In his 2020 book “Politics Is for Power,” Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts, sketched a day in the life of many political obsessives in sharp, if cruel, terms.
I refresh my Twitter feed to keep up on the latest political crisis, then toggle over to Facebook to read clickbait news stories, then over to YouTube to see a montage of juicy clips from the latest congressional hearing. I then complain to my family about all the things I don’t like that I have seen.
To Hersh, that’s not politics. It’s what he calls “political hobbyism.” And it’s close to a national pastime. “A third of Americans say they spend two hours or more each day on politics,” he writes. “Of these people, four out of five say that not one minute of that time is spent on any kind of real political work. It’s all TV news and podcasts and radio shows and social media and cheering and booing and complaining to friends and family.”
Real political work, for Hersh, is the intentional, strategic accumulation of power in service of a defined end. It is action in service of change, not information in service of outrage. This distinction is on my mind because, like so many others, I’ve spent the week revisiting the attempted coup of Jan. 6, marinating in my fury toward the Republicans who put fealty toward Donald Trump above loyalty toward country and the few but pivotal Senate Democrats who are proving, day after day, that they think the filibuster more important than the franchise. Let me tell you, the tweets and columns I drafted in my head were searing.
But fury is useful only as fuel. We need a Plan B for democracy. Plan A was to pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Neither bill, as of now, has a path to President Biden’s desk. I’ve found that you provoke a peculiar anger if you state this, as if admitting the problem were the cause of the problem. I fear denial has left many Democrats stuck on a national strategy with little hope of near-term success. In order to protect democracy, Democrats have to win more elections. And to do that, they need to make sure the country’s local electoral machinery isn’t corrupted by the Trumpist right.
“The people thinking strategically about how to win the 2022 election are the ones doing the most for democracy,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard and one of the authors of “How Democracies Die.” “I’ve heard people saying bridges don’t save democracy — voting rights do. But for Democrats to be in a position to protect democracy, they need bigger majorities.”
There are people working on a Plan B. This week, I half-jokingly asked Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, what it felt like to be on the front lines of protecting American democracy. He replied, dead serious, by telling me what it was like. He spends his days obsessing over mayoral races in 20,000-person towns, because those mayors appoint the city clerks who decide whether to pull the drop boxes for mail-in ballots and small changes to electoral administration could be the difference between winning Senator Ron Johnson’s seat in 2022 (and having a chance at democracy reform) and losing the race and the Senate. Wikler is organizing volunteers to staff phone banks to recruit people who believe in democracy to serve as municipal poll workers, because Steve Bannon has made it his mission to recruit people who don’t believe in democracy to serve as municipal poll workers.
I’ll say this for the right: They pay attention to where the power lies in the American system, in ways the left sometimes doesn’t. Bannon calls this “the precinct strategy,” and it’s working. “Suddenly, people who had never before showed interest in party politics started calling the local G.O.P. headquarters or crowding into county conventions, eager to enlist as precinct officers,” ProPublica reports. “They showed up in states Trump won and in states he lost, in deep-red rural areas, in swing-voting suburbs and in populous cities.”
The difference between those organizing at the local level to shape democracy and those raging ineffectually about democratic backsliding — myself included — reminds me of the old line about war: Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics. Right now, Trumpists are talking logistics.
“We do not have one federal election,” said Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run for Something, which helps first-time candidates learn about the offices they can contest and helps them mount their campaigns. “We have 50 state elections and then thousands of county elections. And each of those ladder up to give us results. While Congress can write, in some ways, rules or boundaries for how elections are administered, state legislatures are making decisions about who can and can’t vote. Counties and towns are making decisions about how much money they’re spending, what technology they’re using, the rules around which candidates can participate.”
An NPR analysis found 15 Republicans running for secretary of state in 2022 who doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s win. In Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, the incumbent Republican secretary of state who stood fast against Trump’s pressure, faces two primary challengers who hold that Trump was 2020’s rightful winner. Trump has endorsed one of them, Representative Jody Hice. He’s also endorsed candidates for secretary of state in Arizona and Michigan who backed him in 2020 and stand ready to do so in 2024. As NPR dryly noted, “The duties of a state secretary of state vary, but in most cases, they are the state’s top voting official and have a role in carrying out election laws.”
Nor is it just secretaries of state. “Voter suppression is happening at every level of government here in Georgia,” Representative Nikema Williams, who chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, told me. “We have 159 counties, and so 159 different ways boards of elections are elected and elections are carried out. So we have 159 different leaders who control election administration in the state. We’ve seen those boards restrict access by changing the number of ballot boxes. Often, our Black members on these boards are being pushed out.”
America’s confounding political structure creates two mismatches that bedevil democracy’s would-be defenders. The first mismatch is geographic. Your country turns on elections held in Georgia and Wisconsin, and if you live in California or New York, you’re left feeling powerless.
But that’s somewhere between an illusion and a cop-out. A constant complaint among those working to win these offices is that progressives donate hundreds of millions to presidential campaigns and long-shot bids against top Republicans, even as local candidates across the country are starved for funds.
“Democratic major donors like to fund the flashy things,” Litman told me. “Presidential races, Senate races, super PACs, TV ads. Amy McGrath can raise $90 million to run against Mitch McConnell in a doomed race, but the number of City Council and school board candidates in Kentucky who can raise what they need is …” She trailed off in frustration.
