Is It Time for Democrats to Fight Dirty?

A new book argues Democrats should take on radical strategies to cement power.

David Faris.
David Faris. David Faris/Amazon

The consensus among political pundits is that the Democratic Party is poised to do well in November’s midterm elections. It seems too that Donald Trump will have his work cut out for him in 2020 as he faces what’s sure to be a crowded field of Democratic rising stars. But the Democratic Party’s path back to power in Washington will be complicated by a number of structural factors that favor Republicans—from post-2010 gerrymandering and voting restrictions to the disproportionate power of small red states in the Senate. In his new book, It’s Time to Fight Dirty, the Week’s David Faris argues that Democrats have no choice but to pursue strategies aimed at tilting the balance of power perhaps permanently in their favor. The ideas he advances go far beyond age-old proposals like eliminating the Electoral College. Faris would have the next Democratic Congress and president, for instance, create several new Democratic-leaning states and pack the Supreme Court with new seats for liberal justices. Last week, I spoke with him about his strategic agenda. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Osita Nwanevu: The argument you’re making here, in sum, is that the time has come for Democrats to throw out some parts of the rulebook of American politics and embrace radical, structural strategies on the third rail because they may violate one norm or another. What convinces you that we’ve reached a moment where playing dirty, as you say, is necessary?

David Faris: I think the breaking point for me personally was the Merrick Garland fiasco, which was really an unprecedented abuse of the Constitution’s lack of clarity about what “advise and consent” actually means. And it was the culmination of 20, 25 years of increasingly hardball tactics coming out of the Republican Party. Those tactics started at the fringe and then became mainstream over time. In the early 2000s, they redrew Texas’ congressional districts in the middle of the decade—this kind of stuff. But that obstruction really got out of hand during the Obama administration. It turned the public against the president’s party and it delivered all three branches of government to the GOP. And I think it’s just not feasible for the Democrats to continue to play by most of the rules—even the unwritten rules—when their counterparts across the aisle are not doing so.

Beyond the shock of the election, there’s also time pressure. On climate change, you write, “If Democrats keep alternating power every four or eight years with the gaggle of climate-deniers and dirty-energy shills currently in charge of the Republican Party, all of our children are going to spend their golden years spit-roasting to death in a blistering hellscape that will make the plot of Waterworld look like a naive aspiration.” The projections there are genuinely bleak. But more broadly speaking, part of your case is that we’re at a moment of crisis and that we can’t afford to rely on the outcomes of the next few elections to pass the policies we need.

Right, exactly. And I think some of the urgency definitely comes from just this long ideological march off to the right in the Republican Party. That, to me, is dangerous because the Republicans are no longer committed to the spirit of the constitutional framework as it exists. And they’re committed to policies that are going to wreak incredible havoc on this country. We’re starting to see that with climate change. The hurricane season last year is just a taste of what’s coming. That doesn’t mean that we rig elections. That means we use the same tactics that are being used against us in order to level the playing field so that the arguments can win.

So let’s get into some of the proposals here. I’ve decided myself that if the Democrats hold the presidency, House, and Senate after 2020, they should seriously consider eliminating the filibuster, granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, and seating senators from both. None of this, by my reading, would require more than simple majorities. In the book, you go further and say that the Democrats should admit six more states by breaking up California.

One of the things that is pretty immovable in the Constitution is the equal representation of states in the Senate. It’s just incredibly unfair that the 38 million people of California have the same two senators as 600,000 or 700,000 people in Wyoming and North Dakota. But there’s a kind of hinge in the Constitution where there’s nothing stopping a state from breaking itself up into multiple pieces as long as they obtain the consent of the people of that state and the state legislature.

This would be a heavy lift. I mean, there’s things in the book that I think could happen within weeks of the next Democratic administration coming into total power in D.C., and there are things that are going to be a bit more of a project, and this is one of them. But at the end of the day, California has a zany proposition system. You can put just about anything on the ballot if you get enough signatures. We very narrowly avoided having a break-up-California initiative on the ballot in 2016, which was pretty transparently designed to give statehood to Silicon Valley so that they wouldn’t have to support the rest of the state. So I kind of sat down and drew seven state maps that would have voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. Unless we want to be fighting at a disadvantage for the U.S. Senate for the next 20 or 30 years, we’ve got to get creative. And California is just this invitation to mischief. We could have 14 senators out of California rather than two.

You seem pretty confident that a lot of the ideological geography of this country is mostly fixed. But we’re in this moment where there’s a lot of hope on the left that if the Democratic Party were to start pushing ambitious domestic policy—single-payer, a job guarantee and/or basic income, etc.—the party could compete in parts of the country that have been less hospitable to Democrats. How reasonable are those ambitions?

