The Tyranny of the Plurality
Kansas. Montana. Georgia. South Carolina. Four Congressional vacancies. Four special elections. Four opportunities for Democrats to turn President Trump's historic unpopularity into a warning to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill: if you value your job, start representing the majority of your constituents, rather than pandering to the wealthy few.
But if those elections were referenda on the Presidency, the net result fell far short of those national figures: every one of them went to the Republican candidate.
Democratic responses run the gamut of disappointment to despair to fury at party leaders. As understandable as those feelings may be, I think they're all misguided. Don't get me wrong: I very much wanted every one of those elections to go the other way, to send four strong messages to Congress that the American people are fed up with Republican efforts to kill the ACA and transform its funding into massive tax cuts for the 1%. But in every case, that would have meant flipping a district that has been reliably red for decades, and that's asking a lot of an electorate who are both exhausted from the hyperactive Trump news cycle and too distracted by it to pay attention to what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are trying to do to health care. On top of that, it is still far too early into this regime for ordinary Republican voters to have felt any profound negative consequences of Trump's mercurial approach to governing. It's too early for the apocalypse to have taken hold: the anti-Christ just barely got into office. Rome wasn't sacked in a day.
So the voters in these districts were not yet angry enough to hand a House seat to the Democrats. Trump and his Capitol Hill cronies have yet to ruin health insurance, and even if they succeed in passing some version of the profoundly cruel AHCA, the most ruthless of its provisions will be timed to kick in years from now, thus minimizing its impact on both the 2018 and 2020 elections. The impact on the economy of America's growing hostility toward immigrants may also take time to filter down to the masses. The emptiness of Trump's promises seems to be lost on the low-information voters who make up a large portion of his base.
And yet, in every one of these elections, the margin was, if not a complete turnover, still far closer than demographic projections would suggest. The fence sitters have made their choice, and it is more Democratic than any election in memory would lead one to expect. Unfortunately, it's still not enough to hand a solidly Republican seat to the Democrats.
So it's really on the Republicans, particularly the grass roots, Given how many exaggerations, distortions, reversals, and outright lies Trump has been caught making, and the bald-faced impunity with which he has been filling the Washington swamp with ethically-conflicted billionaires and their lobbyist toadies, why do these people continue to support Republican candidates in their house districts?
I can sum it up in two words: yellow dog.
I first encountered the term in graduate school at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). The music education department at UIUC was headed up by Charles Leonhard, a curmudgeonly outrageous piece of work who delighted in terrifying the "band boys" (like me) in his courses by making them sing chord progressions in front of the entire 45-member class. (Ask me to do it for you sometime, and you'll see why it was so scary, and why the compliment "Not bad for a band boy" was some of the highest academic praise I ever received.) When he wasn't putting the fear of harmony in the likes of yours truly, pontificating on the philosophy of music education, or transforming instrumental performance technicians into musical artists, Charley Leonhard delighted in sharing folksy euphemisms from his formative years in Anadarko, Oklahoma. It was during one of these tangents that he proudly proclaimed himself a "yellow dog Democrat." Seeing the confusion on the faces of so many of his Yankee students, he elaborated: "I'd rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican."
The year was 1983, and there were still plenty of yellow dog Democrats in the South, though that region was well into its transformation into a reliably red (though in those days, that color was not yet associated with Republicanism, as it was still strongly associated with socialism) electoral region. The Southern Democrats who filled seats in the Senate and House of Representative were often conservative on social issues, and some came to be typified as "blue dog Democrats"--staunchly loyal to the party, a reliable vote for entitlements and regulations, but digging in their heels on matters like abortion and gay rights. In time, this faction of the Democratic party would mostly cease to exist, with some retiring, others being voted out of office, and the rest switching parties.
As the blue dog politicians moved on, so did the yellow dog voters. There were no longer Democratic politicians reflecting their moral conservatism or their borderline racism; in fact, African-Americans were becoming uncomfortably influential in Southern Democratic politics. And so the exodus that had begun with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s accelerated, until, by the early 2000s, the South had completely flipped, and was now the most reliably Republican region in the country.
