What’s wrong with the Democrats? That’s really the wrong question.

Steven Levitsky

Thomas Edsall’s latest, on what the Democrats need to do to regain power (I suppose I should say “maintain,” but it feels like they’ve already lost it), is filled with valuable insights from a variety scholars, many of them built around the theme of moving to the center and appealing more to working-class voters.

But I want to call your attention to this section, from Harvard’s Steven Levitsky, the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” which to my mind is one of the most important books of recent years. As Levitsky points out in a message to Edsall, there’s more wrong with our constitutional structure than there is with the Democratic Party:

“The Democrats have been amazingly successful in national elections over the last 20 years,” Levitsky wrote in an email.

They have won the popular vote in 7 out of 8 presidential elections — that’s almost unthinkable. They have also won the popular vote in the Senate in every six-year cycle since 2000. You cannot look at a party in a democracy that has won the popular vote almost without fail for two decades and say, gee, that party really has to get it together and address its “liabilities.”

Instead, he argued,

the liabilities lie in undemocratic electoral institutions such as the Electoral College, the structure of the Senate (where underpopulated states have an obscene amount of power that should be unacceptable in any democracy), gerrymandered state and federal legislative districts in many states, and recent political demographic trends — the concentration of Democratic votes in cities — that favor Republicans.

“Until our parties are competing on a level playing field,” Levitsky added, “I am going to insist that our institutions are a bigger problem for democracy than liberal elitism and ‘wokeness.’”

You really have to wonder how long a majority of the country is going to accept being relegated to minority status.

16 thoughts on “What’s wrong with the Democrats? That’s really the wrong question.

  1. pauljbass

    Without disagreeing with your main point, I would argue the Republicans were able to gerrymander to their advantage in more states, And that’s obtain a long range unfair and undemocratic advantage, because they first democratically wo mn more state legislatures and statehouses. That let them lock in long term electoral advantages. Democrats gerrymander when they win as well. I would argue that over the last 20 years the Republicans had a more successful focus on state elections, as opposed to federal elections, than the Democrats did. Paid off with Congressional redistricting as well.The group ALEC had a strategy that focused on all 50 states with a common agenda. GOP knew what it was doing for the long game when embarked on that state Capitol strategy.

    I also question the use of popular vote in the presidential election as a marker Which party “one” by how much. Because the rules count electoral votes, not popular votes, neither side puts its priority on winning the national popular vote. So all the extra votes that add up in California and New York, for instance, aren’t contested the way that every vote is contested in Ohio or North Carolina. Trump wasn’t battling Clinton for the extra last million votes in California. He went where the votes that would determine the election. As we saw in 2020, the country didn’t really vote for a Democratic over a Republican agenda in the congressional races, even though I wish they had. I agree with you that the electoral college is undemocratic. I think it should be changed. But until it is, I believe it is inaccurate to equate the margin of victory in the popular vote with the margin of victory in the election.

      1. Steve Ross

        And, only one party has been “reforming” election process state-by-state so that Republican-majority reps can name Republican electors no matter who wins the state popular vote.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Paul, Democrats also favor nonpartisan redistricting commissions. I wouldn’t hold it against them that they’re unwilling to disarm unilaterally.

      1. pauljbass

        Dan — I don’t hold it against them! I was just analyzing how the power balance changed. Republicans outorganized Democrats for control of around 2/3 of state legislatures and governorships, then cemented that advantage through gerrymandering. (While I agree more Democrats are open to fair play and nonpartisan districting, the pre-Trump Republican Party also had plenty of similarly fair-minded people, although they lost ground over the past two decades. And not all Democrats operate out of good motives.)

    2. Steve Ross

      Bear in mind that the Supreme Court summarily neutered the Voting Rights Act — an unexpected event that came at the court’s own initiative. This made the gerrymandering possible in states with a “history” of drawing boundaries to give one race an advantage. That was unforeseen by both parties.

  2. pauljbass

    I guess I’m saying that neither party has won the battle of ideas. Presidential popular vote margins are no more proof of “victory” than state legislative/gubernatorial margins

    1. Steve Ross

      Polling data strongly suggests that Democrats have won the major “idea” battles by wide margins — abortion, civil war hangover, taxes, health care, financial regulation and on and on — all in the 60-40% range.

