With their huge improvements in special elections across the country, it looks increasingly probable that Democrats will win big in the 2018 midterms, and perhaps take control of both Congress and the presidency in 2020. That raises a logical question: In an ideal world, what should they do?
American society is in dire straits, and things will likely be even worse by the time a Democrat takes office. They will have a brief window to fix multiple screaming policy emergencies, and reform American political institutions to prevent a resurgence of the diseased Republican Party.
Below, I will outline a draft platform that would both accomplish worthy goals and provide political benefits. Since the conventional wisdom on political feasibility and popularity has proved to be highly unreliable of late (see: President Donald J. Trump), I have focused on things that will provide immediate and concrete partisan benefits, while strengthening democratic liberties. The ideas are grouped under three headings: political reform, domestic policy, and foreign policy. Let's get cracking.
Now, Democrats should not cheat like Republicans do. It would be wrong to do a reverse Kris Kobach, and suppress the votes of old white people by making Fox News watchers present 14 different forms of photo ID before they can vote. However, there is nothing wrong with strengthening America's democratic institutions — making it simpler and easier for all Americans to vote and obtain political representation — in part because it would provide a partisan benefit. To wit:
1. Make Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., states. This step would both address the greatest structural violation of democratic liberties in American society and provide the largest tangible partisan benefit to Democrats. D.C. residents and Puerto Ricans are quite literally oppressed colonial subjects, taxed without representation.
In D.C.'s case that creates frequent dysfunction and annoyance, but in Puerto Rico's case it is a full-blown emergency. It is obvious that the Republican government's ongoing failure to rebuild the island after it was flattened by Hurricane Maria (much less address its ongoing debt crisis) has a great deal to do with the fact that they have no congressional representation. Instead of futilely appealing to Paul Ryan's nonexistent conscience, actual Puerto Rican senators and representatives could vote, grab the ear of national media, trade favors, argue with other national politicians, and credibly threaten to gum up the wheels of Congress if their state was not fixed. (In other words, they would have power.)
2. Abolish the filibuster. Many big and controversial bills will need to be passed very quickly. Democrats cannot afford the swing vote in the Senate to be some quisling Blue Dog in the pocket of Wall Street, as Joe "The ObamaCare Hamstringer" Lieberman was in 2009-10. This should be done at the earliest possible moment.
3. Resurrect and strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Republican vote suppression and district boundary cheating has become their ace in the political hole, hugely enabled by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' decision gutting the Voting Rights Act. Roberts' decision struck down the preclearance portion of the VRA — which forbade certain jurisdictions from making any changes to their voting procedure without first getting federal certification that they would not disenfranchise minorities — on the grounds that Jim Crow was a long time ago and so it was an unfair burden. That obstacle removed, Republicans immediately set about disenfranchising as many minorities as possible.
Roberts' "reasoning" was obviously 100 percent partisan pretext. But one solution that fits with his logic is to extend preclearance to the entire country. In keeping with Article Four, Section Four, an inalienable right to vote for all citizens and legal residents should be established, including for ex-cons and current prisoners, and all jurisdictions should be required to submit a plan to the federal government ensuring easy and universal access to the franchise. (This can be made easier by establishing a federal template for all levels of government, which would include universal mail-in voting, if people would rather not bother.) Any changes will have to be pre-cleared. Election Day itself should also be moved to a Friday and made a national holiday.
Incidentally, this will have the salutary effect of sharply improving the voting rights in many blue states like New York, where the corrupt Democratic regime is none too eager to have millions of poor people casting ballots.
Finally, as part of the voting rights package, both national and state-level district boundaries should be taken out of the hands of partisan legislatures, and put under control of nonpartisan committees required to draw maps which produce a legislature whose partisan composition at least approximates the raw vote totals.
All this aligns high moral principle with grubby partisan motives. It would mean probably four more Democratic senators and several representatives, and sharply improve Democratic prospects in several states with preposterously unfair gerrymandering or where a huge proportion of minorities have been permanently disenfranchised. However, that is no reason to get squeamish about it. On the contrary, the likeliest way that D.C. residents and Puerto Ricans are going to get their freedom, and the effectively tyrannical aspects of many American political institutions are going to be expunged, is if it can be successfully clubbed into the heads of the Democratic leadership that it is in their partisan interest to do so.
