed to deliver. With impeachment, the For the People Act, and Democracy Dollars, Democrats can make clear to the voters the stark difference between Democrats and the GOP. Republican politicians have undermined our democracy by opposing all campaign finance reform, by disenfranchising Americans through gerrymandering and voter suppression, by packing the courts with extreme conservatives who never have to face the voters, and by unflinchingly supporting a president who calls the free press the “enemy of the people,” has trampled on the constitutional separation of powers, and has invited foreign interference in our elections – elections whose results he may not accept if they don’t go his way. With Democracy Dollars, Democrats can cement their status as the champions of American democracy, while exposing their Republican opponents as democracy’s enemies.

Making the elections of 2020 about saving our democracy is not only vitally necessary – because our democracy is in fact in terrible danger – but it is also very good politics for Democrats. This is true not least because campaigning on the promise to save our democracy allows Democrats to wrap themselves in the flag. Democracy is the ideal that has defined the nation, at least since the Civil War, if not before. Our claim to national greatness rests on America’s role as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, in wars fought for freedom and in the Cold War struggle against communism. Historically, American patriotism is almost inextricable from the democratic ideal. Anything that strengthens our democracy is a patriotic act, while anything which undermines democracy is by definition unpatriotic and un-American. Any comparison between the parties on this issue is extremely unflattering to Republican politicians (though not to Republican voters). And by campaigning on a platform of restoring American democracy, Democrats can reach out to independents and Republicans on a terrain of shared values. Although most Americans reject Medicare for All, most Americans still believe in democracy, and every American is a patriot. In turn, Democracy Dollars is the perfect issue for turning out the Democratic Party’s liberal base, because without effective campaign finance reform, progressive policies like the wealth tax and debt-free college will be politically dead on arrival.

While both moderate and progressive Democratic voters (as well as independents and many Republicans) can readily support the cause of saving American democracy, the progressive candidates in the race are much better positioned than their moderate counterparts to lead the party in such a campaign. This is because Biden and Buttigieg both depend heavily on wealthy, high-dollar donors. They can’t campaign robustly against the evils of big money in politics without the risk of alienating these donors. Sanders and Warren, in contrast, fund their campaigns largely with small donations from ordinary citizens. While they have received significant amounts of money from high-dollar donors, they don’t hold the usual fundraising events to court them, and these donors have already chosen to accept these candidates’ progressive policies. Sanders and Warren can make Democracy Dollars their central issue without fearing that they will alienate their donors. Democracy Dollars also fits perfectly with both candidates’ chief argument: that the political system is “rigged” in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Talking about Democracy Dollars lets them educate the voters about exactly how the system got rigged, and also lets them show the voters a solution to the problem, which so far they have not done. Finally, unless Sanders or Warren can enact Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act into law, their progressive policies will not make it through Congress, because almost all members of Congress will still depend on high-dollar donors for their reelection campaigns in the 2022 midterms.

Of the two progressive candidates, Warren is bar far the better choice as the party’s nominee. Sanders is too old and recently had a heart attack, and it would be crazy for the party to give up the advantage of running an incumbent for reelection in 2024. Equally important, Sanders persists in describing himself as a “socialist,” even though he is no more a socialist than Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. The socialist label is political poison, and would ensure not only Trump’s reelection, but probably also the loss of the Democrats’ House majority. Warren has her own baggage as well, but hers can be readily jettisoned. Warren has only two policy positions which are out of step with the majority of the voters: decriminalizing border crossings, and abolishing private health insurance so as to make an immediate transition to single-payer health care. Decriminalizing border crossings is wrongheaded as a policy – every country on earth makes it illegal to enter their territory without permission – and positively fatal in political terms: 66% of Americans oppose it and it plays directly into Trump’s hands, giving him the ideal opportunity to further whip up anti-immigrant hysteria and accuse Democrats of wanting open borders. As for the immediate transition to single payer health care, a majority of Americans are against it, and since health care seems to be the issue highest on the voters’ agenda, it is probably enough by itself to guarantee Warren’s loss to Trump. In the coming months Warren is the candidate to watch: if she changes her tune on health care and border crossings, takes up the cause of democracy dollars, and folds this reform into a broader campaign to save our democracy, she might lead her party into a truly transformational election which reorients the nation’s political discourse, fixes our broken political system, and drives the Republican Party into the wilderness, where they will have ample time to consider the error of their antidemocratic ways.