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Dear Democrats: Here’s How to Save the Republic
Part One: Think Nationally, Act Locally
Since January 6, 2021, I’ve been radicalized when it comes to the threat that Donald Trump and the movement around him pose to our republic. As he has now openly admitted, he and his inner circle hatched a plot to overturn a presidential election, and the whole American system was only held together by a few narrow threads, like Dan Quayle talking sense into Mike Pence.
But as on many issues, the people who say this is a crisis often don’t act like it. When Democrats took office last year, their top priority should have been to rally together as wide a coalition of support as possible to unite the country and keep the election truthers from seizing power again. Instead, with the slimmest of majorities in Congress, they ran off in pursuit of the dream agenda of their far-left wing. At the rate they are going, they will so thoroughly alienate voters that Donald Trump can get re-elected in 2024 without cheating.
Trump winning an election fair and square would not end his threat to the republic, because he would use his victory and office as a base of power to undermine our institutions with even more vigor than before. We should remember that Trump was impeached the first time for demanding that the government of Ukraine cook up a political scandal to help his re-election—and he did the same with China. He also repeatedly made vague threats to revoke the licenses of “fake news” broadcasters, an impulse Republicans continue to indulge due to their crusade to punish online media and tech companies whom they regard as their political enemies. So all of this could get much worse, and the Democrats’ top political priority should be to appeal to a broad coalition and stay popular.
Right now, however, they’re blowing it, sinking farther down in the polls by the day. Part of this is a perennial problem with political parties: fighting between internal factions—in this case, the far-left “progressives” versus the center-left “liberals”—where the radicals spend more time browbeating the moderates into compliance than trying to persuade the average voter.
The deeper problem is that the “progressives” are a college-educated, upper-middle-class faction that is deeply out of touch with the blue-collar voters whose well-being they claim to champion. You can see this in how they emphasize symbolic gestures hatched on college campuses, like using “Latinx,” which actively repels actual Hispanic voters, who seem to be shifting to the GOP in ever greater numbers. Or they think that passing some complicated omnibus bill with minor welfare-state benefits tucked in among pork-barrel spending will be the big key to win over voters.
It’s not just that most people outside the Beltway don’t follow all of these details, so the largesse supposedly piled onto them from Washington, DC, tends not to be noticed. The bigger error is that people don’t want handouts, they want prosperity.
The economy grew last year at the fastest rate since 1984, rebounding sharply from the COVID recession of 2020. But those gains have been largely neutralized by inflation, which always manages to be described as “unexpected” no matter how vigorously we warned about it. And more people are still out of the workforce than before COVID hit and thus feel themselves cut off from economic growth.
Faced with these problems, the “liberal” center-left needs to establish its own independent agenda, not just a watered down or “moderate” version of the “progressive” agenda. They need an agenda organized around prosperity, in touch with the values of the average voter, and therefore more likely to rally a solid majority in the crucial next two elections.
Here are a few modest suggestions. I am not one of you, but I would like to vote for you. More to the point, I would like independent voters—not to mention whole sections of the restive base of the two parties—to have a reasonable alternative to turn to, a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.
We need you to save the republic, and here are my ideas for how to do it. Some of them may be a bridge too far, particularly in the current political environment, but they serve as the basis for starting a discussion—and possibly building some common ground across old ideological divides.
Part of the problem with Democratic Party politics (and with politics in general) is that so much energy is directed to national issues and away from the states. This has created a lot of problems for Democrats, who spent the Obama years winning presidential elections and losing over 800 seats in the statehouses.
Yet many of the actual sources of public dissatisfaction are best addressed on the state level. Moreover, they are most pressing and grab the biggest headlines in the “blue” states or in “blue” cities where Democrats ought to enjoy a strong enough majority to set the agenda and solve problems. So they are passing up some big opportunities here. Moreover, as the recent election in Virginia shows, state-level campaigns can set national trends and be launching pads for national careers.
Democrats should think nationally and act locally. Here’s what they can do.
Yes In My Backyard
One of the key reasons people don’t feel more prosperous in a land of plenty is the high cost of housing. I recommend you read and take to heart “The Housing Theory of Everything,” which argues that it in addition to costing people more in rent or mortgage payments, the high price of housing creates a whole series of indirect drains on our well-being. It suppresses labor mobility, making it harder for workers to move to cities where they could get paid more for their skills, and it increases economic inequality by “gentrifying” the poor out of their own neighborhoods.
The underlying cause of the housing shortage is excessive regulation pushed by the NIMBYs, existing residents who use local zoning and environmental regulations to keep newcomers out while driving up the value of their own property. The poster child for NIMBYism is San Francisco, where restrictive zoning makes high-density development impossible in most of the city, while other regulations impose massive costs and delays on anything that does get built.
According to a recent report, “The US Census found that 12.3 million American households were formed from January 2012 to June 2021, but just 7 million new single-family homes were built during that time.” The shortage is particularly acute for small, entry-level homes. The recent labor shortage and supply chain disruptions have exacerbated this problem, but it predates the pandemic by a long time.
