The 2016 presidential election did not come out of the blue. It was not a whiplash reaction to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton or to the eight years of Barack Obama’s administration. Rather, 2016 was the culmination of more than fifty years of dogged preparation and hard work by a community of so-called “conservative” interests. Misogyny and racism certainly had prominent roles in the campaign, but their targets were incidental. Far from being resurgences from America’s dark underbelly, misogyny and racism have been intrinsic to the conservative strategy ever since Barry Goldwater laid its foundation in 1963. That date is not a mistake. The conservative movement has pursued a more-or-less coherent but always determined strategy for political dominance since before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Compare this to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who has never shown interest in building an organization larger than his personal brand. He pushed into the nominating process of an organization from which he had always stood apart, ran a rock star campaign that built on no larger foundation than his personal narrative, but then whined because the playing field wasn’t level. The senator deserves credit for supplying vocabulary and grammar for a critique long absent from the American mainstream, but almost everything else about his candidacy was unproductive. A flash in the pan, it laid no groundwork for a long haul commitment to change. In fact, a huge segment of Bernie’s binaries abandoned the entire political process the moment their candidate was unhorsed. It would be hard to design a more wrong-headed campaign for institutional change, if change is the actual ambition.
In 1963, Senator Goldwater laid out a strategy for the political attitude taking shape around him—soon to identify as the modern conservative movement—to take over, first, the Republican Party, and then the government of the United States at all levels. Unlike the later, top-down, personality campaigns run by progressive senators McGovern and Sanders, Goldwater’s vision focused from the start on securing the lowest levels of office. His aim was to create an unassailable base from which to expand control up the political hierarchy.
Within the Republican Party organization, conservative activists first moved to take over precinct operations, then county, then state. Quite deliberately and consciously, the movement’s leaders identified with deep-seated resentment felt by segments of the population toward any expression of ethnic or gender equality, and mined that resentment for new blood. Pursuit was relentless rather than urgent. The movement’s emphasis was and remains on transforming simple believers into local activists. Senator Goldwater became an ideological attractor around which a community of associated values could congregate—although, it must be noted, the body of values was not so tightly laced back then as it has become. Various interest groups from which early activists were drawn did not talk amongst themselves until the faction coalescing around Mr. Goldwater provided a unifying framework.
A point that cannot be stressed enough is that there was nothing nefarious or underhanded about how conservatives took over the GOP. In any organization, positions of responsibility naturally fill from among those who consistently show up, shoulder the drudgery, and step forward when opportunity presents itself. It is a mechanism that, if not free of ideological influence, is, at least, not bound by necessity to any one posture. On the other hand, absent ethical controls, it is a method ripe for exploitation by partiality, bias, and—most dangerous—willful ignorance. The point is that criticism of the conservative movement is off target when critiquing the takeover of the Republican Party. Where conservatives are open to charge is in what they have done with the organization they have seized.
Actually, they cannot really be criticized for what they have done with the party—which has been to win elections with the candidates they have nominated. It is what those elected have done to our system of governance that is so grievous.
As with their approach to taking over their party, conservatives have built from the ground up in their takeover of government. While running full slates of candidates for office, they have been thorough and persistent about allocating resources to support candidates at the lower levels. A particular focus has been on state legislatures. This has been critical because presidential elections are won in state legislatures, and, to a large extent, state legislatures are where terms of political discourse are framed. Sitting at the transition point from citizen politician to professional, representatives in state legislatures have four powers that position them as keystones to national governance:
- They draw the boundaries of congressional and state legislative electoral districts.
- They determine how presidential electors are apportioned.
- They establish criteria for ballot access by parties and candidates.
- They establish criteria for voter registration and means of voting.
While any of these powers may be abused, the potential for corruption is most profound with the first, drawing boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. Every ten years, following the national census, state legislatures decide the physical geography of the districts into which voters are clustered. Ideally, each and every one of these districts will be as compact as possible so that a defining feature of its residents is shared locality, thus allowing neighbors (in a broad sense) to unite readily around common concerns. At least, that is the ideal in abstract, in a hypothetically free, fair and open system. What happens in practice, however, is that interests of the dominant party in a legislature use that dominance to shift boundaries away from ideal, with the specific purpose of diluting voices other than their own.
