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If Dems Need to Fight Dirty, Should They Take a Cue from Madigan?

Author David Faris says that, to win at the national level in 2018 and 2020, the left needs to quit bringing pistols to the nuclear war.

Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

In his book It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, David Faris argues that Democrats are at a structural disadvantage in this country. As a result, they’re completely out of power in Washington, even though they regularly win more votes than Republicans.

Faris recommends that the next time the Democrats gain power, they enact a raft of reforms to level the political playing field: expand the Supreme Court by adding more liberal justices; split California into seven states and grant statehood to Puerto Rico and D.C. to guarantee more Democratic senators; double the size of the House of Representatives to make congressmen more accountable to voters, and to prevent Rust Belt states from losing representation after every Census.

Despite his partisanship, though, Faris is no fan of the Illinois Democratic Party. Neither its brand of dirty politics, nor its one-party rule.

I talked to Faris, an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University, about the importance of next week’s midterms, and how ranked-choice voting could give Republicans more of a say in Illinois.

In your book, you write that “the 2018 and 2020 elections may just afford Democrats … one final chance to prevent our society from careening off the highway and into a gully.” Why are these midterms so important?

Regaining the ability to conduct oversight of the executive branch is of huge importance in this election. One of the most important features of this midterm relates to the particular president who’s in office right now — and his behavior and the violation of laws and norms that are not being investigated by the House or the Senate because they’re under the control of the Republican Party.

There’s some bigger picture issues here, too. The Left broadly, and Democrats specifically, are at a disadvantage in our national elections in a variety of ways. There’s gerrymandering in the House, which means Democrats have to win this election by five or six or seven points to win the House back. There’s the fact that probably 30 of our states are Republican-leaning, which puts Democrats at a structural disadvantage in the Senate. And we now have an originalist court majority, determined to rule in ways that disadvantage the Democratic coalition.

If we don’t recapture power over the next two election cycles, I think we’re going to enter a long period of American history where a Republican political minority rules over a Democratic political majority by virtue of our electoral institutions.

Most prognosticators say the Democrats will take the House back. What specifically would you like to see them do if they succeed?

First, I’d like to see them subpoena the president’s tax returns and figure out if there was any wrongdoing or criminality in the Trump Organization in the recent past. I think that we need to get to the bottom of the president’s financial entanglements with other countries. There may be nothing there.

Do you think the president should be impeached?

I don’t think that there should be an impeachment process unless either the Muller investigation or the House find clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

As a technical matter, I think the president should be impeached. But as a political matter — which is what impeachment is — I don’t think there’s broad acceptance of significant crimes, and evidence can only be revealed with further investigation. If they get real evidence of criminal wrongdoing, I do think they should impeach him, even if they know that it’s not going to happen in the Senate.

You write the Democrats need to stop bringing pistols to the nuclear war. But in Illinois, I don’t see the Democratic Party that way. Nobody would call Michael Madigan a goody-goody, milquetoast politician. Do the national Democrats have any lessons to learn from Illinois Democrats?

Obviously, Michael Madigan is the towering figure in our politics, and no one likes him. Not even Democrats. It’s remarkable, as a political scientist: he’s a statewide villain, and yet he keeps an incredibly low profile.

In a variety of ways, Illinois is not a model for national Democrats. First of all, you want to be solvent. That would really help make progressive policy.

Also, I don’t think Illinois is a progressive state at all. We don’t have very good state health care policies. Democrats in the Assembly haven’t done all the things they can do procedurally to press their advantage. They may have a supermajority after this election. We’ll see.

The reality is there’s so many limitations on policymaking at the state level that aren’t there at the national level. It’s just an apples and oranges comparison.

No one would ever accuse Illinois Democrats of not fighting dirty.

The Illinois dirtiness is not the kind of dirtiness that I’m recommending [nationally]. Most of the stuff in the book is institutional reform. It’s stuff that I think would level the playing field. The Machine politics of Illinois is not a model I want to replicate on a national level.

Why do you think Democrats have been so successful in Illinois as compared to other states that aren’t on the coasts, or other Midwestern states?

We have a megalopolis in Illinois that dominates its politics. States like Indiana or Wisconsin lack a city the size of Chicago in relation to the overall state population.

The trends of the last 30 years in American politics are voters in big cities getting more and more progressive, and voters in exurban and rural areas getting more conservative. A confluence of these factors gives Democrats a ten-point cushion in Illinois. They have to screw up so badly to lose statewide.

Just as Republicans did at the national level, the Democrats in Illinois reinforced their own power with the way that they drew the state House, state Senate, and national congressional maps. Illinois is an inverse of the national problem. I think Republicans win fewer seats here than they would according to a percentage of the vote. I favor voting reforms in any state, no matter what its partisanship, that would make our politics more responsive to election results.

Would it be better for Illinois if Republicans had more of a voice in the state? This is kind of a one-party state.

I don’t believe that single-party rule is good for democracy. A reform I recommend in the book is also a good model for Illinois: ranked-choice voting.

What you’d have to do is have districts with five or ten members — the higher the better. If you make the district size large enough, a Republican would get elected out of Chicago. Republicans have a limited appeal here, but in a multi-party democracy — the kind we might have at the state level if we did these electoral reforms — we might have Democrats and Greens and Republicans and Libertarians, and new coalitions. It could shake up the state’s politics in interesting and productive ways.

One problem, in Illinois and at the national level, is Democrats and Republicans have such different constituencies. They don’t have any obligations to address people who didn’t elect them. Why would Republicans care about the city if they never win a single district in the city anywhere? And if nobody downstate elects Democrats, why would Democrats care about the plight of people in rural Illinois?

With ranked choice voting, Chicago would still be a tough pull for Republicans, but in the suburbs and in some of the city neighborhoods, it would radically change the incentive structure for politicians. Republicans would have to answer to people in Chicago, and Democrats would have to answer to people downstate.

Our electoral institutions are worsening polarization, worsening hyper-partisanship. It’s kind of maddening, because there are reforms out there that are perfectly constitutional, that could help our politics in significant ways.

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