1. Climate change. This is one area where politics absolutely must take a back seat to principle. If Democrats believe what they're saying about climate science, and they accumulate some political capital with the above program, this is where it must be spent first. As I've argued before, this is by far the most important problem facing American society, because it is a serious emergency that will require a top-to-bottom overhaul of society. Trump's climate denier presidency almost could not have come at a worse time. The next administration will have to cut emissions as fast as it possibly can, both to slow climate change and to avoid the risk of tripping feedback loops that could push warming into an uncontrollable self-sustaining spiral.
People can and do argue all day about precisely the best way forward on climate, but one simple way of thinking about it is to take what China is doing with decarbonization, energy efficiency, and renewables, and aim to beat them by 50 percent. That both gets in the right ballpark of what needs to happen (China's climate policy is extremely aggressive, though still not good enough), and indicates the international nature of the issue. Such a "competition" — in reality, a mutually-beneficial international coordination — would be both excellent policy and a worthy national project. If we're lucky, it might even inspire China to up their game even more as well.
2. Health-care reform. This has been the main policy axis of mobilization for lefties during the Trump presidency, and it's not hard to see why. The ObamaCare policy approach has proved to be a massive headache with multiple pitfalls and unforeseen consequences. Its political bargain — that a more conservative, free-market road to universal coverage would be more politically stable — turned out to be wrong. Though Republicans have not managed to repeal the law outright, it is suffering major damage with the repeal of the individual mandate and regulatory attacks. Tellingly, the market-oriented part of the law — the individual exchanges — are doing the worst.
Democrats should aim for something like an upgraded Medicare-for-all system, with complete medical coverage and no cost-sharing. It both makes the best policy sense and has steadily increased in popularity. What precisely that should look like is not to be hashed out now — the Sanders and Ellison bills and the "Medicare Extra" plan from the Center for American Progress are reasonable — but the best direction to head is obvious: away from markets, and towards traditional social insurance.
Doing so would both address an ongoing humanitarian crisis and deliver a major win to Democratic base voters who have been advocating for this for generations. Moreover, after the dust settles most people would be immensely relieved by being permanently placed on a high-quality Medicare-type system. Democrats should have the confidence to ignore the lobbyists and simply ram through as good a bill as possible.
3. Family policy. The structure of American society is deeply hostile to parents even very far up into the upper class. Paid family and sick leave, a child allowance, universal pre-K, and some kind of universal daycare would go a great deal towards ensuring parents don't have a near-impossible struggle between raising their children and being forced to go back to work. This would further advance the U.S. welfare state and deliver meaningful goods to an important Democratic voting bloc: young people.
And while one can't say for sure what people would think about this, the fact that the United States is literally one of two countries in the world (the other being Papua New Guinea) without paid family leave shows you how much of an outlier we are on this. Like Medicare for all, once they figured out how great it is, people would love a family benefits package.
4. Sharp tax increases on the rich and corporations. It's not immediately obvious that this would be a win in terms of public opinion, though polls do consistently find a large majority of people saying the rich pay too little in taxes. But it would help pay for Democratic priorities, and may well end up strengthening growth by diverting money away from shareholders and executives, and towards workers and investment. And in tangible political terms, it would definitely take money out of the pockets of the ultra-wealthy, who spend ungodly sums subsidizing right-wing propaganda and dirty tricks operations.
5. Labor law reform. Again public opinion is muddled on this one, since unions barely exist throughout much of the country. But passing a pro-union legal package — by, for example, banning so-called "right-to-work" laws at the national level, passing card check, or, most aggressively, mandating what's called sectoral bargaining to unionize whole swathes of the economy at a stroke — would benefit workers and raise wages.
It would also directly benefit Democrats, as newly-revitalized unions saw their power, money, and influence grow by leaps and bounds. They would surely direct their votes and campaign donations to the party that secured those benefits, as they did in FDR's time.
6. Antitrust and other corporate regulation. Concentration is a grave problem in the American economy, where a handful of businesses have rolled up control over everything from computer chips to chicken. Breaking up these business will both provide more options for consumers, push economic activity into places other than a handful of very large cities, and help workers, who face labor market monopsony and hence lower wages. That could assist the genuinely left-behind Americans in rural areas and smaller towns Trump championed in his campaign but utterly failed to help as president.
Wall Street should come under special attention. The biggest banks should be broken up, and heavy new regulations, deliberately designed to keep financial businesses small and less profitable, should be levied. In contrast to Dodd-Frank, these should be simple and difficult to avoid, not complicated and take years to implement. This would benefit not just the actually productive parts of the economy, from which much financial profit is parasitically extracted, but also sharply reduce the risk of another global financial crisis.
