Tag Archives: 2015 elections

Party or movement, political seats or policy wins

A sinus infection has slowed me down for the past couple days, so I haven’t been writing as much as I would like on here. Let me jump back into the fray with a look at the bizarrely two-minded Democratic assessment of how well they did in the elections earlier this month. I dove into that discussion earlier myself, noting that while the Democrats lost a number of elections that weren’t unquestionably outside their grasp (the Kentucky governorship namely, but also the Virginia state legislature), the main changes were either in their favor or largely non-partisan. What stuck out to me were the ballot initiatives in Houston and Ohio which passed, as well as the Democratic wins in Pennsylvania which if nothing else tempered their losses elsewhere that night.

The Progressive Turnout Project, however, wanted to focus on what they saw as a recurring pattern in Democratic defeats. They sent out a promotional email after the election describing some key “huge losses”:

2015-11-10_1746Let’s take those one at a time.

In 2011, Kentucky did pick a Democratic gubernatorial candidate over a Republican one, to the tune of 464,245 Democratic votes altogether. That only slid down to 426,944 votes in 2015, however, not really an appreciable shift considering the 2011 Democratic candidate was an incumbent who was able to originally eke his way into office when the sitting Republican governor came under fire for corruption. 2011 may very well have been a high water mark for Democrats in Kentucky, even if it was nationally more of a low point.

It’s additionally worth noting that that Republican vote was probably more hampered than the Democratic one by an independent campaign in 2011 by libertarian Gatewood Galbraith. Although markedly pro-marijuana, he is perhaps most overt in his policy recommendations when it comes to the New Deal and related social programs which he argues dislodged the agrarian nature of the US and imposed an unethical, industrial-minded political order. In an off-year election with over 100,000 fewer votes cast than in the more recent one, he probably siphoned more support from the Republican than the Democrat.

The Virginia General Assembly, meanwhile, is a continuing exercise in gerrymandering. Others have better described the lengthy history of Virginia’s local legislature as a body representing the state internally divided in a radically unrepresentative way. As in, 8:3 ratio of seated state legislators with Democrats in aggregate receiving more votes statewide. Since the redistricting that went into effect in 2011, the Virginia State Senate, previously the only major body or position in the state held (narrowly) by Democrats, has gone ever so slightly to the Republicans. The maintenance of the two-vote majority for Republicans isn’t some sort of baffling and unexpected phenomenon. Regrettable? Sure. Avoidable? Perhaps. Completely within Democrats’ power to chip away at? Not necessarily. Something to expect to work itself out? Not in the slightest.

Lastly, the idea that Mississippi in an off year was going to elect a Democrat, well, stranger things have indeed happened, but that this was an unexpected loss, only possible with low turnout, speaks to a Democrat confidence that maybe is misplaced. Yes, Democratic-leaning voters are less likely to show up at the polls because of structural inequalities – they are less likely to own cars to drive to them, they are less likely to have media alert them about the election, they are even less likely to even have Democratic candidates to vote for. But there’s also the messaging game. Are Democrats making a compelling case to voters who might be persuaded in either direction? While many national elections indicate that that’s the case, they don’t speak to the increasing presence of candidates like Gatewood Galbraith (or other independent or third party candidates, or even Blue Dogs) as the alternative to Republicans in many corners of the United States. Democrats may very well have simply lost Mississippi.

Former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean struck a more nuanced version of the same chord as the Progressive Turnout Project. He admitted that “You have to have resources in the state parties, you have to have organizations in the state parties. Even places you don’t think we can win, because if you don’t do that we’re never going to win those states.” Implicit within that statement is that spreading resources and candidates out into less certain districts will indeed lead to losses, but even also a certain number of wins. That resignation to some inevitable losses didn’t stop Dean from bemoaning that “the thing that kills me about Kentucky is 460,000 people will lose insurance because they didn’t go out and vote”. The core of his argument is the same as the Progressive Turnout Project’s – that this is about either Republican structural advantages and either apathetic or misguided voters, rather than Democratic failures (inevitable or not).

Working Families, a pseudo-third party organized mainly in the broader New York City area, vocally disagreed in their post-election analysis-meets-donation-drive:

2015-11-10_1849A polarizing situation seems to have emerged here, where particularly non-partisan elections (mostly on ballot initiatives) have galvanized Democratic-leaning voters, even as the Party’s political fortunes have declined. Enmeshed in a political system that, as some Democrats have pointed out, is largely opposed to them and their policy goals, this makes apparent the status of the Democratic Party as political party hanging in air. What’s more important to it – partisan victories or policy victories? Most of the time the two go hand-in-hand, but in this past election, they each took a step sideways and showed they can diverge paths.

