Princeton Election Consortium

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Democracy’s Survival, Part I: Action Items for Today

December 16th, 2016, 7:30am by Sam Wang


In today’s NYT, two scholars of authoritarian movements, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, weigh in. It’s an important article.

Readers, recall that my main purpose in running this site was not simply to aggregate polls. I also wanted to help direct efforts and resources. Presidential polls were off (watch my entomophagy, which I made as substantive as I could), but the top six Senate races split 2-to-4, which is about right.

Now, with democratic institutions under threat, the question is: what can everyday citizens do? Recently, former Congressional staffers have prepared an excellent divide, titled Indivisible. It’s very popular! I provide a downloaded PDF here Read it, print it, save it. Also, here is a story on how the document came to be.

In addition, I offer three ideas, whose impacts range from long-term to immediate. These are meant for all Americans who want to save institutions – whether they are liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican.

1. Join your Representative’s party. This can be a tough one to do mentally, but it can potentially pay off.

David Wasserman at Cook Political Report/FiveThirtyEight points out a major problem in our democracy: most districts are not competitive. Mostly because of population clustering, with an additional boost from gerrymandering, like-minded people are clustered within legislative districts. And when districts are lopsided in their partisan makeup, the only competitive legislative election is the primary.

In both parties, representatives will face pressures to cave, if and when our institutions come under threat. Since most general elections carry no suspense, I suggest that you put your effort where you have the most leverage: the primary. In most states, advance party registration is necessary to vote in the primary. This has a consequence: to influence your representative, you must register to his/her party. That may mean changing parties! It sounds tough, but think about it. The Republican Party in particular needs to be brought back from its Trumpist death spiral.

Such logic also applies to both Republicans and Democrats. However, the risks with Democrats are different because (a) they’re not in power, and (b) they’re not putting institutions at risk. Either way, maximize your influence by registering to the dominant local party.

2. Contact your local and state officials. When an offense to institutions occurs, contact your local and state officials. Because they have fewer constituents, they are more likely to be responsive. This is especially important if you think your representative is swayable, or if he/she is a mismatch to the state partisan leaning. An example would be Governor Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland, which is heavily Democratic. Although Hogan was not a Trump supporter, he was rather silent during the campaign. Silence in the face of constitutional violations is not a sufficient response. Encourage such people to be vocal.

3. Keep the media on task. A free press is one of our remaining defenses. But news organizations face many pitfalls, including:

  1. Choosing unimportant stories over important ones (Kanye instead of Rex Tillerson),
  2. Pressure to offer “both sides” balance (this attitude was once used to normalize lynching),
  3. Misleading headlines after the story is written, and
  4. Intimidation from the incoming President.

You can help by contacting editors, writers, and producers to give them feedback. Keep it friendly. Here are contacts for the NYT. Looking for contacts for AP, ABC, NBC, CBS, WSJ. Here’s an example of a success.

Please give input and suggestions in the comments section, which is my favorite part of PEC.

Tags: 2016 Election · U.S. Institutions

12 Comments so far ↓

  • Northern Lights

    Because Trump shows little knowledge of how law should restrain his authoritarian inclinations, he is more likely than any president since the Civil War to be impeached and convicted, even more so than Richard Nixon who resigned to escape impeachment and conviction, and Bill Clinton who was impeached but not convicted. At least they were lawyers and understood the system of law. Trump is not and does not.

    So, I suggest that you and all of us who are inclined might urge the American Bar Association and legal scholars to announce and commence a coordinated effort to catalog, analyze and publicize Trump’s questionable behaviors for the duration of his presidency. Doing so could help prepare the public and Congress for a time that may come when we all face the consequences of the situation in which we collectively find ourselves.

    Collectively, we can call upon the ghosts of the late Senators Howard Baker and Sam Ervin, and some contemporary legal scholars, to help other officials and the public steer our ship of state when Trump and many in Congress and the electorate cannot, and will not, until such time as the latter is rehabilitated by knowledge.