The second mismatch is emotional. If you’re frightened that America is sliding into authoritarianism, you want to support candidates, run campaigns and donate to causes that directly focus on the crisis of democracy. But few local elections are run as referendums on Trump’s big lie. They’re about trash pickup and bond ordinances and traffic management and budgeting and disaster response.
Lina Hidalgo ran for county judge in Harris County, Texas, after the 2016 election. Trump’s campaign had appalled her, and she wanted to do something. “I learned about this position that had flown under the radar for a very long time,” she told me. “It was the type of seat that only ever changed who held it when the incumbent died or was convicted of a crime. But it controls the budget for the county. Harris County is nearly the size of Colorado in population, larger than 28 states. It’s the budget for the hospital system, roads, bridges, libraries, the jail. And part of that includes funding the electoral system.”
Hidalgo didn’t campaign as a firebrand progressive looking to defend Texas from Trump. She won it, she told me, by focusing on what mattered most to her neighbors: the constant flooding of the county, as violent storms kept overwhelming dilapidated infrastructure. “I said, ‘Do you want a community that floods year after year?’” She won, and after she won, she joined with her colleagues to spend $13 million more on election administration and to allow residents to vote at whichever polling place was convenient for them on Election Day, even if it wasn’t the location they’d been assigned.
Protecting democracy by supporting county supervisors or small-town mayors — particularly ones who fit the politics of more conservative communities — can feel like being diagnosed with heart failure and being told the best thing to do is to double-check your tax returns and those of all your neighbors.
“If you want to fight for the future of American democracy, you shouldn’t spend all day talking about the future of American democracy,” Wikler said. “These local races that determine the mechanics of American democracy are the ventilation shaft in the Republican death star. These races get zero national attention. They hardly get local attention. Turnout is often lower than 20 percent. That means people who actually engage have a superpower. You, as a single dedicated volunteer, might be able to call and knock on the doors of enough voters to win a local election.”
Or you can simply win one yourself. That’s what Gabriella Cázares-Kelly did. Cázares-Kelly, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, agreed to staff a voter registration booth at the community college where she worked, in Pima County, Ariz. She was stunned to hear the stories of her students. “We keep blaming students for not participating, but it’s really complicated to get registered to vote if you don’t have a license, the nearest D.M.V. is an hour and a half away and you don’t own a car,” she told me.
Cázares-Kelly learned that much of the authority over voter registration fell to an office neither she nor anyone around her knew much about: the County Recorder’s Office, which has authority over records ranging from deeds to voter registrations. It had powers she’d never considered. It could work with the postmaster’s office to put registration forms in tribal postal offices — or not. When it called a voter to verify a ballot and heard an answering machine message in Spanish, it could follow up in Spanish — or not.
“I started contacting the records office and making suggestions and asking questions,” Cázares-Kelly said. “I did that for a long time, and the previous recorder was not very happy about it. I called so often, the staff began to know me. I didn’t have an interest in running till I heard the previous recorder was going to retire, and then my immediate thought was, ‘What if a white supremacist runs?’”
So in 2020, Cázares-Kelly ran, and she won. Now she’s the county recorder for a jurisdiction with nearly a million people, and more than 600,000 registered voters, in a swing state. “One thing I was really struck by when I first started getting involved in politics is how much power there is in just showing up to things,” she said. “If you love libraries, libraries have board meetings. Go to the public meeting. See where they’re spending their money. We’re supposed to be participating. If you want to get involved, there’s always a way.”
The Watergate Class of ’74 Has Valuable Lessons for Freshman Democrats
The politicians defeated or superseded by the 1974 wave had lost touch with their constituents because individual members of Congress didn’t matter that much. Power came only with seniority. Rank-and-file members didn’t have much to do and didn’t have to do much.
In 2018, members lost touch for a very different reason: They had grown complacent that they could count on waves of ideology and negative partisanship to carry them through yet another election, the fifth for those first elected in the 2010 wave. They campaigned in broad strokes on national issues such as immigration and the refugee caravan.
Since 2010, they had relied first on the coherent national message of opposition to Barack Obama, then on the small-government ideology of the speaker Paul Ryan and finally on loyalty to Donald Trump, to overwhelm smaller, local allegiances. Even Mr. Trump’s endorsements were boilerplate and national, with the same odd capitalization choices: “strong on Crime & Borders, the 2nd Amendment, & loves our Military & Vets.”
.. But today’s politicians face an obstacle that the class of ’74 could mostly ignore: the enormous cost of campaigns. Republican members fell out of touch with their districts in part because they were increasingly dependent on a few large national donors, operating through super PACs and political nonprofits such as the Congressional Leadership Fund, which get the bulk of their donations from billionaires in Las Vegas, New York, Texas and Florida.
Democrats, too, relied on these outside groups and their own billionaires, but 2018 brought an enormous wave of small donors. And while much of that came from fired-up progressives in solid Democratic districts, even in the highest-profile races, a surprising share came from the candidates’ own constituents — for example, more than 54 percent of Beto O’Rourke’s contributions came from Texans. A majority of Democratic challengers also refused corporate PAC money, which often runs through Washington lobbyists.
In 2020 and 2022, these new members will no longer be exciting insurgent challengers but incumbents, probably forced to compromise in ways that some supporters might find disappointing. If the volunteer energy and small-donor support that lifted them to victory in 2018 is missing, their campaigns will look very different. They’ll have to turn to corporate PACs again and, much like their predecessors elected in 2006 and 2008, focus their attention on donors rather than their districts, compromising their promises.