The party in power is always in trouble in the sixth year of their president’s term. They’ll lose seats in the midterm elections, and this year the Democrats will lose the Senate, and since the House is solidly Republican, and will be for the next two decades. No one thought it was very important, but Republicans put a lot of effort into gaining full control of state governments – the governorship and both houses of the state legislatures – and that was important. After the 2010 census, it was time to readjust congressional districts, and somehow all the Democratic voters ended up in one or two oddly shaped giant districts and there were lots of new tiny districts where everyone was Republican, so even if a state was fifty-fifty in party registration, the many folks they sent to Washington were all Republicans, save for those two lonely Democrats. That’s not cheating. Few states have decided to let an independent commission decide how to draw the new lines each ten years, to come up with a one-man-one-vote scheme. State legislatures do that, and the Republicans, rather than waste their time trying to make us believe that John McCain would be a fine president, and that Sarah Palin would be even better should McCain get hit by a bus, and make us believe that Mitt Romney wasn’t just another wooden and clueless rich guy and Paul Ryan was sexy as hell and smart as a whip, took over the states, and thus the House. They decided to play the long game, from the bottom up, and now they’ll grab the Senate. It’s almost as if their national efforts were a ruse. It’s hard to believe their hearts were really in it. They knew how political power really shifts.
They blindsided the Democrats, who will have to wait ten years for the next census to counter any of this, if they can. The Republicans may have locked down the House for a generation or more, as Democrats seem happy they can elect the president they want every four years, who can’t get Congress to do anything he wants. That means that the Republicans win, even if they can’t get what they want either. At least they can stop cold anything they don’t want. They let the stimulus and Obamacare slip though in Obama’s first two years, when the Democrats held the House, but after the 2010 midterms, when they edged out the Democrats and retook the House, there would be no more of that. Now nothing gets done.
The Senate is a slightly different matter. With its slim majority of Democrats, this Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill long ago, one that the president was willing to sign, and the current House wouldn’t even look at it. It died there. There will be no immigration reform, and when the Republicans retake the Senate, not much of anything will get done. The Republicans will have rendered this president, and the presidency, fully irrelevant. They’ll be in charge. They’ll be in power, even if Obama whips out his veto pen and stops everything they try. This can’t be very satisfying, bit it’s a form of power-sharing, where blocking what you don’t want is the real power, or the only power available. The Democrats should have paid more attention to state politics. That’s where the action is.
Senators aren’t elected by district of course. Those lines don’t matter. Senators represent the whole state, so Democratic candidates aren’t at a structural disadvantage there, but when your guy is the governor and you control the state legislature, you can do what states are allowed to do, administer elections, deciding the voting hours, and available days to vote early, and the polling places, and how to make sure those who vote are eligible. This used to be a fairly straightforward business, and the Democrats didn’t give it much thought, until state after state, controlled by Republicans, passed state laws restricting the hours the polls were open, and ending early voting – particularly on Sundays, when black folks tend to vote, and when those who can’t afford to take a half-day off from work on a Tuesday tend to vote. That eliminates a lot of votes from those who tend to vote for Democrats.
New voter-ID rules that make it expensive and sometimes impossible to get the proper document also eliminate the votes of the poor and the elderly and students, and that suppresses minority voting too. Middle-class white folks, who already have all sorts of photo-ID cards, and who can easily slip away from work on a Tuesday, will be fine, and they tend to vote Republican. They also won’t have to stand in line for ten hours to vote, because there are only two voting machines in certain precincts and one of them is broken. Those who administer elections distribute their limited resources as they see fit. The states administer elections. They always have. The Democrats forgot that.
This isn’t cheating either. The states should administer elections. The details are granular, local, and the feds don’t have the resources to handle it all – and the Republicans saw an opportunity to win elections and they took it. They caught the Democrats flatfooted, not that Democratic voters turn out for midterm elections. They have Obama in the White House. That’s cool. He’s cool.
Republicans live in a different world, as Paul Krugman notes:
The political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.
