My book, Light Blue is subtitled, “How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.” Today, let’s talk about “enduring.”
Democrats are likely to get toasted in this fall’s midterm elections. For those of us who shade left of center, that’s bad news, but not as bad as what might happen in 2024. Luckily, different — and more — people show up in presidential election years, so there’s no telling how that might turn out.
My point in the book is that, whatever happens this November, Democrats need to think for the long-run: how to build a broader, more geographically wide-spread base of support that delivers Congressional and state house majorities more years than not. I don’t dare to dream of anything like the FDR coalition that ruled Congress for the better part of a half-century. I don’t see any way that Democrats could ever again command the sorts of majorities they held in 1933 or in 1965, when they enacted sweeping liberal legislation, most of which will never be repealed.
Those dreams are not realistic. What is within reach is narrow or comfortable Congressional majorities in, say, two out of three years over the next few decades while also winning more state legislative seats in districts outside of big cities and college towns. That last point is important so that more states will have Democratic legislatures in 2031, the next redistricting year.
What the Supreme Court will do in the next few weeks underscores my reasoning. The Court is likely to reverse Roe v. Wade and, yet again, weaken gun control laws. Both Roe and some forms of gun control enjoy the support of roughly 70% of Americans, and these are high-profile, hot-button issues. Thanks to some awful luck aided by Mitch McConnell’s rank hypocrisy (Donald Trump got three appointments in four years while Barack Obama got two in eight years — though it should have been three), the Court is now way out of step with the views of the American public. Its rulings will undermine public confidence in the Court. In the most recent poll public confidence in the Court dropped from 54% to 44% just on the leaked Roe decision alone.
Our system is designed to moderate wide swings, but lately it’s been malfunctioning. There has to be a balance between slowing radical change in any direction and allowing progress where the public demands it. Still, frustrated liberals, who would rip out all the speed bumps, need to think about that a little more. What happens, for example, if Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency come 2025 and there is no filibuster?
And yet, if it were up to me, I would take the risk and reform the filibuster now so that more popular liberal legislation could pass. I would take that risk because the risk of not acting is greater. We live in a centrist society (center-left when it comes to economic policies, like Medicare and Social Security, and some social issues, like guns and abortion) that is governed by extreme conservatives. This is a formula that erodes public confidence in our institutions — and if it keeps up it will erode them to dangerous levels. Maybe it already has done that.
Which brings us back to the need for enduring centrist majorities. Some of our institutional speed bumps will never be changed. The Senate, where rural, conservative states have out-sized power, and the Electoral College, which reflects the Senate, will not be eliminated. Extreme political gerrymandering, which is practiced more by Republicans than Democrats, not because the Republicans are less virtuous but simply because they control more state legislatures, is not likely to be reversed any time soon — although a less conservative Court might do it in the long-run.
The two institutional speed bumps that might be reformed are the filibuster and the Supreme Court. The filibuster could be weakened with just a couple more Democratic senators. That could happen as early as next year, if everything broke the Dem’s way, but that’s very unlikely. In any event, it’s not hard to envision the Democrats having the needed votes at some point in the next decade — or the Republicans doing it next time they have the majority. (See the need for liberals to be careful what they wish for as noted above.)
The Supreme Court is a longer game. It looks like we’re in for a long period of stagnation there. The oldest justices are Clarence Thomas, 74, and Samual Alito, 72. Barring health issues, each could serve for another decade. That’s why it’s so important for Democrats to plan to be in the right place at the right time. They need to try to maintain enduring majorities so that when the opportunity arises they can adjust the Court to better reflect where the American people as a whole are at on the issues.
This, in turn, requires moderation. Above I wrote about centrist majorities, not Democratic ones, but right now it appears that they are the same thing. The Republicans have gone so far off the deep end in their fealty to Trump that any kind of reasonable moderation seems out of reach even for the party’s more sane members. I often (as recently as last week) lament the takeover of the Democratic Party by its most ideological, hard-left activists. But the truth is that rank-and-file Democrats are far more moderate. That offers at least some hope.
Let’s sum up. I think it works this way.
- The Supreme Court is about to remind us just how out-of-touch the Court’s majority is on important issues.
- The Court and the Senate filibuster are the two built-in anti-majoritarian breaks that can be reformed.
- To reform either, but especially the Court, a centrist majority has to assert itself and maintain enduring, if slim, majorities over the long-run.
- Right now at least, only the Democrats seem capable of representing that centrism.
- The Democrats need to change their image and some of their substance. The only way to establish enduring majorities is to appeal to more voters in the middle, where in fact, the bulk of voters lies.
Lastly, I’ll acknowledge that this is a bit of a race. Public confidence in our institutions erodes daily while what I’m suggesting here is a long-run strategy that could take a decade to play out. Can we find a way to maintain enough confidence in enough of our institutions to preserve them until they can be reformed?
I wish I could say I knew that answer.