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, obviously I believe in the progressive ideological project and I do think in the long run it might pay dividends in places that went heavily for Donald Trump. I think that that’s only true if the party gets really serious about things like rural development. But voters don’t always connect the policies of the party in power with their self-interest. So, do I hope that we could peel off some of these voters in the long run? Yes. Do I think they should rely on that as a long-term strategy for staying in power for several cycles? No, I don’t. I think that the policy needs to be paired with really deliberate and pretty ruthless procedural warfare so that when we do fight about these issues, we don’t have to come from a deficit to win the House or send policies over to a Supreme Court with a 5–4, 6–3 conservative majority.

What’s the second most important proposal here behind the admission of new states?

I think the second most important thing is voting rights. There’s nothing stopping a unified Democratic government from completely rewriting the country’s electoral laws. The Constitution very, very clearly gives Congress that authority. And we saw in Virginia in November how revolutionary it can be to, for example, restore voting rights for ex-felons. And they could get more radical than that. If they wanted to, they could pass a law saying you can’t deprive people of their vote for felonies at all. So things like automatic voter registration, restoring voting rights for ex-felons, getting rid of these voter ID laws, which can be swept away with a national law, a national voting holiday— I think that would add millions of votes immediately to the Democratic column for the 2022 midterms.

I definitely agree that a new Voting Rights Act is within the realm of possibility. As for the rest—if this book slid across Nancy Pelosi’s desk, or Chuck Schumer’s desk, or Tom Perez’s desk at some point over the next several months, I doubt it would convince them to start a campaign to break up California. What would it take to bring decision-makers in the party to consider some of the more ambitious and potentially controversial proposals—packing the Supreme Court for a liberal majority, for instance?

To be totally honest, I think what would have to happen is that Democrats would have to be in power for a few years and see their signature policies get smacked down by not just the Supreme Court but all of these lower courts that are very quickly being flipped by the Trump administration. For people like Schumer and Pelosi—although, God I hope we have different people by 2022—I think it would take something a little bit more disjunctive and disruptive than just winning for them to be willing to consider stuff like this.

One thing I think don’t think people talk enough about in assessing why Democrats don’t play hardball in Washington is the fact that Democratic voters seem to value cooperation pretty deeply. For instance, when Pew asked Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters whether it was more important for politicians to compromise or stick to their principles, 69 percent of them chose compromise. Liberals were even more likely to choose compromise—76 percent of them did. A 52 percent majority of Republicans, on the other hand, chose sticking to principles. This doesn’t seem too tied to control of government either. When they asked the same question in 2010, a 54 percent majority of Democrats chose compromise. Sixty-two percent of Republicans chose principles. Is that a political challenge for the kinds of proposals you’re making—that Democratic voters, for whatever reason, seem to prefer trying to work things out rather than combative politics?

I think that’s changing. One of the ways that we saw it changing was with the fight over DACA. There was pretty unified opposition to compromise from the activist left and also people that I was kind of surprised were taking the line that they should shut down the government indefinitely until they got a DREAM Act—quarters that I thought would have been a little bit more institutionalized and pragmatic. And I think that’s the product of watching the Republicans refuse to compromise over a period of many years. So as the leadership of the party starts to change and as these activist organizations gain more power, I do think that will shift a little bit.

Are you worried at all about the risk of escalation if Democrats pursue the strategies you propose? What will the Republican response look like?

I guess one of the things I really believe in about the book is that if we do some of these things we will be in power more often than the Republicans and a unified Republican government in D.C. would be much, much less likely to happen. And that doesn’t mean it’ll never happen again. But I do think that if I could write an extra chapter of this book, I would say something like, “Here’s how we might dial down the temperature after we do some of these things.” One of them is things like amending the Constitution—setting the number of justices on the Court by constitutional amendment, for instance. I think in terms of creating a state, there are really limited options for them. They don’t have a giant state that is as Republican as California is Democratic.

But if you’re right and this works and the Republicans don’t have viable strategic options for retaliation, that would leave a very large, already angry minority of voters in this country shut out from holding power in the federal government. What would that do to our politics?

I think the Trumpian base of the Republican Party is, at this point, in the ballpark of 25–35 percent of the population. That’s a lot of people. And they’re pretty willing to throw their weight behind much more radical things that I’m recommending in this book. Executing drug dealers and deploying the military on our border and all of these things that really are disruptions of the constitutional framework. If you look at the polls for these folks, they have very, very authoritarian underlying attitudes. But I think the best way to make them less angry is to really pursue some serious structural economic changes in American society that would reduce inequality. I don’t want to get into Bernie vs. Hillary stuff and I think racism is also super important here. But I do think that the party would have better luck reaching some of those voters if some of them didn’t feel like their economic lives hang in the balance with every paycheck.

I also think one process that will help is just time unfolding and a lot of these racist old white people dying and being replaced by younger folks who have diametrically opposed attitudes about race and gender and ethnicity. I think in 15 years we’re going to be looking at a very, very, very different country ideologically. Is that overly optimistic? Maybe. And there will be a response to all this, of course. But I think there’s going to be a reactionary response no matter what the next Democratic administration does.