A lot of our current political dysfunction is rooted in our deeply imperfect Constitution. We tend to view our founding documents, and their authors, as unified around certain principles of limited government. But the framers were actually deeply divided, and the Constitution they created was a mishmash of compromises. It successfully created a series of checks against what many of framers feared could develop into rule by a tyrannical majority—so small states were given power equal to the largest in the Senate, whose members the framers envisioned being chosen by state legislatures rather than through direct elections. A judicial branch was established to sort out the disputes that would inevitably arise in a federalist system. But the Constitution also contains clauses that were left vague because the framers couldn’t come to an agreement on defining questions, such as how slaves would be counted or the power of the federal government and the rights reserved to the states.
When this delicate balance of powers failed, it did so spectacularly, as it did during the Civil War. More often, it led to political stalemate and dysfunction. But for much of the 20th century, it worked, more or less, because the major parties adhered to a set of democratic norms. But that is no longer something we can take for granted. With the increasing radicalization of the GOP, one of our major parties has abandoned these norms in order to maintain power. Whether it’s “extreme gerrymandering,” using the contrived specter of “voter fraud” to impose ID laws that depress Democratic turnout, or abusing the vague “advice and consent” power to block nominees in the Senate, it is an asymmetrical war. And for good reason: One party has an incentive to limit democratic participation and the other doesn’t. As an analysis of 2012 data by Sean McElwee illustrated, nonvoters fall significantly to the left of the voting population.
The maximalist agenda that the GOP has pursued under Trump—the second Republican president to be elected with a minority of votes in the past 20 years—appears to be opening progressives’ eyes to this sorry state of affairs. And one political scientist is now calling for Dems to start employing the same kind of procedural combat that their opponents employ to fight not only for power but also for a pluralistic democracy that’s more responsive to the public.
In his new book, It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, David Faris, a professor at Roosevelt University, argues that Democrats—and progressives more broadly—must be prepared to use whatever constitutionally permissible means are necessary to fight back.
I spoke with Faris about his book last week. You can listen to our discussion in the player above, or read a transcript that has been edited for length and clarity below.
Joshua Holland: Republicans appear willing to do anything to exercise and maintain power. You’re calling for Democrats to fight fire with fire, is that right?
David Faris: Absolutely. We’ve seen an escalating process of institutional and procedural warfare being used against us for the last 20 years, and it’s long past time that Democrats, and the left more broadly, started to understand what was happening to them and to use the powers that they will have [when they regain control of Congress and the White House] to fight back in kind.