      Presidential politics is indeed tricky. I get staggering amounts of far left and far-right email. The far right uniformly criticizes Democrats. But so do almost half the far-left!!! This is not a way to win elections. Green Party candidates have shown up in almost every election, using money from known Republican donors (hell, Jill Stein got $40,000 from the Russians) to shave votes away from Democrats. Motto: Why settle, if we can help a Republican like Trump or Bush or whomever win?

      1. pauljbass

        I think we draw too firm a distinction about the popular will on issues based on those polls. A lot of is based on how questions are posed. As you know there’s lot of good debate going on (including in the posted article that started this discussion) about where people actually stand on issues, and why — and what would explain, say, the failure of Democrats to win the House and Senate by more comfortable margins in 2020 based on how much so many independent and Republican voters abhorred Trump. I would argue it’s because Americans feel divided not just from each other, but within themselves, on basic issues like abortion, taxation, trade, social serves/safety net … and also about what drives their votes to begin with (how they decide who really represents them).

      2. Steve Ross

        PaulJBass, I think the polling is rather consistent over a broad range of wordings. Heck, the infrastructure bill had 72-75% support. I was in frequent conversation with all sides on the infrastructure bill because I write about broadband. On the Friday of the vote in the House, progressives were criticizing Pelosi and driving the cable news idiot-pundit class, insisting that Pelosi did not have the votes to get the bill passed. Outside their universe, I knew what Pelosi knew — that as many as 28 Republican Representatives were ready to vote in favor if their vote was needed. Obvioiusly. Otherwise she would not have called the vote. Duh.

        When the six Squad members decided to vote against it, 13 Republicans fell on their swords to get the bill passed (see my column at https://www.bbcmag.com/community-applications/bandwidth-hawk-about-50-billion-for-new-broadband-deployment for example).

        So the bill passed and was signed into law. Trump pledged to put every one of the 13 into a primary battle for “giving Biden a victory.” And the chances of getting more Republican crossover votes in the House was drastically reduced. Thank the Squad, including its only semi-sentient member, Ayanna Pressley, if Republican crossover support in the House has now shrunk to zero… for zero reason. And yeah, after the fact, Pressley said she would have voted for the bill if she had to. Not good enough.

  3. It’s good to keep both tallies in mind as one tries to understand our evolving democratic republic. If we note that one side won more votes but is less represented legislatively or for the presidency, that may indicate where work is needed. All kinds of work.

    We are not going to change the Electoral College system. Can we imagine Wyoming or the Dakotas going along with that?

    Right now we need to do the grassroots political work, especially in purple states, to make sure that 2022 is not the disaster suggested by Barton Gellman. I’m reachable at nahantjim1@gmail.com

  4. Steve Ross

    Restatements of the same issue. Democrats cannot gain the majorities they need to reform the system if they insist on squandering scarce political capital or, in the case of the DNC, running a silly off-the-shelf negative campaign that saved the hide of Susan Collins and made Manchin indispensable. Sinema indespensible.

    I tend well left of center, and I want the party to go there. But I also have priorities. Our political system has never allowed anyone to get all they want, all at once. Progressives seem to have no priorities. “Defund” the police rather than reform and restructuring? Medicare for all rather than all-out supporting Biden’s immediate, major reforms? Making it easy for Republicans to yell “socialism?” Catch-and-release for 20x repeat offenders, even some violent offenders in NY? Piss off liberal “2-state solution” Jews by insisting that of all the world’s horrible injustices, only Palestinians count? Thinking they can raise unlimited funds from billionaires, or raise tax rates that affect small business people (Hispanics have been studied in detail on this) who can’t afford to lobby for loopholes?

    Progressives call this “asperational” politics. Seems more like a conveyor belt manufacturing Republican talking points to me.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Wait. The Democrats ran someone against Susan Collins? I seem to remember that there was a challenger who was all over the internet, but I’m not sure she actually existed IRL.

      1. Steve Ross

        Textbook dumb campaign using generic negative ad attacks formulated and produced in DC rather than in Maine. The light at the end of the tunnel was the burning train wreck.

  5. Robert David Sullivan

    “You really have to wonder how long a majority of the country is going to accept being relegated to minority status.” I think this needs to be followed with something. Does this mean general strikes, protest marches, Democrats refusing to participate in legislative sessions? Legislative reform seems impossible with the Republicans’ structural advantages, and simply stating repeatedly that the Democrats are, in fact, the more popular party doesn’t do anything to the stop the Republicans from consolidating and locking in political power.

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