These voters are the same people who, had they been around in the 1950s, could've been counted on to vote the full Democratic ticket. Of course, in the 1950s, the Democratic ticket meant something very different from what it means today, but that's another story.
The point is that yellow dogs are loyal. It doesn't matter that their master can be cruel, neglectful, callous to their actual needs, exploiting their votes to further an agenda that has little or nothing to offer them: however much that elderly white man may be in the pocket of wealthy donors, if there's a red "R" after his name, he's got their vote. And yes, I know they're not all old white men. Some of them are middle-aged white women, and a few are even persons of color. What matters is the red R.
The point of greatest frustration for me as a West Coast Democrat is that these persons do not constitute anything like a true majority of eligible voters. A lethal blend of gerrymandering and vote suppression has depressed the numbers of Democratic voters who participate in House elections, leading to the election of Republicans by pluralities. This phenomenon is not just present in district results: it's how Donald Trump became President, winning bare pluralities in just enough states to garner the electoral votes he needed to put him over the top.
And that's how this country has gotten itself into this mess: pluralities of reliably faithful yellow dog Republicans are inflicting their priorities on everyone, and their number one priority is electing Republicans rather than Democrats, regardless of how much this may be working against their own self-interest, not to mention the interests of their communities and states.
There are those within the progressive movement who believe we should just step back and let Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan inflict their ruthless agenda on the nation. Once the cuts in health care kick in, this theory goes, people will finally realize how stupid they've been, and will abandon their Republican legislators in droves.
The problem with this approach as that it's not just Trump voters who will be hurt by whatever version of health care "reform" Congress passes. This is the tide that will sink all boats, ours included. Yes, it would be easier to let the GOP sink itself, then go about the business of rebuilding the nation once they've trashed it; but how many Americans, from every part of the political spectrum, would suffer and die in the meantime as they wait for that hypothetical Democratic resurgence to restore Obamacare or, better still, replace it with a single-payer system?
We can't wait for that to happen. Too many will die in the waiting room. Democrats are, above all else, compassionate to a fault. We care about the poor, the unemployed, the refugee, all those who have been abandoned by Republicanism's fixation on the interests of business-owners.
So if we can't just wait for the yellow dogs to finally wake up and realize they've been turned into Trump chumps, taken for a ride on the populist express, sold a bottle of orange snake oil, a parcel of swampland in Florida while the fat cat developers are laughing all the way to the bank--well, then we've got some work ahead of us. Hard work. Local work.
One problem with the special election campaigns is that they've mostly been fought on national lines, trying to connect GOP candidates with Trump. Unfortunately, as unpopular as he may be nationally, he's still got plenty of devoted followers in the areas that have been voting for the not-Democrat. These seats were all vacated, after all, but Trump cabinet appointments, which means they were deemed safe to give up. The yellow dogs could be counted on to be true to their Republican masters. If they're to be won over, it won't do to keep linking GOP candidates to a President who, however horrible he may seem to progressives, is not, after all, a Democrat.
It's going to take some convincing to bring these people over to the blue side of the ticket. It's also going to take working on local elections, promoting the campaigns of Democratic mayors, state legislatures, and governors. I understand that these are not glamorous solutions: I'd much rather be focusing on big-picture progressivism, rolling back Republican exploitation of their moment of single-party control.
The good news? These are still yellow dogs we're talking about. They want to be loyal, even when it's clearly not in their interest to support the same party in every election. But they've been turned before. And if they can be turned back, they'll become just as loyal to the Democratic party as they were back in the days when it meant something very different from what it means now. If we do the work, we may be able to build a coalition that will stay in power long enough to correct all the blunders of Trumpism before it's too late, building a true majority, rather than a plurality.
Or we can just wait for the Republicans to blow the whole place up, and hope enough of the blame gets put on them that we'll be hired to clean up their mess.