In fact, the very success of the conservative agenda only intensifies this fear. Many on the right – and I’m not just talking about people listening to Rush Limbaugh; I’m talking about members of the political elite – live, at least part of the time, in an alternative universe in which America has spent the past few decades marching rapidly down the road to serfdom. Never mind the new Gilded Age that tax cuts and financial deregulation have created; they’re reading books with titles like “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic,” asserting that the big problem we have is runaway redistribution.
This is a fantasy. Still, is there anything to fears that economic populism will lead to economic disaster?
The man with the Nobel Prize in Economics doesn’t think so:
Lower-income voters are much more supportive than the wealthy toward policies that benefit people like them, and they generally support higher taxes at the top. But if you worry that low-income voters will run wild, that they’ll greedily grab everything and tax job creators into oblivion, history says that you’re wrong. All advanced nations have had substantial welfare states since the 1940s – welfare states that, inevitably, have stronger support among their poorer citizens. But you don’t, in fact, see countries descending into tax-and-spend death spirals – and no, that’s not what ails Europe.
Still, while the kind of politics and policies that responds to the bottom half of the income distribution won’t destroy the economy, it does tend to crimp the incomes and wealth of the 1 percent, at least a bit; the top 0.1 percent is paying quite a lot more in taxes right now than it would have if Mr. Romney had won. So what’s a plutocrat to do?
One answer is propaganda: tell voters, often and loudly, that taxing the rich and helping the poor will cause economic disaster, while cutting taxes on “job creators” will create prosperity for all. There’s a reason conservative faith in the magic of tax cuts persists no matter how many times such prophecies fail (as is happening right now in Kansas): There’s a lavishly funded industry of think tanks and media organizations dedicated to promoting and preserving that faith.
Another answer, with a long tradition in the United States, is to make the most of racial and ethnic divisions – government aid just goes to Those People, don’t you know. And besides, liberals are snooty elitists who hate America.
There is a lot of that going around – talk of that forty-seven percent persists – but it’s best to take over state governments:
Don’t let the bottom half, or maybe even the bottom ninety percent, vote.
And now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights – at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.
The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win.
The plutocrats are wining that fight in state after state now, and Krugman mentions Kansas. Rolling Stone’s Mark Binelli explains how Kansas has been Governor Sam Brownback’s test case for plutocracy:
Back in 2011, Arthur Laffer, the Reagan-era godfather of supply-side economics, brought to Wichita by Brownback as a paid consultant, sounded like an exiled Marxist theoretician who’d lived to see a junta leader finally turn his words into deeds. “Brownback and his whole group there, it’s an amazing thing they’re doing,” Laffer gushed to The Washington Post that December. “It’s a revolution in a cornfield.” Veteran Kansas political reporter John Gramlich, a more impartial observer, described Brownback as being in pursuit of “what may be the boldest agenda of any governor in the nation,” not only cutting taxes but also slashing spending on education, social services and the arts, and, later, privatizing the entire state Medicaid system. Brownback himself went around the country, telling anyone who’d listen, that Kansas could be seen as a sort of test case, in which unfettered libertarian economic policy could be held up and compared right alongside the socialistic overreach of the Obama administration, and may the best theory of government win. “We’ll see how it works,” he bragged on Morning Joe in 2012. “We’ll have a real live experiment.”
That word, “experiment,” has come to haunt Brownback as the data rolls in. The governor promised his “pro-growth tax policy” would act “like a shot of adrenaline in the heart of the Kansas economy,” but, instead, state revenues plummeted by nearly $700 million in a single fiscal year, both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s credit rating, and job growth sagged behind all four of Kansas’ neighbors. Brownback wound up nixing a planned sales-tax cut to make up for some of the shortfall, but not before he’d enacted what his opponents call the largest cuts in education spending in the history of Kansas.
Ed Kilgore adds this:
Brownback added political to fiscal risk by securing big bags of money from friends like the Koch Brothers and using it in a 2012 primary purge of moderate Republican state senators who didn’t support his fiscal plans. And it’s all blown up on him this year, with the shock waves potentially engulfing the state’s senior U.S. Senator. Binelli’s portrait of Pat Roberts as an “unloved Beltway mediocrity” that stands by trembling with fatigue as more famous and charismatic conservatives campaign to save his bacon is as acute as his portrayal of Brownback as a mad scientist whose lab has blown up.
