Public figures and political organizations are wringing their hands: Do we publicly throw our weight behind a fear-mongering demagogue or do we suck it up and endorse a “career politician” who can’t seem to earn voters’ trust?
But what if “endorsement” is a political red herring? “Endorsing” suggests approval, but for a lot of us that option is closed. But, hey, we still have to choose—we must choose because democracy itself is at stake today.
By this we mean that Big Money has come to dominate our political system and voting rights are under attack. As democracy itself is in jeopardy, in this election here’s what we strive for: to act strategically—weighing the long-term consequences of the choices available today.
We start with the following assumption: that none of the huge challenges our nation faces—from deepening economic inequality to racial injustice to climate change—can be met without core democracy reforms, including restoring the Voting Rights Act and public financing of elections.
We also assume that these foundational reforms can’t happen without a broad, deep citizens’ movement pushing, pushing, pushing the future president. Isn’t this what Bernie Sanders tried hard to get us to understand from the beginning of his campaign? He stressed the importance of continuing the fight the day after Election Day.
History lessons often help in a crisis, so what can we learn?
Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom professor Peter Dreier describes as “cautious, even conservative“ before being pushed to act. FDR famously declared to a group of activists in the 1930s “You have convinced me, now go out and make me do it.” And so they did, introducing decades of advancement for all classes, especially the poorest.
Or, consider the Lyndon B. Johnson era. Before his presidency, Johnson had voted against every single piece of civil rights legislation over his two decades in Congress, notes Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot. Yet, he pushed through the most important Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction and then the War on Poverty, helping to cut the poverty rate in half in just over a decade.
Johnson understood that only citizen pressure could give him the muscle to act against Southern opposition: So he said to Martin Luther King, “Ok you go out there, Dr. King, and keep doing what you are doing, and make it possible for me to do the right thing,” Bill Moyers recounts.
It was only after King, John Lewis, and company marched in Selma and met brutal repression, creating a political crisis, that LBJ was able to act.
Lesson? Previous voting records aren’t always indicators of a president’s policy positions. Much depends on what we citizens do. This insight focuses the mind on building a powerful citizens’ movement.
And when it’s not there, what happens? After President Obama’s election, the activism his campaign sparked fell apart, as we failed to build a powerful citizens’ movement pressing the president and Congress to pass foundational democracy reforms.
So, a key strategic question for us: Which candidate today is likely to respond to pressure representing majority opinion on strengthening democracy? After all, 85 percent of Americans want fundamental changes in the way we fund our elections.
Some claim that Clinton and Trump are equally as (un)likely to correct our deep “democratic deficit.” We strongly disagree.
Clinton and the Democratic Party’s platform declare support for virtually every major democracy reform now pursued by dozens of national citizen organizations. (See the Field Guide to Money-Out-of Politics) Reforms include voting rights, removing barriers to voting, public-and-small-donor financing of campaigns, and ending political gerrymandering, as well as beginning the process of a constitutional amendment to establish that only real people (not corporations) have constitutional rights.
Trump, on the other hand, has expressed no concrete plan or even desire for campaign finance or voting rights reform. Instead he’s implicitly suggested intimidating voters on Election Day.
Of course, legislation isn’t the only thing we have to think about to be strategic.
The president has the power of appointment with huge consequences.
Most obvious is the Supreme Court vacancy. Obama’s nominee, Justice Merrick Garland, will likely not be confirmed by the end of this year. So either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will shape the ideological composition of the Court for years to come. Vital issues from money in politics to voting rights to environmental regulation all hang in the balance.
And then there are cabinet appointments. Often under-the radar administrative positions often dictate significant policy shifts.
Think of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet appointments, and, for example, his choice of Anne Burford to head the Environmental Protection Agency. There, she actively diminished the EPA’s power, cutting its budget by over one-fifth and rolling back environmental protections. Given the extreme ideological position of the GOP on climate change, it’s not paranoid to expect a similar tactic if Trump is elected.
Or, imagine what New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would do as Attorney General?
Back in April, we both gained a deep sense of the power of united citizens as we marched with Democracy Spring from Philly to D.C. and participated in its historic sit-in for money-out-of-politics, voting reform, and a constitutional amendment. After deep discussion, Democracy Spring took a bold step by advocating that its members strategically vote for Clinton. This is not an endorsement, Democracy Spring makes clear, but part of a strategic plan.
At a moment of national crisis, each of us has to make us a choice, asking which candidate’s presidency could give us the best shot at achieving real democracy?
As with Democracy Spring, we, too, see only one strategic choice. With Clinton, there is at least hope for building a “movement of movements”—a true Democracy Movement to “make her do it”—that is, to give her the shove and the necessary muscle to follow through on her promises. As Bernie has reminded us, as FDR and LBJ have shown us, the real fight for democracy will begin the day after the election.
Being strategic involves one’s own vote, and beyond: It means being able to look oneself in the mirror the morning after the election and ask: Did I do enough to create the possibility for foundational reform? Until November, therefore, we will be doing all we can to register voters, persuade the disengaged to vote, and help get people to the polls on Election Day.
We hope to see you out on the streets and at the polls with us.