Needs More Skocpol

It’s tempting to focus on every little word and deed from Donald Trump as he begins his presidency.  Don’t.   Yes, of course words matter, but intellectuals are too easily enamored of language and rhetoric and the bold public statements of top level actors.  As Theda Skocpol reminds us, organization and electoral geography are what really count in American politics, something that Democrats are at risk of ignoring to the threat of the party’s very existence.

In truth we are still living in the modern era.  Even post modernity is only a variation on that theme.  Modernity is built on structures, organizations, and bureaucracy.  Some of them are rather old and, by the standard of the digital age, quaint and traditional.  While it is certainly true that data and information and media count for a great deal, good old pen and paper organization (even if mediated digitally on the screen) still have lot of control over our lives.  Democrats scored some big victories using advanced information systems to pull voters to the polls and micro target key counties, but that god apparently failed in 2016.  It was outdone by  unglamorous federated organizations, of church groups, home schoolers, Christian ministries, the National Rifle Association, Chambers of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and other parts of conservative civil society.  While new technology matters, it can enhance older forms of social organization as well as displace them.  New media often grows up alongside old media, rather than pushing it out of the way.  Social media can be used by the fervent home schooler movement to mobilize against a threatening bill or get people on local school boards, as well as it can be used by progressive groups pulling together a big march on Washington.

None of this is to say that marches and street actions should be abandoned.  By all means organize them (and build a grass roots organization as you do).  Likewise write your representatives, including wobbly Democratic ones, and speak out against outrageous actions, racism, and demagoguery.  Coded language, or even not so coded language like claims of “voter fraud” are only the wedge that opens the real door to authoritarianism.  That door leads to the recesses of statehouses, where the Republican minority is busy using the structure of the American political system against the Democratic majority.

Build in to our electoral order from the start was favoritism toward rural counties of small population.  The long standing and well known battles between New York City and Albany, however, are now replicated on a national level practically everywhere.  With urban growth, and the concentration of both liberal voters and economic activity in cities, the disparity between the size and wealth of the liberal urban counties and the poor, depopulated rural ones has grown larger than ever.  The 2016 election showed that those counties and their representatives knew how to use the power of organization (as always abetted with money from the Koch brothers and other conservative funders) and their built in electoral advantages to take back politically what they had lost economically.

But there is worse to come.  North Carolina led the way, following the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, in disenfranchising black and other likely Democratic voters.  Other states have followed the same pattern, building on earlier “voter ID” efforts to reduce the strength of Democrats even in states where they have a likely majority.  Now they are taking voter exclusion a dangerous step further, with proposals to divide presidential electoral votes, even in states that vote Democratic, by congressional district, rather than awarding them to the state wide winner.  When that happens, even if only in a few otherwise Democratic states, the game is over as far as winning the presidency is concerned.

I am not competent to tell the whole political history that got us to this point.  But it seems to me that the end of democracy began in 2010.  With the big midterm losses, Democrats were in a weak position in many states for the 2010 redistricting.  The resulting gerrymandering produced big Republican majorities in the House of Representative, and in state houses, even in places where Democrats were a majority or a close minority.  This disproportion of representation in turn has empowered Republicans to control, at the state level, further redistricting, which will be coming in 2020, as well as to propose more voter restrictions and possibly the reapportionment of electors for presidential races.

Perhaps we could say that the 2010 loss reflected the decision a year or so earlier by Obama to push only for a relatively modest economic stimulus in the wake of the Great Recession.  Failing to make a big enough impact economically, the stimulus discredited further spending and also gave the Republicans a powerful talking point—wasteful and ineffective, deficit increasing big government spending—to use in the 2010 election.  Though a deeper cause to my mind was the failure of Democrats to build on the nearly complete discrediting of Republicans following the Bush Administration and nourish the state and local party organizations and candidates that could have prevented those losses in statehouses in 2010.

Others can write this history, which may indeed be the history of the end of democracy in America.  In the meantime, fear the reaper but also pay attention to structure and organization.


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