    • pechmerle

      That is a good idea.
      Here I note two contact points, one for the ABA and one for the Brennan Center for Justice (which lists as one of its objectives “high impact communications” to further the protection of democratic rights and government reforms.)
      I also suggest a text for PEC reader correspondence to them furthering Northern Lights’ idea.
      I have sent these two messages myself, using the suggested text.

      ABA: http://www.americanbar.org/about_the_aba/contact.html

      Brennan Center: brennancenter@nyu.edu

      Suggested text:

      I am a citizen concerned about the growing dangerous trends that threaten our democracy and the rule of law. The incoming-president — in his campaign pronouncements and public statements generally — has shown a startingly low level of sensitivity to the importance of adhering scrupulously to the rule of law and democratic norms.

      This is not a partisan issue. Any new president with such a lack of background in, and apparent understanding of, fundamental legal and constitutional principles of our democracy would call for a similar response in defense of the rule of law.

      Accordingly, I urge [the ABA] [the Brennan Center] to establish a continuous program of monitoring the incoming administration for departures from constitutional and legal obligations and norms. Most important of all, I urge you to make the results of this monitoring regularly available as announcements to major print and broadcast media. For everyone’s sake, you need to make your expert voice heard as widely and persistently as possible at a time when there is great weakness in communicating to the public departures from vital legal and constitutional principles.

  • pechmerle

    The staffers’ guide and Sam’s thoughts are all good. Some further ideas, looking more at sustaining the good parts of “the system” (voting rights) and combating bad parts. Underlying concept is that a specific goal of survival of democratic norms is to get to 2020 with a chance of a better outcome.

    1. Support organizations that defend voting rights, and fight their curtailment. Examples are the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and the ACLU. There are others. They do Excellent work in the courts fighting illegitimate, anti-democratic laws and tactics.
    (Heart-warming aside: Today as I left my local supermarket, a young man was there asking people if they would like to join the ACLU. Never seen a street-level effort like this for them before. Was happy to tell him I have been a card-carrying member for years.)

    2. Support/push for automatic voter registration systems. Any of the large systems of government a citizen comes in contact with (Dept. of Motor Vehicles is the classic example) should automatically enter that citizen into the roll of registered voters, and he/she will get the ballot materials and so on that can lead to greater likelihood of participation. Our voter participation rate is a scandalous blot on our democracy. “No vote” accounted for a very large number of the eligibles this year, as it has in every cycle for decades.

    3. Does your state have a non-partisan method of redistricting (for both state legislative seats and members of the federal House)? If not, fight gerrymandering — push for one. If there is an organization already in the field pushing, support it. If there isn’t — start the effort. Both major parties hate this idea and won’t be receptive — they love choosing their voters instead of the other way around. The people, however, as shown by surveys, and votes, can easily get their heads around the idea of neutrally drawn districts. (Democrats in California have tried twice to defeat or repeal our non-partisan commission — they failed.) (Another aside, re “surveys” — I’m afraid the word “polls” has become toxic for the next couple of years.) Organizations like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters support this issue.

    4. Support/push for local and state disclosure of the true sources of campaign finance, both for candidates and initiatives/propositions. Seeing that the “true source” of opposition funds complaining that the revenue raised by an increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes wouldn’t all go to anti-smoking programs was — a tobacco company! — had a powerful impact on the outcome.

    5. Support/fight for legislation at every level – local, state, federal – to curtail elected and higher-level appointees working as lobbyists for lengthy period (preferably five years) after leaving office. On this topic, definitions are every thing — one relatively less visible place where they go are to large D.C. law firms. (Bob Dole is a lobbyist/attorney at such a firm.)

    Those are some reformist thoughts, which I think are a necessary complement to opposing the bad things Trump is inevitably going to be attempting. There are no doubt other worthwhile efforts of this kind that people can suggest.
    (No, I’m not forgetting the Electoral College, but that’s the heaviest lift of all.)

    • Emigre

      Very good, useful points, pechmerle, … for the +40 old voters.
      Here is another avenue, unfortunately written by someone on the alt.right spectrum:
      “We have to use popular culture to reach into the living rooms of the youth of America, of Britain, France, Germany, and bring them in,” he said. “Then we can get them the message.”
      http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/17/world/europe/russia-propaganda-elections.html

      Most millenials already got the message. How can they be influenced to embrace more democratic values again?

