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An Agenda Setting Moment

January 25, 2019

It’s an agenda setting moment. For the first time in decades, the health of American democracy itself is at the center of that debate. What can we do to keep it there? And how to use this moment to win transformative reform – now and for years to come?

For years, our system has eroded in plain sight.  Voter suppression. Dark money. Rigged, gerrymandered districts. Declining turnout. And longstanding structural barriers. Both political parties seemed locked in an arid debate over stale ideas.

The economist Herb Stein had a rule: “When things seem like they can’t go on forever, they can’t.”

First came Trump’s rise. Here and around the world, democratic decay combined with economic and demographic change opened the way for a nativist, authoritarian-minded backlash. We all know that Trump – and Trumpism – are the symptoms, not the cause.

Then came the heartening civic response. What we saw last November marks nothing less than the birth of a democracy movement. Voters turned out in huge numbers, the highest rate since 1914. Dozens of new Members of Congress won focusing on democracy reform. Ballot measures were enacted to end gerrymandering, establish automatic voter registration, and end Florida’s notorious felony disenfranchisement. The message is clear: Our best response to attacks on democracy is to strengthen democracy.

And now the governmental response. House Democrats have introduced sweeping reforms as the first bill, H.R. 1. Senate counterparts will push for a companion bill. In Albany – Albany! – new laws were enacted to establish early voting and close campaign finance loopholes, with more to come.

How can we make sure that this is more than just a momentary turn to these vital issues of democratic reform and revitalization?

It’s important to understand how agendas get formed. Political eras are marked not only by partisan divides and ethnic or demographic change. They also revolve around sets of issues, thepolicies that are fought for over many years. Often this comes when the existing rules and systems seem broken, out of touch, or corrupted. That happened in the Progressive Era and again during the New Deal and the civil rights revolution. It happened, too, alas, at the start of the Reagan era of conservative dominance, just now, maybe, drawing to a close.

One of the most crucial things that activists can do at a moment like that is to push for sweepingchange, and do it in a way that will force politicians to respond, and to compete for the mantle of change.

But there is a real risk that we will fail to fully seize this moment. And that we will look back at this as a false dawn rather than the launch of a realignment. We have to break some bad habits, some of them born or assumed in a time of diminished possibility.

First, we must think anew and rally around modern reforms. Conservatives were coasting on Reagan’s decades old agenda. Trump understood this, and crashed in with a toxic but powerful mix of xenophobia, protectionism, isolationism, and ease with big government (for old and white constituencies). For our side, we can’t coast either. Small donor public financing, for example, harnesses the hopeful rise of online giving. It doesn’t seek to squelch all money in politics, butrather aims to make sure that ordinary citizens are able to be heard.

We also must think big. It turns out that democracy issues (which sometimes have been treated as technical matters) gain power from being understood as a whole. One of the most exciting things about H.R. 1 is, in fact, its breadth. It includes small donor public financing … and voting rights …and redistricting reform … and a commitment to restore and update the Voting Rights Act. Once these measures spoke to differing constituencies, often breaking across racial lines. Now more andmore people see they reflect different facets of a system that locks out of power the rising electorate and those without economic power. The strong and engaged support from the Leaderhip Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a very encouraging sign.

And we must understand the magnitude of the fight we’re in. For years, whenever conservatives have touched a lever of power, they have used that to enact new rules that tilt the political playing field. There has been a coherent, focused assault on democracy. Progressives, not so much. They convinced themselves that the public did not care. Now we can assume that the forces that backed regressive voting rules and campaign finance deregulation are readying an assault on the new wave of reforms. Mitch McConnell’s recent Washington Post op-ed unloading on H.R. 1 was the first shot. Rest assured that Grover Norquist, ALEC, the Koch Brothers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and friends will all do what they can to block this reform surge. Conservative legal activists are readying constitutional challenges to ballot measures that will likely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where we may see cases that rival Citizens United in harmful impact.

So far, in truth, the mobilization for democracy has not come close to the scale it needs to be. Voters have leapt ahead, and in many instances politicians have too. There is breathless new energy – in the focus on democracy reform from the grassroots group Indivisible, for example. There’s a savvy and explicitly political focus, too, from forces like End Citizens United, a PAC that pushed for reform-minded candidates. But nothing yet to match all the moment offers, the forces that will gather against further change, and the vast financial and philanthropic resources required to succeed. 

These are not fights that will be won, in most instances, with bill signing ceremonies this spring. It’s not a three-month campaign, nor is it a 30-year battle. Think about the next three years. The goal federally, for example, is not to get this president to sign H.R. 1 – but the next one. We need candidates for all offices to compete with each other to be strong on democracy reform, just as they might press to have a solid foreign policy or economic policy.

We’re living through an “ideas primary” right now. Our goal should be to make sure that bold ideas to strengthen democracy are on the lips of candidates, the media, and voters as 2020 approaches.