Review: “It’s Time to Fight Dirty”

Since it is unlikely that the 2020 election will give us a socialist majority in both the House and Senate, it is very important what strategies and tactics the liberal Democrats of today are cooking up for their inevitable next turn at the wheel. David Faris’s It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics shows that liberals (or at least a certain faction of liberals) are actually beginning to think about the exercise of power in governance and also beginning to engage with the idea that the constitution intentionally subverts democracy in order to prevent the people from having too much power.

Given that the constitution is written so that it is hard to change, the left (or liberals) would have to build a massive and sustained mass movement in order to replace the constitution with something more democratic. In the meantime, in order to avoid another era of governmental stagnation like the Obama years, both the left and our roommates in the progressive wing of the Democratic party need to consider what can be done to improve our ability to actually exercise power when given it.

Faris says, “Only by changing the rules that are currently rigged against them will Democrats ever hold power long enough to truly transform American politics in a lasting progressive direction,” and his book describes potential reforms that can be done within the confines of the existing constitutional order. These reforms are a mixed bag. Some are clear winners that both leftists and progressive liberals can support. Others are overly complicated in a way only  Vox-reading liberals would love. A handful are just terrible ideas.

Underlying most of the bad ideas are two key misconceptions. The first is that he doesn’t believe that a good straightforward effective left (or liberal) policy creates its own constituency (like Medicare or Social Security did). His example of the ACA as a policy that didn’t create a constituency gets it exactly wrong. He claims “[E]xpecting a handful of policy victories in, say, the spring of 2021 to deliver multiple electoral cycles of victories to the Democrats is just a fantasy, and one that election results during the Obama era conclusively discredited.” First, the ACA did build enough of a constituency to mostly survive Trump and a Republican Congress. Second, that constituency would have been bigger if the ACA wasn’t a market-based mess that intentionally obscured itself.

His second misconception is a belief that red states will always be red because there’s something innately conservative about rural America or the South. A person who can write “[i]f there are entire states, like North Dakota, that are basically bereft of an actual city” has never been to Fargo or any other mid-sized American city in the so-called “flyover.” A person that can describe the U.S. as “hitched to the U.S. South in a shotgun marriage” doesn’t understand that the South’s historical reactionary tilt isn’t innate; it’s just what happens when an elite planter capitalist class has nearly uninterrupted power for over 200 years. The problem isn’t the South, it’s capitalism.

Combine these two misconceptions and you get a pessimism about the future of left politics in most American states (and by extension our congress). I believe that if we can make the lives of all working people better, we can win everywhere. Kansas used to be a hotbed of socialism and my Trump loving hometown once had a socialist college. When national Democrats ignore or mock rural or Southern Americans as backwards hillbillies, they shockingly vote for Republicans. But when Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign actually bothers to listen to their concerns, he wins many of their votes.

Now let’s get into Faris’s suggested reforms, starting with the good ones. Federal voting rights reform is absolutely necessary to fight the conservative war on voting. The 15th Amendment gives Congress the necessary power to ensure all Americans have the right to vote and a Democratic congress should do so immediately upon taking power.

Faris recommends four voting reforms: “the restoration of voting rights for all felons even when they are still in prison, the creation of a system of automatic voting registration that places the responsibility for registering citizens on the state rather than on overburdened citizens themselves, the declaration of a federal holiday for all federal elections and the abolition of all voter ID laws.” I think that’s a great start, but why even bother with voter registration? North Dakota does not have voter registration and has no problems with it.

Faris does mention one very bad voting reform: “paying [a] nominal fine for non-voting.” This is classic liberal technocratic behavioral control crap. Punishing people who choose not to vote is anti-democratic. There’s also no such thing as a nominal fee. A dollar is just a dollar until you don’t have one.

Faris also discusses reforms to how business is done in the House and Senate that don’t require changes to the constitution. I think we all can agree that the Senate’s filibuster is uniquely anti-democratic and should be ended (although Faris wastes substantial ink reminding us why).

