Last week in this space, I discussed how the new research on the stealth power of America’s oligarchical class continues to be a central obstacle to thoroughgoing democracy in the United States. In that piece, I cited the work Page, Seawright, and Lacombe as well as Nancy MacLean’s work outlining how the right has managed over the last several decades to build a powerful, deeply undemocratic political network aimed at putting “democracy in chains.”
With that in mind, it was with great interest that I read MacLean’s post-election commentary in the Guardian, where she observed:
Republican party elected officials acted under pressure from the network of arch-right billionaires and multimillionaires built by the libertarian zealot Charles Koch over the last decade. Koch opposes nearly all of the policies won through collective action on the part of citizens over the past century, from graduated income taxes to workers’ rights, social security and Medicare, anti-discrimination laws, and environmental regulations.
By focusing on the states, Koch-allied strategists and the elected officials with whom they worked achieved a tightening chokehold on America’s political system. And they nearly got away with it – until some on the left proved they could learn from being outfoxed.
According to MacLean, just as important as taking back the House of Representatives was the Democrats and progressive activists out-organizing the Koch-funded right in red states and defeating candidates like Scott Walker at the state level. By winning back several key statewide races, she argues, progressives are now in a position to start to unlock the chains on our democracy and “fix our broken political system, so that the will of the majority of the citizenry can prevail.”
Crucial to this task is un-gerrymandering electoral maps along with pushing new polices that expand rather than restrict voting in every conceivable way. This “uphill work” needs to happen in every state, according to MacLean, because not doing so is “slow suicide.”
And where the blue wave has swept the state as in California, “With state power, progressives can prove their policies work to better voters’ lives.” Thus, while progressives elsewhere are pushing back against the Kochtopus, California can lead by positive example.
I would suggest that this requires that the Democrats actually deliver more in terms of quality, fully funded education, whether that means progressive tax reform to push K-12 spending back to where it was before the great recession or ending the affordability crisis in higher education with free college.
California could also be a game changer on the health care front by pushing for Medicare for all at the statewide level and showing that it can work. If a state as big as California can do it, why not the whole country?
On the environmental front, going big with our own version of a Green New Deal that rebuilds infrastructure, pushes us toward climate goals faster, and creates new sustainable jobs could make us a vanguard for the nation.
In sum, winning back our democracy doesn’t just mean expanding rather than contracting the electorate, it means giving the people something inspiring to vote FOR as well. Progressives need to use this crisis of democracy as an opportunity to transform California and the nation for the better.
Now is not the time for a failure of imagination.