The Biggest Problem in American Politics, and Why a Biden/Abrams Ticket Could Fix It
Our democracy is losing its ability to translate popular majorities into public policy. A Biden/Abrams ticket could harness an energized electorate to expand democracy, making major progressive change possible
Part I: Super Tuesday Recap
Before nerding out on democracy reform, a quick recap of Super Tuesday. I don’t want to go in-depth, but there are a few important takeaways.
First of all, there are several valuable highlights from Sanders’ performance. He is the favorite of many younger voters, and has made significant inroads with Latino and Asian Americans. He speaks with consistency and has a clear and understandable thesis of American politics. There is a tendency among some Democrats to view Trump as the cause rather than the symptom of America’s socio-economic problems. I am sure those who know my disagreements with him will think this is pandering, but Sanders has been an important voice for making sure we recognize that dynamic, and that going back to “normal” is not enough for many people — especially millennials. And if Joe Biden is the nominee, he should not repeat Hillary’s political idiocy in sidelining Sanders. He should campaign with him, and do whatever it takes to earn Sanders’s support (cabinet position, running point on an issue, etc.) and the enthusiasm of his voters. To Bernie’s credit, he has already signaled he will be fully on board: “Joe Biden is a decent guy, and I know if he wins the nomination, I will be there for him, and if I win, he will be there for me.” AOC has followed suit. And as I have said throughout this process, if Sanders is the nominee I will do everything I can to see him succeed.
Nonetheless, Super Tuesday also illustrated major problems in Sanders’ coalition and his campaign’s approach to politics. I have been warning of these problems for months, and Tuesday placed them in stark relief. Many Democrats describe the prospect of Trump’s re-election as an “existential threat,” and Sanders himself calls him “the most dangerous president in modern American history.” The reality is this high stakes framing carries basic implications for voting strategy…if a President is an existential threat, voters will gravitate to the candidate who is most capable of neutralizing that threat by removing him from office. And on that score, Bernie’s results on Super Tuesday were troubling.
First, Bernie’s coalition is extremely shaky. So far he is only performing ⅔ as well as he did in 2016.
Part of this is the more fractured field in 2020. Nonetheless, statisticians have been pointing out that Sanders’ polling against Trump has been predicated on “miraculous youth turnout.” Research has pointed out youth turnout would have to increase by 11% for Bernie’s half-decent general election polling numbers against Trump to translate into reality (for a point of comparison, black turnout only increased by 5% for Barack Obama in 2008). Furthermore, “this enormous 11 percentage point turnout boost is only enough to make Sanders as electable as the more moderate candidates, given the other votes he loses to Trump. For him to be the most electable Democratic candidate based on his ability to inspire youth turnout, Sanders’s nomination would need to increase youth turnout by even more.” Defeating Donald Trump is a central issue for many voters, and Super Tuesday was Sander’s first real test of his coalition in 2020.
The youth turnout Sanders’ campaign is premised on, however, basically failed to materialize. In fact, “not a single state saw an increase in young voters’ share of the electorate” compared with 2016. To be clear, this is not a dynamic I celebrate. I basically spent four years as a history and civics teacher trying to increase youth civic engagement. I registered the entire senior class to vote, and knocked on more doors canvassing for candidates than I can count to boost turnout. Youth disengagement is a huge problem, and one I think that has a connection to the mental health crisis endemic among many of America’s youngest voters (they are also getting driver’s licenses at lower rates, along with other metrics of independence). Sanders also failed to make real inroads with black voters, who are the backbone of the party. Biden won black voters 71–16. I can’t speak to the rationale for that choice choice — whether it was sheer pragmatism, that Black voters are often more moderate than “woke” college-educated liberals, trust built over time, etc. But I did find this reflection from Laurie Goff insightful (for the record, Biden is not rich):
And this of course is the larger story of Super Tuesday: Turnout did spike, but it spiked for Joe Biden. In Texas, turnout increased from 1.44 million in 2016 to 1.97 million in 2020. In Virgina, turnout increased from 0.79 million to 1.32 million. In North Carolina, it increased from 1.14 million to 1.32 million. And in each of those states Biden defied the odds and won resoundingly. Furthermore, he won over many of the swing voters I highlighted in an earlier take, who went for Democrats in 2018. In fact, there is a real case to be made that if Bloomberg had not been in the race, Biden would have won California and Colorado. And while much has been made of Elizabeth Warren being a spoiler for Bernie, the reality is her voters split quite a bit more evenly than people expect. Reuters, for example, has 47% of her supporters second choice being Bernie, and 46% being Biden. Her appeal is her wonkiness and well developed plans rather than simply being ideologically hardline.
