The scandal unleashed by the whistleblower’s complaint against President Trump has finally moved House Democrats closer to impeachment, yet they still do so with trepidation. They see in impeachment only the political risks – a possible backlash from Republican voters, and a distraction from their policy agenda in the 2020 elections. Astonishingly, they fail to see the tremendous political opportunity that impeachment can afford. This failure is a symptom of Democrats’ larger inability to understand the importance of the coming elections, and their failure to craft a winning strategy.
Democrats can win convincingly in 2020 – including taking back the Senate – if they make saving American democracy the central issue of the election. And American democracy certainly needs saving – it is now under greater threat than at any time since the Civil War. Across four decades, a growing flood of campaign cash has hollowed out the substance of our democracy from within, producing a rigged political system that primarily serves the wealthiest one percent of our population and which has showered the wealthy with three waves of unneeded tax cuts across three Republican administrations since the 1980s. And now the problem has grown more urgent, because the Republican Party has turned its back on democratic values, and has chosen the path of winning at any price.
Republicans strive to disenfranchise Americans through partisan gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and other forms of vote suppression. They try to fix the political game by choosing biased referees, by packing the courts with radically conservative judges vetted by the Federalist Society. They undermine democracy by routinely lying to the voters, for example about climate change, or by saying that tax cuts for the wealthy will pay for themselves with increased revenue. And they slavishly support a president who would become a dictator in a heartbeat if he could get away with it, a man who bridles at all restraints on his power, who calls the free press the “enemy of the people,” who dangerously politicizes the civil service, and who routinely violates the spirit of the Constitution, for example in his obstruction of Congressional oversight and in the running battle over his border wall. (For a more thorough examination of Trump’s authoritarian leanings, see Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.)
In stark contrast to their Republican opponents, Democrats have become the country’s foremost champions of saving and restoring our democracy. We can see this, for example, in the first law passed by the current House of Representatives, the aptly named For the People Act. This law makes it easier for Americans to vote by providing for automatic registration, 15 days of early voting, and making election day a national holiday so people can get away from their jobs to vote. It ends partisan gerrymandering by taking redistricting out of the hands of state governments. Instead, independent commissions would redraw Congressional districts according to apolitical metrics that don’t advantage one party over another. The bill also provides modest (though inadequate) campaign finance reforms, and new restrictions on lobbyists, among other provisions. This law has laid down a marker, preparing the Democrats to make the 2020 elections about saving our democracy. Impeaching President Trump for his repeated and unconstitutional abuses of power would powerfully reinforce this message. The only piece missing from this puzzle, from this promising Democratic campaign strategy, is meaningful campaign finance reform.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in particular, constantly bemoan the power of big campaign donors in our politics. Yet all they offer as solutions are futile calls for a constitutional amendment or demands to “overturn Citizens United,” which isn’t going to happen. Making this silly discourse almost surreal is the fact that a highly effective campaign finance reform has already been introduced as a bill in the last Congress: Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act.
Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government gives every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. Voters cannot withdraw this money for personal use, and instead go online and assign it to the candidates or political committees of their choice. With about 200 million registered voters as of 2016, that translates to $10 billion of public financing, dwarfing even the massive $6.5 billion in private funds spent on the 2016 federal elections. No candidate would be compelled to use the Democracy Dollars system (and many will need private donations to get a campaign off the ground), but once she opts in, she has to forswear all future private donations. Candidates who fail to do so will be justly and fiercely accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors over the public interest, thereby driving much of the private money out of our political system. This innovative reform makes the voters into the donors who really count, outweighing even the fearsome Koch brothers. This will restore power to the voters and go a long way to making America a democracy again.
Impeachment, the For the People Act, and the Democracy Dollars Act – this trifecta of policy and action will make the contrast between the two major parties as clear as day: Republicans as the enemies of democracy, Democrats as its champions. Democrats must follow this strategy in the campaign in part because American democracy is under urgent threat. But this strategy is also shrewd politics. Restoring our democracy is the only truly unifying issue with which Democrats can appeal across party lines to independents and Republicans, not least because in the United States, democratic values are the essence of our patriotism and our claim to national greatness rests upon our historic role as the world’s foremost champion of democracy. Not every American will agree with Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, but every American – or so I hope – still believes in democracy, and every American is a patriot. This is the stuff of which landslide elections are made.