Toward the end of Stacey Abrams’s powerful response to the State of the Union address, she turned to the reason she’s not currently the governor of Georgia: “Let’s be clear. Voter suppression is real. From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places, to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.” Between Abrams’s speech and the introduction of the voting-rights bill H.R. 1, the first piece of legislation proposed by the new Pelosi-led House, Democrats are systematically focusing on strengthening our democracy. They better, because America is in a strange political space: Progressive ideas are wildly popular, but nearly impossible to enact. To fix this, we need to reshape our electoral systems to allow everyone’s vote to count equally and finally kill the zombie myth of the center-right nation.
On issue after issue, American voters are firmly left-of-center, and in some cases ready to embrace our most progressive ideas. They want more gun control. They want increased abortion access. They want criminal-justice reform. Fifty-six percent of all Americans want nationalized single-payer health care, and nearly everyone wants the government to do more to bring down costs. Fifty-nine percent of registered voters support higher taxes on the wealthy. Fifty-four percent of Republicans and 70 percent of all Americans want to “soak the rich.” Even fifty-seven percent of people who identify as conservative Republicans support the main components of a Green New Deal. Seventy-two percent believe climate change is a threat. Everybody hates gerrymandering.
Given that so many Americans support these positions, what would it take to actually make progress on any of them? As Senator Cory Booker joins Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand as credible candidates formally running for president and with Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden likely close behind, we are beginning to see Democrats not just organizing around policies but advocating ways to make sure these policies can become law. H.R. 1, The For the People Act, would expand access to the polls, prevent voter purges, and ensure paper backups for electronic voting. That’s an important start, but if we really want to enact a progressive vision that an overwhelming majority of Americans support, we’re going to have to attack larger misconceptions and structural issues as well.
One major problem is that too many people keep believing that America is a center-right nation. If that were true, then trying to enact progressive policies would be political suicide. That’s not true now, and it may never have been. In 1986, authors Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers tried to dissuade the Democratic Party from fleeing to the middle by writing in The Atlantic that “there is little direct evidence that mass public sentiment has turned against the domestic programs of the New Deal, or even the most important components of the Great Society, and little evidence of a stable shift to the right in public attitudes on military and foreign policy.” At least in that era, Republicans were mounting major electoral victories. In 2008, in middle of a wave of Democratic wins, pundits on Fox News, MSNBC, and even the cover of Newsweek confidently told newly elected President Barack Obama that this was a country of moderates. Doug Schoen, a center-right pollster, tried to claim that the 2008 results were a rejection of conservatism but not an endorsement of liberalism. When Republican Scott Brown won a Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2010, pundits used that as evidence for the center right. In 2017, Schoen returned to declare that the Democratic Party was on life support because the electorate “remains center-right on issues ranging from immigration to tax policy to abortion.” Most recently, Howard Schultz’s flopping spoiler presidential run was based on advice that a huge percentage of Americans define themselves as moderate. This is, as The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson notes, a fundamental misreading of data that in fact shows so-called independents skewing more and more partisan.
This myth is hard to kill for two reasons. First, “conservatism,” note the lowercase c, is safe for corporate hegemons, patriarchs, and pundits. The mythic center doesn’t threaten the role of capital, the military, or the dominance of white men over both public and corporate entities. As we drift toward the poles, the authoritarianism on the right likewise is much less scary to the vested powers in American society than comparable ideologies on the left.
Second, the most influential American voters are much more conservative than the country as a whole thanks to the GOP’s efforts to manipulate the electorate. As Ari Berman has documented for The Nation and Mother Jones, the GOP has intensified its efforts to suppress voting in communities of color across the nation. Berman told NPR, “You’re seeing a national effort by the Republican Party to try to restrict voting rights, and it’s playing out in states all across the country.” North Dakota Republicans tried to keep Native Americans from voting. North Carolina and Arkansas passed new voter-ID laws. Brian Kemp spent six years suppressing black votes in Georgia as secretary of state, easing his path to the governor’s mansion. Thankfully, Democrats are fighting back in ways we did not see in 2006 and 2008 (when they reclaimed first the House, then the Senate and presidency, and had a chance to pass voting reforms). They are pushing for felon re-enfranchisement across the country, opposing voter-ID laws, and elevating voices like Stacey Abrams and her voting-rights organization, Fair Fight.
The information landscape is even trickier to fix. Lots of people who want change continue to vote for the status quo embodied by the GOP, whether due to racism, single-issue voting on abortion or guns, or concerns that other people will benefit while they get left behind (usually another form of racism). A study by Columbia Journalism Review described right-wing media as “an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.” People inside that community may love the idea of higher taxes on the rich, but they aren’t going to read the French leftist economist Thomas Piketty or hear from pundits who have. The authors of the study conclude that “traditional media needs to reorient, not by developing better viral content and clickbait to compete in the social media environment, but by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment.” That’s going to require media to actually push against the right-wing grain. We’ve never really had liberal media, just liberals working in corporate contexts that encourage speaking comfort to power. The CJR report was published before the 2018 elections, and it may have underestimated the importance of virality. Through tweets, Instagram stories, and what I call “the politics of digital imagery” newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already shifted the debate around a 70 percent marginal tax rate for incomes above $10 million.
The third piece, and the one least discussed by serious presidential candidates, are the structural issues. The Senate is antidemocratic, offering small, homogeneous states the same degree of influence as large, diverse ones. Progressive policies are popular across the country, but the Senate—especially given the “filibuster everything” strategy the GOP adopted in 2008, stands in the way. The Electoral College does likewise, diminishing the political power of the masses and acting as a check against the voice of the people. Both of these antidemocratic institutions were put together by elitist founding fathers who didn’t trust the majority. They’re designed to suppress the vote, but these structures can be changed.
The National Popular Vote movement is spreading state-by-state to try and change our systems without federalizing elections or having to amend the Constitution. Proponents are pushing states to pass laws to guarantee the presidency to the winner of the popular vote. So far, states totaling 172 electoral votes have passed such legislation; if it reaches 270, then we will effectively have a popular-vote system. Then there’s the Senate. We need filibuster reform so that the party that controls 51 votes in the Senate can actually govern. Yes, that may empower a majority I don’t like someday, but the filibuster has hardly slowed the GOP so far. Rule changes, though, aren’t going to be enough. In lieu of abolishing the Senate, we should at least have more senators, and we all know just where to find them: DC and Puerto Rico.
The District of Columbia, which has a larger population than Wyoming or Vermont, has overwhelmingly voted for statehood. Puerto Rican statehood movements have been more contested, but it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s lackadaisical response to Hurricane Maria would have been possible had the island’s two senators been able to act. Four more senators won’t make the Senate less elitist, but would at least create a body more able to reflect the will of the nation’s majority. All of the major presidential candidates appear to support DC statehood.
Americans want progressive ideas, even ones widely considered impossible to enact. The fact is we live in a left-wing nation with a voter-suppression problem. Politicians who want to govern need to address the latter at the same time as they put forward their vision for a progressive future.