The good news is that there has been a growing YIMBY movement dedicated to saying “Yes, In My Backyard,” supporting new development and decreasing obstructive legislation. Interestingly, it is a cause championed not just by libertarians and free-marketers but also by young urban liberals who want a shot at owning their own homes and who recognize the regressive ethics of the NIMBYs’ “drawbridge mentality.” It’s time for Democrats on the state and national level to fully embrace this cause.
The additional benefit is that a building boom would put more people to work, particular those who work in blue-collar jobs—and you get to be on the opposite side from Tucker Carlson, which is always a plus.
End the School Wars
The woke wars were a battle waged mostly by political obsessives and those of us foolish enough to spend time on Twitter—until they came into the schools, which is where the average person encounters them in real life. The “progressives” have tried to turn the schools into centers of indoctrination, pushing a tendentious narrative about “systemic racism.” The right has reacted with their own counter-attempt to control the schools, restricting discussion of certain ideas, policing school libraries and offering bounties to informants.
But most voters don’t want to be drafted into the culture wars. They want to be left alone, and they really want their kids to be left alone. The party that can offer a truce in the school wars will earn a lot of votes.
I have put forward one suggestion: school choice. It is strange how politics can be relative to local experience. School choice has usually been considered a radical libertarian proposal in America, but it has long been an ordinary way of doing things in parts of Europe. It would end the school wars by giving everyone a choice of schools that would either cater to their own values or just teach the three R’s and remain politically neutral. Republicans are already winning some votes with these proposals, including from traditional Democratic constituencies.
If Democrats decide to stop fighting the culture war, they could change the debate about schools by emphasizing real reforms like an increase in vocational education. Too much of today’s high-school education emphasizes either the college track or nothing. This is another way in which Democrats have let themselves be captured by an upper-middle-class constituency that is out of touch with everybody else’s needs. Given that almost half of high-school graduates don’t go to college, and more than half never complete college, wouldn’t they be better served by learning skilled trades?
Democratic politicians should do some events with Mike Rowe. Go from the message, “We want to teach your kids that they’re all racists,” to “We want to teach your kids to weld so they can make a good living.” With an ongoing, long-term shortage of skilled labor, this seems like a great way to help prepare a whole new generation of kids for a good future.
Re-Fund and Reform the Police
“Defund the Police” has proven to be disastrous as a slogan and disastrous in practice, leading to a spike in crime, particularly in the big cities. This ends up hurting the very people Democrats claim as their core constituency: the poor and minorities. Remember that successful Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton and, once upon a time, Joe Biden won elections by promising to put more cops on the street and improve people’s lives by making them safer and more secure. How about trying that again?
Both politically and practically, the Defund the Police movement has been a failure. A rally in New York City, June 29, 2021. Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
But our approach to the police should be—what’s the phrase I’m looking for?—to build back better. At the same time we re-fund the police, we should use the opportunity to reform them.
One of the worst parts of the “Defund the Police” campaign is that it replaced and derailed actual efforts at police reform. There are plenty of suggestions, none of which were widely implemented after the George Floyd case supposedly galvanized anger at police abuses. It is a historic waste of an opportunity.
Consider a recent exposé about a small town in Alabama that has become a cash cow for its police department, which grows fat by slapping bogus fines on drivers traveling a nearby highway. This is the sort of thing reformers should be talking about. It’s the sort of thing that should launch political careers for crusading state attorneys general. And it would actually have the effect of improving life for a lot of people, rather than just getting a lot of retweets.
De-Regulation for the Little Guy
Nothing is more ingrained on the left than the “there oughta be a law” mentality, which poses a false alternative between control and anarchy. There is a bias toward seeing private action as inherently dangerous and in need of constant government supervision, down to the finest level. The result is a web of pettifogging regulations that the average small business owner or freelance gig worker can’t wade through.
Take a piece of advice from the free-marketers: Excessive regulation doesn’t hurt the big corporations worst, because they can afford teams of lawyers and accountants to fill out paperwork—and teams of lobbyists to make sure regulations are drafted in a way that favors them. It’s the little guy that gets hurt.
Instead of hatching schemes to put Uber drivers, freelance writers and waiters out of work, how about taking up causes like occupational licensing reform? Make it easier for ordinary people to start small businesses and use their skills without having to spend thousands of dollars, fill out piles of paperwork and take unnecessary courses. Stand up to Big Florist.
This is the lowest-hanging fruit, on the state and local level, for anyone who wants to establish a reputation for fighting for the little guy.
The Laboratories of the Democratic Party
These are suggestions for a state and local-level agenda for sane Democrats. The states are the “laboratories of democracy” and could also be laboratories for the Democratic Party, a way for them to find a new agenda, solidify their appeal to a wide constituency and launch the careers of tomorrow’s national leaders.
But of course, the big urgency right now is the need to shore up the Democratic Party on the national level, and I will present my suggestions next time in Part Two.