Another thing Super Tuesday illustrated was the limitations of the Bernie campaign’s approach to politics. Politics is additive rather than subtractive. You want to persuade people to join you, and give them emotional permission to get on board. Here is what the opposite of that looks like:
It isn’t at all fair to characterize Bernie supporters with a broad brush based on the actions of individuals like this schmuck. Most are coming from a place of real conviction and do not fit the stereotype of “Bernie Bros.” Plus the reality is Russian trolls are likely amplifying the worst conduct you see on Twitter. But it is still troubling (especially the level of vitriol against Liz Warren’s supporters), and Super Tuesday reflected how ineffective it is as an approach to politics. As Professor Seth Cotlar put it, “if what drives your politics is a fundamental dislike and disdain of your fellow citizens, then maybe another line of work would be better suited for you.” I am continually amazed with Facebook users who churn out literally dozens of memes and condescending takes illustrating their contempt for every other candidate. I am guessing they believe — in aggregate — their approach is persuading more people than it is alienating (spoiler: it’s not). I have also had people who support other candidates tell me they are keeping their preferences to themselves because they don’t want their posts blown up with criticism (I, for one, have clearly stopped giving a shit). Even progressive activists have started opening about the perversity of the dynamic:
Even worse has been the pattern of sharing patently doctored videos for political points. Asymmetric disinformation warfare is very real, and we are all going to have to be vigilant about the content we consume and share. The Trump campaign, for example, recently shared a fake video of Joe Biden saying “We can only re-elect Donald Trump” in order to question his fitness. It got millions of views. The problem, of course, was that the full quote was “We can only re-elect Donald Trump if in fact we get engaged in this circular firing squad here.” It’s one thing for this to come from the Trump campaign, but the unfortunate reality is Bernie’s camp has engaged in similar conduct. Politifact found that Sanders’ attack ad on Biden’s comments on social security “plucked out what Biden said about [Paul] Ryan, but ignored the complete passage which showed that Biden wanted Social Security and Medicare protected” and rated the advertisement false. Bernie supporters such as Jill Stein and Marianne Williamson (“with friends like these…”) have been engaged in similar conduct, playing armchair psychologist and sharing videos of Joe Biden saying “he is running for senate” when the remark was a reference to his past runs and the line he got so accustomed to saying. The reality is the technology surrounding “deep fakes” is going to get worse before it gets better, and Professor Hany Farid says there is a “misinformation apocalypse” coming. We got a taste of the danger of doctored (and not just deceptively edited) footage when a video of Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to portray her as slurring her words also got millions of views. Even scarier, someone recently created a fake voice sample for Joe Rogan that shows how deceptively accurate this technology is becoming. All politicians and social media users are going to have to be discerning and accountable in how they engage with content of questionable veracity.
Part II. The Central Problem in American Politics and Why a Biden/Abrams Ticket Could Fix It
But still…Joe Biden? This is really the guy who can deliver on progressive change? “He is old school and we want something different.”
I hear it and I get it. But I absolutely believe there is a strong case that not only can Biden win definitively, but that his Presidency could usher in historical structural change. Indulge the history teacher in me and I’ll explain.
As I mentioned on Facebook, I think one of the most simple analogies for American democracy is a “car.” The car drives us to where we want to go as a society, in terms of public policy. Whatever issue you care about — whether it is universal healthcare or addressing student loan debt — the car is the vehicle we have for getting to those destinations. In an era of hyper-partisanship, that means winning the Presidency and gaining majorities in the House and Senate (as well as the local and state levels, where an enormous amount of change has been happening the last several years — particularly among state attorney generals).
Here is the problem.