Politically, antitrust and financial regulation would knock out one prop of reactionary politics. As we've seen in President Trump's Cabinet, Wall Street has been eager and willing to help along a truly vile president, so long as it get its tax cuts. Cutting finance's share of GDP by half would considerably reduce the amount they could dedicate to electing the next future conservative lunatic.
Meanwhile, vigorous antitrust in the media space, coupled to regulation of platforms like Facebook and YouTube, will also help break the influence of deep-pocketed right-wing propaganda. Restrictions on the number of TV or radio stations any one entity can own will further prevent reactionary businessmen pushing pro-Trump propaganda throughout the nation. It would not completely disable the grifting machine that is eating the Republican Party alive, but it would help quite a bit.
1. Defense spending cuts. The easiest step to take on foreign policy is to cut the bloat and waste in military spending. Back in 2016, The Washington Post reported that a study commissioned by the Pentagon itself had found $25 billion per year in pure administrative waste at the Defense Department, which it then suppressed due to fear of budget cuts. Even if that's overstated, there is still the psychotically expensive and dubiously necessary B-21 heavy bomber, the even more expensive and already outdated F-35 fighter jet, the $1 trillion-plus earmarked for new nuclear weapons and upgrades of the existing stockpile, and much more burning through government cash for little or no benefit. Every big-ticket defense project needs to be examined with acidic skepticism, to see what might be scaled back or canceled outright.
2. Imperial rollback. Further savings can be found by ending the hundreds of pointless overseas operations throughout the world. U.S. troops should be removed from Germany, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other countries, Special Forces deployments largely ended, and the enabling of the Saudi war in Yemen should cease immediately. The drunken colonialism of the so-called War on Terror must end.
All this would free up immense resources for Democrats' other policy priorities. Just the $80 billion military spending increase passed in 2017 would more than pay for free tuition at every public college across the country. Returning to a pre-Iraq War spending level (if anything, a modest ask) would free up another roughly $200 billion per year.
And far from harming national security, it would probably help. At a minimum, it would remove U.S. troops from several places where they are inflaming violent anti-American extremism. And forcing the Pentagon to economize might actually get them to focus on genuine needs rather than expensive, useless toys.
3. A new world trade system. Instead of starting new wars of aggression that cost trillions and get hundreds of thousands of people killed, America should push for an overhaul of the international trade system. After World War II, it was widely agreed that the unrestrained liberal capitalism whose breakdown led to the Great Depression could not be countenanced, leading to the Bretton-Woods system. Unfortunately, that system fell apart, and the old unregulated scheme has mostly returned — now relying on the United States to be the importer of last resort, at very considerable cost to its industrial cities and workforce.
A world system that enabled balanced trade, pushing both deficit and creditor countries to adjust — perhaps akin to the one John Maynard Keynes proposed — would give Democrats a handy foreign policy goal that would also provide substantial domestic benefits. What they should not do is give in to mindless anti-Trump sentiment, and follow Obama's footsteps in pushing horrible corporate-slanted free trade deals.
4. A return to diplomatic engagement, particularly in Europe. One of the striking things about the Obama presidency is how much time and energy was frittered away with insoluble crises in the Middle East while very soluble crises festered among America's close allies — particularly in the eurozone. Obama largely stood by in 2015 while euro elites clubbed down a leftist Greek government that asked only for an escape from literally unpayable debts and austerity that had pushed unemployment well over 20 percent. The cost of this counterinsurgency is ongoing economic wreckage, not to mention considerable risk of a chaotic collapse of the entire eurozone and another global financial crisis. This is not so much something from which the Democrats might benefit as a serious risk they should address.
Now, this should not be taken as a comprehensive list of all the important problems needing to be fixed. I have tried to be as coldly pragmatic as possible, but no doubt I have left some things out. It's just a first pass at what a ruling party that was equal parts morally serious and politically sensible should do right out of the gate. Timid, Obama-style caretaker governance to simply restore the pre-Trump status quo is not going to cut it.
Franklin Roosevelt famously said that the 1930s generation had "a rendezvous with destiny." Without espousing predestination, we can say that whatever set of people are leading the country after Trump will have a rendezvous with one of two things: ignominious failure that future historians may well mark as the point at which American decline became irreversible, or enough dramatic success to mark the point at which America once again bottomed out and began to rescue itself.
The choice of path will be made over the next three years.