Because of the nature of the state and the year and the outside (and inside, from the Kochs Wichita headquarters) money flooding Kansas, Brownback and Roberts may survive – Brownback to preside over the damage he’s done to the state’s fiscal standing and schools, and Roberts to return to a final stage of his long nap in the Capitol. But both men have richly earned the trouble they are in, and you have to figure a lot of the people trying to save them have the occasional impulse to throw them anvils.
Brownback overreached. He should have just done what other Republican governors have done, redraw a few district lines and revise all the state’s rules about voting. The Koch Brothers in the offices in Wichita might have been disappointed, but they’d eventually get what they wanted. Now Brownback and Roberts are in trouble, and if Roberts isn’t reelected to the Senate, the Republicans may not retake it. One must be subtle about these things.
Chris Christie knows that now:
“My comments are never almost universally interpreted the way I mean them,” Christie said Thursday while stumping for a GOP congressional candidate at a diner in Bordentown Township, N.J., as quoted by the New York Daily News. “But that’s OK. I’ll be very clear. I’ll say it again.”
“The President wants to focus (on minimum wage) because he’s a class warrior,” he added. “What he wants to focus on is the minimum wage. I don’t believe that that’s what our focus should be. Our focus should be on creating better paying jobs for everyone in our country.”
Christie had said Tuesday at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington that he was “tired of hearing about the minimum wage.”
He knows he should not have said that, so he offered this:
“I don’t think there’s a mother or father sitting around a kitchen table tonight in America who are saying, ‘You know honey, if my son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all our dreams would be realized,” he told the audience. “Is that what parents aspire to for their children?”
That didn’t help:
Those comments drew a rebuke from U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez earlier Thursday at a Bloomberg event in Washington.
“Chris Christie’s got his head in the sand if he’s getting tired about the minimum wage,” Perez said.
“I mean, we suck. We really do,” the labor chief added, noting that the United States federal wage floor ranks third lowest out of the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
For Chris Christie, there has to be a way to say we should be proud of that. America doesn’t pay losers for being losers, but voters, even if they suddenly find they can never vote again, do worry about things like the minimum wage. Many of them are trying to live on it, and others, who have moved up, worry about losing their jobs. Others can’t even find jobs. Even with all the structural changes at the state level, they still will vote, or at least some of them will, and that offers Democrats some hope, but Jonathan Alter thinks they’re blowing that opportunity:
The Democrats’ inability to stress what voters keep telling them is their biggest concern is perplexing. I understand why the White House has trouble getting credit for improving the economy when wages are stagnant and life is still so hard for so many in the shrinking middle class. And I get why Democratic candidates don’t want to lash themselves to the economic policies of an unpopular president.
What I can’t fathom is why Democrats don’t pick low-hanging fruit – the jobs issues that poll after poll shows are much more critical to voters than ISIS, Ebola, and the Keystone pipeline, not to mention vaginal probes and whether some candidate voted for Obama. Yes, many Democratic candidates are pushing for a much-needed increase in the minimum wage. But that is of most interest either to hardcore Democrats or to non-voters clinging to the bottom of the economy.
The voters Democrats are in trouble with are white non-college educated blue-collar workers who are often unemployed, and whose friends have crappy jobs in the service sector or mid-level positions in office parks. These mostly male voters – the ones poised to turn the Senate Republican by rejecting anyone with a “D” after their name – don’t care much about the minimum wage, but many of them sure would like a new job.
There really is an opening here:
There’s a particular jobs issue that they respond to and it has a big, boring name: infrastructure. As long as they don’t call it that, Democrats have a chance to win a greater share of these white male voters. At worst, Republicans will hear the argument that their leaders couldn’t care less about rebuilding the country. That might convince even more of them that neither party represents their interests. If these white voters stay home (as millions did in 2012) and blacks vote in high enough numbers (especially in North Carolina and Georgia), the Democrats might yet squeak through.