Similarly, it’s often forgotten that the number of representatives per state is not directly set in the constitution. The only parameters are that each state must have at least one and that there can’t be more than one per 30,000 people. So the size of the House of Representatives must be between 100 and 10,000. Faris suggest doubling the size to 870; I would recommend going to the full 10,000. With multi-member districts and ranked choice voting, we could end up with something closer to a parliament that includes a much more diverse set of political viewpoints.

Like the House, the Supreme Court doesn’t have to be nine people. Lifetime tenure is in the constitution, but Faris provides a good discussion of ways to change the size and to work around lifetime tenure. He mostly focuses on a complicated plan that rotates older justices off the bench without removing them from the court and guarantees presidents one appointment per term, regardless of vacancies. Like FDR’s court packing plan that set age thresholds for triggering new appointments, this seems over-engineered to me. I say just make it 50 people and be done with it.

Faris also recommends increasing the number of states in order to increase the number of likely-Democratic senators and to begin to mitigate the anti-democratic nature of a congress that under-represents large states and over-represents small states. Some parts of his argument make more sense than others.

He gives a useful summary of the activism for D.C. statehood, which is more realistic than most people think. D.C. has an entire shadow constitution with shadow senators and congresspeople and a mayor that will become a governor the second D.C. becomes a state. He also discusses the Puerto Rican statehood movement, arguing that “there is not a scintilla of evidence suggesting that a majority or even a plurality of citizens prefer a different option, such as continuing with the current status or seeking independence.” However, the Puerto Rican statehood movement is less far along than that of D.C.

Faris also argues for cutting California into eight states because “the increasing leftward bent of the state of California means that, contrary to the situation even four years ago, there are a number of ways to divide the state that would ensure that all of the successor states are no worse than toss-ups for the Democrats.” I think this misreads the situation for several reasons and that this idea could majorly backfire.

First, he hand waves away the logistical issues of splitting up California. I’m not even a Californian and I know that water rights would be a massive issue. The same would be true with all the state infrastructure (colleges, healthcare, schools, etc.) that California is able to get economies of scale on because of its size.

Second, he overestimates how stable California’s blue tilt is. As he said in the sentence I just quoted, even four years ago his scheme wouldn’t work. Why should anyone believe it will still work four years from now?

Third, his plan to create eight Democratic leaning Californian states requires some substantial gerrymandering of state borders. This is a useful thought experiment and while I appreciate his desire to “fight dirty,” this is both anti-democratic and also opens up a Pandora’s box of weaponized statehood. The obvious counterpoint to eight Democratic Californias is nine Republican Texases. Faris dismisses that concern because Texas’s geographic and demographic makeup would mean that the state couldn’t be divided in such a way.

However, he’s assuming that the new states must be contiguous and compact. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan immediately shows this to be false, as does the pre-1820 state of Massachusetts, which included what is now Maine. Modern gerrymandering technology means that Texas could be split in such a way that matches at a precinct level every likely Democratic voter with 1.1 likely Republican voters. Would anyone expect anything otherwise from the Republican party?

Now let’s take this argument to its logical conclusion. Why do states have to have separate territory? We could create 10 Californias (or conservatives 10 Wyomings) that all have the exact same territory and citizenry. Californias 2 through 10 elect their own senators and representatives, but the state constitutions defer all power to the original California government. They would be states in name only, but would increase the power of California.

Taking this even further, a leftist Congress could create a thousand micro-states of three people each (two representatives and a senator) and then use those states to immediately amend the constitution to abolish all states and move to a national parliament. This may seem crazy but it’s no crazier than causing a Western Water War by splitting California. The possibilities are endless if you ignore reality.

There are some very good ideas in It’s Time to Fight Dirty, but because Faris doesn’t believe that a good policy creates its own constituency, he ends up preferring complicated technocratic solutions like eight Californias, a rotating Supreme Court or fines for non-voters just to get around the problem that he assumes is a permanent feature of American life: that rural states will always be Republican. The recent red state uprisings like the teachers’ strike leave me unconvinced of that argument.

Faris also seems stuck on the argument that Democrats should “fight dirty” because Republicans have fought dirty. I don’t think these ideas are fighting dirty; they are just taking power when it is given. Creating a more democratic country is not fighting dirty; it’s a moral imperative. Which is probably just too earnest for a book title.