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The local electoral grab bag

If you switched on the television this morning you probably saw some reporting on the results of the battery of local elections held yesterday. At least in my neck of the media woods, there’s a pretty narrow focus within that – on the Democratic loss of the Kentucky governorship to a Republican.

That story has everything. There’s the glacial pace of party realignment, with the South steadily converting from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican even at the state-level. Entangled with that is the convoluted history of Kentucky itself, the famously neutral state in the Civil War. If you want to say or write something that, instead of being deeply historied, makes this a dramatic reversal there’s something to draw on there as well – as the predictions remarkably reversed at more or less the last minute. Suddenly, Republican Matt Bevin overtook Democrat Jack Conway in what was ultimately revealed to not be a fluke poll but an accurate prediction. That race and its results are rich in narratives and national meaning.

Let’s look a little more broadly though. Here’s some interesting things that happened last night that are going a little under-noticed compared to that one race.

Ohioan Redistricting: don’t hold your breath

Ohio voters roundly supported Issue 1, giving it 71 percent support at the ballot box. The proposition overhauls Ohio’s districting system for its state legislature, which arguably has served as the gerrymandering model for Republicans around the country. In spite of a very narrow preference for Democratic candidates as an entire state, the internal boundaries have been carefully drawn (some argue for more than two decades) to pack Democratic-leaning areas into a few districts, allowing Republicans to be numerically over-represented in the state legislature. Issue 1 is designed to encourage less partisan district maps by forcing the panel that creates the maps to have more members of both major parties and to require more frequent votes to maps passed without support from both parties.

Many aren’t particularly impressed with the new system this sets up, however. Arguably many of the current Democratic representatives have a personal investment in the broken system, since the Democratic “sink” districts are incredibly safe seats for them to hold. Only one of them needs to accept a Republican-biased proposal to make the results “bipartisan” defeating the whole point of the measure. Besides that, even if the Democrats remain firm, the Republicans can arguably retain the existing map or a similarly favorable one with the more regular votes indefinitely. Either way, we’re back to square one with a gerrymandered Ohioan legislature.

Stephen Wolf at DailyKos noted that the fundamental problem here is party involvement. Increasing the diversity of party involvement in planning these maps isn’t really a solution. He pointed instead to Arizona as a model for dismantling a gerrymandered map, saying:

The biggest risk with this proposed commission is that it will destroy any appetite for further redistricting reform among Democrats and reform-minded independent organizations, just as flawed redistricting reform measures have done in other states. At best, it might just induce reformers to include Congress under the same bipartisan process as the legislature, leading to maps that, while not as aggressive as the current Republican gerrymander, would still have a clear rightward lean.

A far more ideal solution is to establish a truly independent redistricting commission free of self-interested political officeholders. Arizona did this very thing, producing a commission reformers regarded highly. After a crucial United States Supreme Court ruling validated establishing redistricting commissions by initiative, there has been a renewed push for similar reforms in other ballot measure states. It’s quite possible that renewed independent reform efforts spurred Republicans’ desire in Ohio to block a more aggressive future reform by agreeing to Issue 1 now.

The next few years will show if Ohioans can capitalize on these changes. Maybe this can be the start of a more systemic reform, but if commentators like Wolf are to be believed, that’s not likely.

Pennsylvania Swept, Republicans Wept

Amid the decline of the Democratic Party in Kentucky, there’s some bright news from the other end of northern Appalachia. Pennsylvania has been swept in an off-year election by Democrats. The bulk of the positions up for election were judicial, which in Pennsylvania have as of late been held by Republicans, and been a key part of the Republican policy control in the left-leaning state. Yesterday, for the first time since 2007, Pennsylvania voters elected a Democratic candidate to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (more or less an appellate state court), and likewise changed their state Supreme Court into a majority Democrat body.

While those were statewide elections that indicate the political temperature of Pennsylvania is shifting bluer, the mayoral election in Philadelphia indicates how the already Democratic-leaning portions of the state are moving. The Republican candidate, Melissa Bailey, lost to Democrat James Kenney by a 72 point margin. You read that right – the Democratic candidate got 85 percent of the vote to the Republican’s thirteen.

Others have previously pointed out that Republicans tend to regularly sink resources into fights they can’t win in Pennsylvania, but this indicates how out-of-reach the state has really become for their party. The state as a whole is becoming harder to win in the local, off-year elections that are supposed to be Republicans’ high water mark, and they’re barely a second party in some parts of the state. Pennsylvania may be becoming the Atlantic California.