  • Kimberly Dick

    Of course, you should still vote for the Democrats no matter one come election day, unless the Republicans successfully alienate the white supremacist wing of their party.

    Sadly, white supremacy has been such a core part of the Republican party platform since Nixon that I’m really not sure the party can ever be redeemed. The end of the party as a political institution is the only way forward, I fear. And with the Republican party in office, the inevitable widespread suppression of voting rights may cement their domination of US government for a long time to come.

    I just hope that the incoming government’s egregious terribleness will be so obvious to enough people that the Republicans will lose despite their massive institutional advantages.

  • Emigre

    I like to add a fourth idea: we need to stop the increase in acceptance of autocratic tendencies among the young otherwise your three excellent ideas will face decreasing future support.
    Amanda Taub in the NYC recently summarized the work of R.S. Foa and Y. Mounk highlighting their finding that:
    “Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995. …
    That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/29/world/americas/western-liberal-democracy.html

  • Peter N.

    In Georgia there is no registration by party, so you are already free to choose whichever ballot you prefer in a primary. The impact of this? None that I can see. Congressional districts are so precisely gerrymandered that there is no effective way to bring electoral pressure to bear on the entrenched party, even in a primary.

    So what might work? As always it boils down to one thing: money. When N.C. passed their crazy bathroom law, corporations and individuals hit the state where it hurts — in the wallet. Not only did this help unseat a governor, the reverberations were felt beyond the N.C. border. The only reason that GA doesn’t have a similar law is that N.C. went first and had it blow up in their face. The GA governor wanted no part of that, not when there are Super Bowls and NCAA tournaments to be played in a new Falcons stadium under construction.

    We need to organize to use financial might to bring pressure to bear where there is injustice. Remember, by and large blue states have more money than red, and progressives outspend rednecks.

  • Tom Maguire

    Re: “3. Keep the media on task. A free press is one of our remaining defenses. ”

    Hmm. As a conservative commentator has said repeatedly, if you want a watchdog press, elect a white male hetero Republican as President.

    Regrettably, it seems as if the media, Hollywood and academia are talking to each other but past roughly 50% of the Great Unwashed.

    And FWIW – here is USA Today coverage of Trump’s “false” complaint about the timing of the US complaints about Russian hacking:

    “Another day, another Trump Twitter tirade. Thursday morning’s edition hit on Vanity Fair and journalists in general before the president-elect spouted a particularly bold falsehood. “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act?” Trump tweeted. “Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?”

    Of course, they didn’t. The same Internet that gives Trump a platform also leaves his statements vulnerable to fact checks: Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence formally accused Russia of using hacking to influence the election on Oct. 7, a month before Election Day.”

    Sorry to be Clintonian, but neither Homeland Security nor the ODNI are “the White House”.

    Even his supporters have wondered why Obama himself couldn’t find the bully pulpit before the election, especially since he personally spoke out against the North Korean hack of Sony.

    • Lorem

      Joe Biden made headlines ~Oct. 16 promising to retaliate against Russian hacking. That seems pretty White House to me. E.g.
      http://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/biden-russia-hackers-message-229853

      Unless you were complaining specifically about USA Today’s comment, in which case, fair enough, I suppose.

    • Tom Maguire

      OK, Joe Biden is plenty Presidential for me, especially by the current devalued standards.

      So Trump was right that the White House didn’t act but wrong that they didn’t complain. That’s more accuracy then I have come to expect from him, but still renders problematic the assertion that his statement was false. Of course, logically, half-false is false, but in everyday discourse?

      FWIW, I love the conclusion to the linked Politico article:

      Biden made clear, though, he isn’t concerned about potential interference with the Nov. 8 election results, saying “the capacity … to fundamentally alter the election is not what people think.”

      Ahh, who knew?

      Biden was not exactly pounding the table, but still, we have to score that as complaining.

  • James

    California residents do not need to join their reprentatives’ parties because of the top two primary system. It sounds like a good idea everywhere else though.

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