"It's our own darned fault." This was the heartfelt, and deadly accurate, lament of a member at DA Barcelona's early September "Welcome Back" meeting. She was referring to the Democratic Party's 40 year-long slumber at the level of down-ballot state, county and local elections. Our adrenaline has been pumped into the presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races. And, in fact, just weeks from now, 34 Senate seats, 36 governors' posts, and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be on ballots across the country. On the same day, however, control of 46 state legislatures will also be in play.
The party that controls each of those state bodies will wield immense power over the rules and conduct governing the 2024 election cycle. For many years, consistently since the Reagan wave of 1980 swept Jimmy Carter into "involuntary retirement" (his own description), the professional infrastructure of the Republican party has kept steady focus on winning what, for the average citizen, are unexciting positions such as secretary of state at the state level. These are the people who administer the election process, with the ability to tilt it at the administrative level, making it easier or more difficult for citizens in their respective states to vote, and for those votes to be counted (see FiveThirtyEight’s analysis here).
Another area in which the Republican party apparatus has scored ongoing success, with little awareness among the general public, has been the seeding of the federal judiciary with conservative candidates for the District, Circuit and Supreme Courts. In theory, the judicial branch of the federal government is non-political, but the reality is far different. The Federalist Society, a non-profit think tank with strong ties to the more traditional right wing of the Republican party, maintains a steady assembly line of candidates for the federal judiciary who stand well to the right of most American citizens. When Senator Mitch McConnell and his colleagues hold control of the Senate in tandem with a Republican in the White House, the production process speeds up, and Federalist Society alumni/ae are swiftly nominated and confirmed for lifetime tenure on the bench. This is what happened in 2017-2020.
And the result? To begin with, a 6–3 Supreme Court decision overturning almost 50 years of settled law that had assured American women of control over their reproductive healthcare decisions as a matter of Constitutional right. This is a hell of a way to run a railroad, much less a nation of 330 million citizens.
The bottom line is that we are governed according to a constitution drawn up and adopted in 1787 by a group of wealthy White property owners from all 13 colonies, including slave owners in northern as well as southern states. The provisions setting up the Senate and the Electoral College in particular were explicitly designed to favor less populated agricultural states and to protect slavery as an institution. Successive constitutional amendments and a four-year civil war produced significant improvements at a huge cost in life and property.
In order to preserve our democracy going forward, the Democratic party must devote substantial resources not only to getting citizens registered and urging them to vote, but also to strengthening our bench of candidates for the less glamorous but essential elected offices at local, county and state levels. For too many electoral cycles, progressives have focused exclusively — to their own detriment, we now see — on federal candidates and offices. While this has resulted in real victories for Americans (e.g., Inflation Reduction Act, student debt relief and the bipartisan infrastructure law) since Biden won in 2020, there is much work left to be done, and that can only happen if we continue to win elections.
It will not be easy to stem and then reverse this tidal flow, and we cannot afford to disengage.
by Dan Solon (member, DA Barcelona)