But that requires framing the jobs issue properly. Fortunately for Democrats, they have a weapon in the American Jobs Act (AJA), an Obama bill that failed to win 60 votes in the Senate three years ago. With enormous support in the polls, the AJA consisted of rebuilding roads, bridges, and schools and investing in first responders , all projects that Republicans have supported in the past but now shun for no other reason than that the president backs them. A political party founded in 1856 in part on the old Whig issue of “internal improvements” (i.e. government-built bridges and canals) – a position second only to opposing slavery in the territories as its reason for being – in 2011 and 2012 rejected even the most common-sense investment in the future.
Alter is appalled that the Democrats threw all this away:
Instead of fighting over this with the GOP, which favors only tax cuts for business to create jobs, Obama has mostly dropped his jobs agenda. He mentions the issue in speeches – in fact, he has talked about infrastructure more often than other president – but hasn’t made it a centerpiece of the Democratic campaign…
Democratic candidates – running for cover in a tough year – have preferred to campaign on women’s health, radical right “personhood” amendments, and the environment. All are important for mobilizing base voters to show up for midterm elections that they often skip, but after tens of thousands of ads, these lines of attack are largely tapped out. The women and liberals who might respond to such messages have already done so, voting early or planning to go to the polls on Election Day to vote Democratic.
It may be time to do the FDR thing again:
That means going for the tried-and-true economic argument (used since at least 1932) designed to “bring home” working-class voters in the homestretch. The decline of unions – the usual excuse of rich Democratic consultants and pollsters for why jobs bills don’t count for much – isn’t relevant. Nor is the deficit, which has lost its saliency since it was cut in half to $500 billion. People want better jobs – period. And with so many Republicans on record opposing their creation, Democrats have an opening.
Alter says the message would be simple:
I want to rebuild America – my opponent doesn’t.
I voted to rebuild our country, and he (or his party) voted against it–against money to re-pave roads, repair bridges, fix schools, help first responders we might need for an epidemic.
I want to invest in the future and the Republicans are stuck in the past.
They opposed that job act. They’re on record. Chris Christie is not alone in opposing raising the minimum wage – they all oppose that, even if they’re not as buffoonish about it as the brutal bore from New Jersey. Sam Brownback ran his absurd experiment. Stick it to them. Give the voters something to vote for.
That’s a fine idea, and Salon’s Elias Isquith says don’t even bother trying:
Hyper-wealthy donors, who are already the only people most politicians speak with and listen to, and who will only become more powerful as the post-Citizens-United era continues, quite understandably don’t care so much about the economy. As far as they’re concerned the ongoing recovery from 2008, which as of 2012 saw 95 percent of its gains flow to the tippy-top, is doing just fine. In the present circumstances, any aspiring politician interested in focusing on economic justice will find her fundraisers sparsely attended, and her audience rather bored.
There’s a reason for that:
To understand why the economy remains so terrible for most Americans, all you really need to know is that wealth in America is highly concentrated, while politics in America is expensive as Hell. As long as that dynamic persists, any proposals to jumpstart the economy – like the president’s 2011 American Jobs Act bill, which Alter, unlike nearly everyone else in the country, still remembers and promotes – will die for the same reasons; the story will be the same. For most American journalists, the prospect of writing the same story all the time is not exactly tempting, especially when newer and more exotic stories, like Ebola or ISIS, are unfolding as well. And the fact that the people who actually fund American journalism are disproportionately wealthy, and consequently less interested in economic stories, certainly doesn’t help.
All this can only mean our politics have little to do with most people’s real lives, and they know it:
Inequality leads to a frivolous and disconnected politics is also the most insidious and the one that should worry believers in U.S. democracy most: The way our politics of nothing alienates Americans, leading them to either accept a system that ignores their primary interests or, worse still, disengage from it entirely.
That is one of the side-effects of the structural changes that moved us from an economy with an actual middle class to a pure plutocracy, but maybe that was the plan all along. If redrawing all the district lines doesn’t work, and if some people still manage to vote in spite of all attempts to make it next to impossible for “those sorts of people” to vote, have them realize that none of what anyone is talking about has anything to do with their lives. They’ll stop voting. Voting for nothing is a waste of time.