Houston: The Arc of Justice… can double back

Trigger warning: transmisogyny, heterosexism, cissexism

There’s been some national attention on the election in Houston which changed the city policy on discrimination against LGBT people, but my impression is frankly that it’s being mischaracterized. For instance, here’s how the Texas Tribune explained the vote in one of the most widely circulated pieces on the issue:

Houston voters on Tuesday resoundingly rejected an ordinance that would have established protections from discrimination for gay and transgender residents and several other classes. With 95 percent of votes counted, 61 percent of voters opposed the measure. The embattled ordinance, better known as HERO, would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The article, to its credit, does correctly go on to describe the deeply transmisogynistic rhetoric that was successfully used to create a public rejection of the ordinance. It also ultimately notes briefly that the ordinance was already in place following a 2014 vote by city officials, a bit of a different situation than implied to exist in the above description. This wasn’t legal protections and rights for LGBT people (among others) not be extended, it was them being rescinded. Combined with the on-going insult that particularly the rights and recognition of LGBT people is something to be put to a plebiscite, this flies in the face of many triumphalist narratives being pushed currently about LGBT rights.

The nation’s fourth largest city just rolled back the rights of LGBT people, and particularly indicated that transgender women can’t feel safe in public in it. This echoes some of the most painful parts of the now closing fight for marriage equality that many seem to want to forget today. Marriages were nullified. The availability of marriage was revoked. Among other important things obscured in the hazy glow of Obergefell is this: things can move backwards. Rights awarded are rights that can be withdrawn.

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Corbyn and Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful election as opposition leader within the UK Labour Party’s shadow government has caused quite a lot of buzz within the broader anglophone political world. In that highly visible position he will be the one to detail Labour’s rhetorical and policy alternatives to the current conservative UK government. As arguably the most liberal person running a plausible campaign for the position, this suggests the possibility of a bold turn left within the Labour Party and arguably many centers of non-right political power in the UK. With Sanders, a registered independent and self-described socialist, running in the Democratic Presidential Primary in the US and similar rumblings within Canadian politics it seems as though further left political figures are coming out of the woodwork around the world, but especially in English-speaking circles.

These changes have not been without their critics of course, as many have decried the these comparatively leftist politicians are “unserious” or “unreasonable” compared to center-left figures they threaten to replace. As Matt Bruenig asked last week, there’s a structural question that raises: what exactly are further left politicians supposed to do? In both the party leadership elections within UK parties and in the presidential primaries and generals in the US, the systems offer only two choices for them: to compete within the center-left in in-party elections or outright against it as a separate party. In either case, they are inevitably challenging the center-left for control of policy, and face criticism for jeopardizing the advancement of a center-left alternative. It’s presented as a kind of making the perfect the enemy of the good by the center left, but as a necessary test of a careful approach’s merits by those to the further left.

Of course, as Bruenig points out, that push-and-pull between gradualism and radicalism within a broader left coalition assumes that the center-left and left share common goals. Ultimately politicians like Sanders and Corbyn want to entirely restructure society in a way that dramatically recontextualizes or even overhauls the procedures under which they compete with more centrist candidates. Is that true of their rivals?

bernie sanders revolutionFrom here.

Beyond these issues of political process, it seems relevant to ask what counts as “reasonable”. The comparatively moderate portions of left wing coalitions treat it as a self evident truth that they’re more electable and realistic. Both the US and UK are facing epidemic levels of disengagement. It’s unsurprising that that’s the case given how parties from center-left on towards the right have largely failed to tackle some of the most systemic difficulties for the average person – global climate change, the economic downturn, and globalization. As some have pointed out, its specifically the poor who are most likely to disengage from electoral politics, and that’s at least in part because there are few to no parties or major figures addressing their concerns with viable solutions.

Arguably the recent political success of comparatively far right politics in both the US and UK (and many other countries) have demonstrated the power that rightwing parties can harness simply by offering a response to those problems, not even necessarily a logical or actionable one. In general, lower income voters still skew towards left-center parties, but that exists within a general vacuum of more leftist alternatives.

An electoral landscape shaken up by higher rates of participation would drive political discussion most likely towards the left, but that would threaten the fragile consensus that has allowed the center-left to become so powerful. Corbyn and Sanders are essentially moderate compared to the politicians who might follow them if they’re able to enact policies that would enable greater political participation. The need to prevent that sort of constituency “escape” to the left is a reason for the center-left to make common cause with the center and right and frame themselves as an end-point of reasonableness even if that reinforces on a rightwing view of the broader political world and discourages leftwing activism. Power is more important than change, for some.

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