To state this another way, districts are drawn with intent to create particular partisan majorities—or to Balkanize pockets of opposition—rather than to adhere to an ideal of compactness. Gerrymandering, as this practice is called, becomes a feature of the political landscape any time an ideological bloc is able to exercise unchecked advantage in the districting process.
Why is this important? In the abstract, government becomes less robust, less flexible, and less responsive any time bias is deliberately injected into the structure of the election system. In actual practice—in the real world, in this country—gerrymandering has been a deliberate strategy of the conservative movement. In some states their success has been so complete that they have eliminated the Democratic Party as a contender for statewide office, and skewed congressional delegations by means of these engineered electoral maps. Conservative majorities to date have been extremely successful entrenching themselves in part by using gerrymandered districts to consolidate their voters while fragmenting others. Whenever they have controlled the redistricting process, conservatives have further shifted the electoral system functionally toward one-party rule. As noted above, districts are redrawn after each national census, which means their next opportunity to lurch further rightward will be in 2020. For those who want to reverse that shift, it means there are two election cycles in which to organize recovery of state legislatures. There is no time to lose.
While it has been heartening to see the energy driving anti-Trump activity since election day, much of it has been dissipated in naivete and play acting. When the elected representative of your gerrymandered district has labored hard to create a situation in which he or she can ram a program down your throat no matter what you want, a “Call Your Representative” initiative is an empty gesture. True enough, that purely symbolic action can foster a culture of resistance, and the benefits of this are considerable. Equally true is that failure to realize material gains from such actions—such as the negligible influence of the Sanders campaign on the Clinton-Kaine platform—can induce disillusionment and subsequent withdrawal from social action.
Disillusionment was one of the factors that made 2016, rather than another, the year of conservative triumph. The constituency mobilized by Senator Sanders found so little reflection of their concerns in the eventual Democratic platform that substantial numbers treated their standard-bearer’s call for party discipline as no more than the retreat from principle that it unavoidably was. He had no basis either in the Democratic Party or among the Sanderistas to lead them beyond the nominating process—especially as Secretary Clinton made clear that the Sanders platform would have no more than token influence on hers. Facing such intransigent business-as-usual, the new, still-forming, grassroots constituency of the left could do far worse than to stake a position outside the Democratic Party, and work to become a force that the DP cannot avoid engaging. A realistic, achievable path to this end will snatch a page from the conservative playbook and set its sights on the halls of state capitols. In most cases, even a gerrymandered state representative district is small enough to make a well-organized door-to-door campaign credible.
A final lesson of 2016 is one the Democratic Party absolutely must take to heart. “Lesser evilism” is no longer a viable argument. The neo-liberal ideology of the DP has become so repulsive to enough of the “progressive” element of the electorate, that the Dems can no longer win national office by hysterically proclaiming the Republicans are even worse than they are. Even now, in Trump’s Amerika, many voices of dissent realize that—when not cherry-picking issues—differences between the two dominant parties are matters of degree rather than kind. Witness Secretary Clinton’s decision to spurn the Sanderistas and court a non-existent disaffected right. Every bit as much as Wikileaks and the FBI, this crippled her campaign.
If the Democrats want to win future elections, they must change to a strategy of building coalitions with increasingly independent constituencies. That will require commitment to opening ballot access, to programs reflecting values and concerns of the re-emerging socialist left (the real left), and to recognizing that the end of the two-party partnership has overtaken them. Whether it is superseded by one-party authoritarianism or genuine, multi-party democracy depends largely on whether the Democrats choose to retain privilege as junior members of a jackboot future (until the Republicans feel powerful enough to purge them), or rise to champion a new approach to governing for the people, by the people. It’s 2017. The clock is ticking.