An incompetent narcissist with authoritarian instincts is currently driving the car. He is joyriding, abusing the transmission, and driving perilously close to the edge. And the car was already in very rough shape. It needs an oil-change, the tires are giving out, and the engine is faltering. In fact, the structure of democracy — free and fair elections, checks and balances, an independent law enforcement arm and judiciary, a free press, the separation of powers, basic ethics in government — have all been under constant attack by this President (which excellent reporting from the Atlantic has shown it taking its toll). And at the most basic level, our democracy — the car — is losing its ability to translate popular majorities into public policy change — i.e. actually drive places we want to go to.
The most simple example is the electoral college. We have had four Presidents in the 27 years since 1993: Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. These Presidents have served roughly 7 terms. But there has been only a single occasion in which a Republican President who became President actually won the popular vote: George W. Bush in 2004. This dynamic will likely get worse before it gets better, which is why James Boiue has called the electoral college the “greatest threat to our democracy.” And in a point that is often overlooked, four of the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court have now been appointed by a President who was initially elected in spite of losing the popular vote.
Or consider the basic structure of the Senate. The 48 Senators who voted to convict President Trump in the impeachment trial represented 18 million more Americans the 52 senators who voted to acquit. Vox has highlighted that “according to 2018 Census Bureau estimates, more than half of the US population lives in just nine states. That means that portion of the nation is represented by only 18 senators. Less than half of the population controls about 82 percent of the Senate. It’s going to get worse. By 2040, according to a University of Virginia analysis of census projections, half the population will live in eight states. About 70 percent of people will live in 16 states — which means that 30 percent of the population will control 68 percent of the Senate.” The structure of the Senate is essentially veering towards an unsustainable democratic legitimacy crisis.
Or even take the House. Even though Democrats managed to take the chamber through unprecedented voter turnout, gerrymandering has often structurally prevented the will of the majority to translate into majorities in Congress (which then, of course, affects the electoral college). As bizarre as it sounds, we are a country that lets politicians choose their voters, rather voters choose their politicians. And unsurprisingly, politicians choose to draw congressional maps most favorable to their party, even if it defies the will of the majority. In Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans garnered only 49 percent of the votes statewide in House races in 2012, but captured 13 of the 18 House seats.
Back in college I was really into campaign finance reform. I read Larry Lessig religiously, and was convinced money in politics and corruption were the root of all our problems. I still think they are both enormously serious issues, but the reality is the very structure of American democracy is making it harder and harder to translate the will of the majority into electoral success and policy change. When majorities can’t translate into change, people become cynical and disaffected. We have nearly 90% of Americans saying we have to do something about gun violence and at a minimum implement universal background checks, and yet nothing gets done. This is why fixing the structure of American democracy is the prerequisite to real change — and avoiding a full blown democatic legitimacy crisis. In order to get to the public policy destinations we want, we have to fix the car that gets us there. We have to reform our democracy so that popular majorities can translate into success in elections and changes in public policy (and I’ll explain what those changes could be in the next section).
The structural dilemma facing American politics necessitates several immediate steps for repairing the “car” of our democracy.
1) We need to kick out the driver, and replace him with someone who is fundamentally decent and competent.
2) We have to repair the car (our democracy), so that popular majorities actually translate into public policy change.
3) Once the car is repaired, we can drive to the desired destinations of the majority of the American public, and deliver real, lasting change.
After Super Tuesday, a Joe Biden/Stacey Abrams ticket is the best strategy for addressing these three points. Here are the reasons.
- Joe Biden’s Ability to Beat Trump and Deliver Progressive Change
I won’t belabor the electability arguments for Biden, which I have already made. The case for his ability to beat Trump was largely vindicated by the diverse and energized coalition that showed up on Super Tuesday, and is continually reflected in head to head polls where Biden is beating by Trump by over +10. Instead, I think there is a historical argument for why he could be a transformative President.
There are four Presidents who meet that definition (it’s too way early to consider Obama in that conversation): Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. All four share a few common characteristics:
A. All four faced tremendous personal adversity, and a developed great resilience and empathy as a result
Lincoln was born into destitute poverty and lost his parents at a young age. Teddy Roosevelt was born with crippling poor health. FDR got polio just as his career was hitting its stride, losing his ability to walk. And Johnson also grew up in rural poverty, with a father who lost it all after failed business ventures. But all of them showed great resilience in getting up after being knocked down, and as a result showed lifelong empathy for those left behind by our society.
