Monday, January 28, 2013

The American Left should come in out of the electoral cold

Time to change U.S. politics

Almost 127 million people voted in the last election. Just under 66 million voted for Barack Obama. Young people and minorities, who seemed to be losing heart and/or interest early in the presidential election cycle, showed up in earnest and matched or exceeded their 2008 support for Obama.

The election result apparently came as a big surprise to Republicans, perhaps because their polling was confined to small samples of, say, NASCAR owners or equestrians. But by election eve, Democrats buoyed by broad grassroots enthusiasm for consigning Mitt Romney to the dust bin of history, had grown confident. The Obama ground game, the best organized GOTV operation ever, knew as well as Nate Silver that the president would get his second term.

The demographically broad support for Obama and the organizational advantage he enjoyed are likely to continue for Democrats at least through the 2016 election. At some point, perhaps, Republicans will build a competitive campaign apparatus of their own, but they will face an electoral map that becomes ever more challenging as the country moves toward majority-minority status.

Assuming the Obama administration struggles effectively with the Republicans' intransigent House majority--winning a few fights and drawing a few more--and the economy continues to improve, 2016 should see the election of another Democratic president (odds that it will be Hillary Clinton seem pretty good at the moment).

The big questions for progressives ought to be what strategy would work most effectively to strengthen Obama, pick up a few more House seats in 2014 and help to move a Clinton administration further to the Left than most of us might anticipate. Unfortunately, the Left seems much more likely to see Democratic politicians, including Obama and Clinton, as part of a long electoral history of compromise and, even, betrayal, than as leaders in a push for economic and social justice (examples here and here). So, a sort of preliminary question sounds like this: Why should nonvoting Lefties vote?

It wouldn't hurt to start by considering just how many voters on the Left don't bother to show up for elections. To begin with, about 25 million registered voters who didn't bother to vote in 2012. And there are another 50-60 million eligible to vote who aren't registered.

That makes the GDP (gross domestic pool) of nonvoters around 75 million people whose beliefs (based on a Suffolk University poll) tend to lean more Democratic than the average voter. Their impressions of Obama were more than two to one favorable, and more than two to one unfavorable toward Romney.

Further, about 62 percent of Americans favor a national health care system,  54 percent support access to abortion with few or no restrictions and another 35 percent believe that abortion should be legal under some circumstances, and 70 percent or more think that the rich should be taxed at higher rates, defense spending should be cut further than safety net programs, and oil company taxes should be dramatically increased.

All of this suggests that there is a minimum of, say, 30-40 million potential voters in the United States who would support politicians who favor more liberal policies than those that dominate the country today. I would argue that a good number of those liberal or Left nonvoters are people who voted when they were younger, people with a good bit of community organizing experience of their own, and/or people who fall on the there's-no-difference-between-them side of the political spectrum.

It's difficult to predict exactly where millions of these nonvoters might live, but disappointed and disaffected McCarthy and McGovern voters from the '60s and '70s, anti-poverty and voting rights organizers from the same era and later, and environmentalists and back-to-the-land pioneers living in small towns and rural communities around the country, should have been able to swing a few state and local elections that they sat out over the years, and even a few Congressional elections. And, if they would abandon the demoralizing and demoralized cursing of both parties in favor of the more nuanced perception that there is, indeed, a difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, they might bring other nonvoters along.

Most Congressional districts have more than 700,000 residents, maybe 400,000+ potential voters, but more like 200,000 voters casting a ballot in an election for the U.S. House of Representatives. It's true that most members of the House represent uncompetitive districts and frequently reelect incumbents by landslide margins. But, again, demographic change increasingly favors Democratic candidates and a few hundred fresh political activists and a few thousand new voters participating in two or three consecutive Congressional elections could very much change local election landscapes.

In primaries where even fewer voters show up, successful insurrections from the Left might make a few Republican candidates more competitive, but such challenges are just as likely to turn moderate Democrats into liberals and make liberals even more progressive. And Leftists who stay involved in general elections, even if they lose a primary challenge, are likely to find themselves more influential in deciding what comes next.

The overall proposition here is this: If Leftists in the United States would come in out of the cold, we could win elections, influence people and move American politics far enough to the Left to enter a new era of economic justice and peace and begin mitigating the effects of the 21st century's biggest problem: climate change.

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