Congress is the most powerful branch of the national government of the United States. It is also the most transparent and democratic branch. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, according to Neil M. Barofsky’s important book Bailout, Congress is also the least corrupt branch of the national government (if you care about American politics, I highly recommend reading Bailout). Given that Congress is a) the most powerful and b) the most subject to democratic control, it seems to me the obvious place to push for change.
This is part of why I was so puzzled that people said that the Democratic Party was in much better shape than the Republican Party in October 2016. First of all, unlike nearly everybody in my social circle, who were all certain that Clinton was going to win, I was expecting a close election and that either Clinton or Trump could win it. It turns out I was right and they were wrong (that does not mean I’m happy about being right in this case). However, aside from the Presidential election, the Democrats had not had a majority in the House since 2010, and have been bleeding seats in state legislatures all over the country. Even if Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had given their electoral college votes to Clinton, it would not have changed the outcomes of the congressional and state legislature elections.
I find it frustrating that people focus so much on the presidency that they ignore so much of what is happening in Congress, let alone the state governments. For example, when I went to vote in 2008, I was shocked by how crowded it was. There were not nearly so many people at the polls in 2006, when there was an election for the governor. The thing is, with the way the electoral college is set up, voting for POTUS in California does not make a difference, and this has been true ever since California has been a state. In other words, California votes have never mattered for electing a POTUS. California votes do matter a great deal for electing the governor, and the governor (or, as we called him in 2008, the ‘governator’) has more power over California affairs than the POTUS. Granted, the infamous Proposition 8 was also on the ballot in 2008, but had Proposition 8 been on the 2006 ballot rather than the 2008 ballot, would the crowds have shown up in 2006 instead of 2008? I will never know.
Personally, I think the fact that a) the Republicans control almost enough state legislatures to pass constitutional amendments without Democrats and b) the way some state legislatures are acting to dismantle democracy (most notably in North Carolina, where they elected a new governor because their previous governor was unpopular, and the legislature responded by gutting the newly elected governor of his powers) is scarier than the election of Trump. The election of Trump, in itself, is (flawed) democracy in action, not a dismantling of democracy (the electoral college is a problem, but an old one, not a new one) (what Trump may do in office to undermine democracy is something else). A lame duck state legislature gutting the powers of the newly elected governor is a direct dismantlement of democracy. Furthermore, I found out just today that the Arizona Senate has voted for a bill which would allow police to arrest people organizing peaceful protests, even if those protest organizers have not harmed anyone or damaged any property.
However, I don’t think there is much I can do about the North Carolina or Arizona state governments. I can do some small things about the California state government, and on that note, a PSA for fellow Californians: tell Governor Jerry Brown to ask CALPERS board member Bill Slaton to resign. Even though California votes don’t count for POTUS elections, the California government does control CALPERS, one of the most powerful investors in the world. Arguably, having control over CALPERS grants more power than a pile of electoral college votes. The problem now is that CALPERS is going rogue and behaving in a way which is harmful to Californians, which is why citizens need to intervene.
I also can do some small things about the national legislature, Congress.
So, with all that said, I have great interest in what will happen in the 2018 midterm elections. And two groups, the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress have come to my attention. These are two groups which are starting to work now to change Congress in the 2018 elections.
I agree with most of the Justice Democrats’ platform, and the parts I disagree with are issues I am willing to compromise on. In other words, I would be very happy to see a majority of Congress adopt this type of platform. However, since they are a new group, there is relatively little information about them. I will keep a critical eye on them.
As the Justice Democrats’ said in one of their emails (yes, I am on their email list because I want to learn more about them), their endgame is different from that of Brand New Congress (BNC), but they have decided to work together because the work that needs to be done is so overwhelming that they need partners. BNC, based on what I was able to learn, seems to be run by former campaigners for Bernie Sanders. I prefer the platform of the Justice Democrats over the platform of BNC, but the BNC platform is also a significant improvement over status quo.
The thing which most concerned me about the BNC when I first learned about them was that it seemed they were going to recruit almost exclusively from people who have no experience with elected office. Now, I see on their website that they are not going to exclude all people with elected office experience, but I’m still concerned on their drive to recruit people without an elected office track record. Why? I could take the easy way out by just saying “look at Trump, the first POTUS with no prior experience in elected office” but I will explain. First of all, without a record of what a candidate has done in elected office, it’s much harder to predict what they will do when elected. Second, inexperienced people tend to be less competent than experienced people. Inexperienced politicians are more likely to cave to oligarchs. This happened in California when term limits were imposed – the California legislature got a flood of inexperienced legislatures who were so clueless that they depended on lobbyists to ‘help’ them do their jobs far more than the incumbents they replaced. Yes, many of the incumbents were corrupt, but they at least had a more independent power base, and thus greater leeway to tell big money interests “Fuck You.”
That is not to say that all members of Congress need to have experience in elected office. I think there are teachers, nurses, factory workers, etc. who would be fine congressional representatives (especially if they have experience with union politics). However, I am worried about what would happen if the majority of Congress did not have prior experience with elected office.
On the other hand, given the powerful antipathy voters feel towards ‘career politicians’ these days, maybe recruiting primarily ‘ordinary people’ to be candidates is a good strategy for winning elections.
I am also concerned about the centralized campaign that BNC proposes. On the one hand, maybe that is exactly the kind of thing which is necessary to win elections. However, my concern is that it will become too centralized, and power will be concentrated in too few hands. Then again, power is already concentrated in too few hands, namely in the hands the oligarchs, so perhaps being ruled by whoever controls BNC will be a major improvement, even if power is too concentrated.
BNC says they are going to prepare legislation this year, and that it will be released to the public before the 2018 elections, and that all of their candidates will pledge to vote for the legislation that BNC drafts. I look forward to seeing what BNC will come up with. Or maybe that is too passive an approach. Maybe it’s better if I tell them what I want, even though BNC currently is not soliciting from the general public what the general public wants in their legislation. And that is also a bit of a concern for me. They’re drafting candidates, but they are not soliciting input for what voters want to put into their legislation? Hmmmm.