Biden shares this characteristic. Although by no means born in poverty, Biden’s father suffered a number of business reversals and he largely grew up in mother’s parents home in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This is why Biden constantly comes back to his dad’s quote that “a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It is about your dignity. It is about respect. It is about being able to tell your kids everything is going to be OK.” The young Biden also had a terrible stutter, for which he was teased terribly and which he worked mightily to overcome. After working as a public defender out of law school, Biden eventually ran for Senate at age 29. Within months, however, his wife and daughter were killed in a tragic crash. Biden has said those months were the hardest of his life, and that he even understood how someone could contemplate suicide in such a dark moment. But he was able to find purpose in his work in the Senate and he raised his two boys as a single father before meeting Jill Biden. He would eventually would be struck by tragedy again when his son Beau died from brain cancer. Yet again, Biden found purpose in staying engaged in public life, which he has said was his rationale for running for President. Finding purpose and strength from loss by helping others. That is at the core of Biden as a public servant, and it is why so many voters feel a connection with him. That he is honorable, understands what they are going through, and has their backs — unlike our current President. At such an unsettling time that is a powerful profile — and is one shared by our most impactful Presidents.
B. All four were politicians in their bones, which helped them leverage a popular movement and address the crisis of their time
Lincoln faced the Civil War, Teddy the Gilded Age, FDR the Great Depression and WWII, and Johnson a society coming apart at the seams during the Civil Rights Movement. All four, however, were not merely good speakers unversed in the art of politics — they lived for politics. All of them loved the “dirty work” that has been at the root of all major social legislation: Coalition building, negotiation, bold unilateralism, wrangling votes, inspiration, persuasion, intimidation, and all the other tools of the trade. The sausage has always been made the same way. And all four Presidents were able to leverage the energy of a mass movement to deliver on real change. Lincoln gets the Reconstruction Amendments passed after winning the Civil War. Teddy passes the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by leading the Progressive Era mass movement. FDR creates the modern administrative state, dragging America out of depression and to victory in WWII. And Johnson leverages the Civil Rights Movement to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Biden similarly loves politics. It is who he is, and he knows the inside game better than almost any other Democrat. And like the other Presidents mentioned, we are seeing a mass movement of people ready to rid this country of the danger of Trumpism and unsustainable inequality, and usher in a better future. When you pair that kind of civic engagement with a steady hand who knows how to wield power to get a result, you can see some major change. And in Biden, we have a politician with receipts in delivering on major legislation. He helped pass the Violence Against Women’s Act, the Assault Weapons Ban, major De-Nuclearization treaties, the economic stimulus that dug America out of recession, the Affordable Care Act, cancer research, torpedoing the nomination of right wing extremist Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and getting the administration to come out in support of gay marriage. He passed 42 bills during his time in Congress, which is over 5 times higher than his opponent in the nomination. And for Obamacare in particular, Biden was a legislative closer who got Arlen Specter to switch his affiliation from Republican to Democrat, providing the needed 60th vote. Once he wrangled together votes for the stimulus, Biden demonstrated high level executive and managerial experience overseeing an 800 billion dollar stimulus. In a particularly relevant point, Biden’s chief of staff led the Obama administration’s incredibly successful response to the Ebola public health crisis. Today, we have a daily reminder these days in how critical experience and competence are in managing such a pandemic.
Biden’s record isn’t all sunshine and roses (which I’ll unpack a bit at the end). But the reality is America’s most impactful Presidents were ruthlessly effective in the art of politics, and Biden has shown he knows how to actually deliver. You wouldn’t hire a doctor who had no medical experience or accomplishments, or hire a lawyer who never won a case…yet politics is somehow the only profession where we have convinced ourselves the last thing we need is someone who has has experience and legislative success as a politician. And if an energized American majority propels him to the White House he will use that skill set to powerful effect on the issues that animate the Democratic base: Universal health care, gun safety, immigration reform, addressing climate change, and the like. But most importantly, he can employ those skills with his Vice President on fixing American democracy that is the prerequisite to long term change on any of these issues.
2. A Joe Biden / Stacey Abrams Ticket to Reform American Democracy
“Fixing the car” that is the vehicle for getting America to progressive destinations is the critical structural project of the next President. Biden has made clear he understands the incredibly high stakes of this election for American democracy. But by selecting a Vice President whose career has been shaped by these issues to eventually succeed him, he would be putting his money where his mouth is. That politician is Stacey Abrams.
Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018. Her election saw unprecedented turnout, especially among young voters. The problem is she was running against Brian Kemp, the incumbent Secretary of State. Kemp was the public official literally overseeing elections in Georgia, producing one of the craziest conflicts of interest in American politics. Georgia also saw unprecedented voter suppression and purges of voter rolls. And as a result, Abrams came up short in an election that reflected just how broken the “car” of American politics has become.
There would be a powerful kind of karmic justice if a politician who was obviously wronged by the breakdown of democracy led the charge in reforming it. And this is exactly what Abrams has done with her career. She founded Project Fair Fight, where she has led the charge in fighting discriminatory voter ID and suppression laws, along with registering thousands of voters. She is also tremendously personally impressive, graduating from Yale Law School and serving as minority leader in the Georgia Assembly. And honestly, after black women basically single handedly revived Biden’s candidacy in South Carolina, it seems only fitting that she should be the first African American woman Vice President. And given Abrams’ clout with the progressive wing of the party, she could also help unify the party.
So what would a democracy reform platform that VP Abrams would be leading look like? It would probably look quite a bit like HR 1 “The For the People Act” that the House passed after the 2017 elections. Automatic voter registration. DC statehood and statehood for Puerto Rico and other territories if they want it, in order to expand the Senate and secure the fairness of basic representation. Securing our elections against foreign interference, and providing mandatory paper ballots. Strengthening the Voting Rights Act to go after voter disenfranchisement. Restoring the voting rights of those who have served time and paid their debt to society. Campaign finance reform to address dark money and the pernicious effect of Citizens United. Making Election Day a national holiday on Veterans Day. Ending gerrymandering through independent election commissions, in order to strengthen democracy in the House. Getting rid of the electoral college. Government ethics reform and requiring the release of Presidential tax returns. A National Service Program that helps voter registration and democratic inclusion.
All the above. Fix the car of our democracy, so we can drive to the destinations the majority of Americans want. And to strengthen the basic legitimacy of our structure of government, so the people have their voices heard.
3) A Repaired Car Can Drive to Progressive Change
By Abrams running point on democracy reform, and Biden cultivating her talent and leveraging his experience to move the ball, the ticket could rebuild our democracy so that it can sustainably translate American majorities into policy. As I have said before in other posts, I also think the ticket should employ a team of rivals approach in which as many of the former presidential candidates are included in the cabinet as possible. One of Trump’s most brilliant moves in the 2016 election was announcing his list of Supreme Court Justices in the 2016 election. This move helped consolidate Republican support behind him, by making clear the stakes of the election and what his presidency would deliver. Biden and Abrams could build on this strategy and announce their entire cabinet ahead of the election if he is the nominee. And Biden has already stated he wants to increase representation on the Supreme Court, and I for one can’t think of someone better than Ketanji Brown Jackson (who wrote the epic opinion in the Don McGhan case).
As I said earlier, Biden’s record is not all sunshine and roses. I work in criminal justice reform, and Biden played a significant role in 90’s crime bill that has had a serious long term impact. I may break down the politics of that law at a future time, and in the meantime would highly recommend James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own. You won’t catch me defending the law, but there has been a lot of looking back at the past with rose colored glasses — including by Bernie Sanders, who voted for the law. Many communities of color were demanding the passage of the crime bill at a time of historic violence (including DC, which Forman documents), and support was eventually almost unanimous in Congress (where it passed 95–4). I won’t add to an already too long article by breaking down other bad votes by Biden, and it is incumbent on him to explain what he has learned from providing the Bush Administration an AUMF for Iraq without a sunset clause. My suspicion is he learned from that vote by becoming the chief voice in the Obama administration for drawing down our military presence in Afghanistan, but that is on him to explain. And the reality is both candidates have the onus of explaining their long careers in Congress, which is a two way street. Sometimes not voting for something can be as problematic as voting for it, such as Sanders’ five votes against the Brady Bill that was the most meaningful gun safety reform this country has had in decades, as well as his votes against sanctions on Russia after the most devastating cyber attack this country has ever been hit with. With the field consolidated and a debate coming up, I am sure we will hear more on their respective records.