Ezra Klein’s latest opinion column for the NY Times is titled “Steve Bannon is Onto Something.” What is that Bannon has figured out that Democrats haven’t? Well, if you read the column it’s basically federalism, i.e. the idea that democracy works not just at the federal level but also at the state and local level. Klein’s piece opens with a knock against people who spend a lot of time reading, listening and commenting on political news but not really doing anything of substance. To his credit, he includes himself in that category:
…like so many others, I’ve spent the week revisiting the attempted coup of Jan. 6, marinating in my fury toward the Republicans who put fealty toward Donald Trump above loyalty toward country and the few but pivotal Senate Democrats who are proving, day after day, that they think the filibuster more important than the franchise. Let me tell you, the tweets and columns I drafted in my head were searing.
But fury is useful only as fuel.
He’s keeping this as broad as possible but he’s clearly talking to very online progressives who spend a lot of time engaging with politics but mostly so they can yell at people on Twitter and Facebook. The rest of the piece is pointing out that in order to have a real impact, Democrats need to win elections. And it’s not just the big election every four years that counts. State and local elections matter too. And here’s where he sees Republicans really outperforming Democrats.
I’ll say this for the right: They pay attention to where the power lies in the American system, in ways the left sometimes doesn’t. Bannon calls this “the precinct strategy,” and it’s working. “Suddenly, people who had never before showed interest in party politics started calling the local G.O.P. headquarters or crowding into county conventions, eager to enlist as precinct officers,” ProPublica reports. “They showed up in states Trump won and in states he lost, in deep-red rural areas, in swing-voting suburbs and in populous cities.”
The difference between those organizing at the local level to shape democracy and those raging ineffectually about democratic backsliding — myself included — reminds me of the old line about war: Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics. Right now, Trumpists are talking logistics.
As I find is often the case with Klein’s writing, what he leaves out is often every bit as important as what he includes. In this case, claiming the GOP focus on local and state elections is a Trumpist plot initiated by Steve Bannon ignores that the GOP has been focused on state elections for decades and had seen major gains long before Trump was a candidate. Here’s a NY Times report from 2018:
Over the past 25 years, Republicans have methodically consolidated power in state legislatures, taking both chambers in every Southern state, flipping long-Democratic Midwestern strongholds and claiming new territory like West Virginia. Heading into the midterm elections, they controlled two-thirds of all state legislative bodies.
This graphic showing which party controls the state legislatures shows it’s a trend that has been in place for a long time with big gains in 1994 and 2010.
The point is, this isn’t something the GOP is doing because of Steve Bannon. Winning state elections is something that has been part of the agenda for a long time.
Politico did report last month that the GOP was eyeing a new target in future elections, local school board races. So there may be some truth to the idea that local races are becoming more politicized. Of course I would argue that’s because education has become increasingly politicized by people pushing various elements of anti-racism to which many parents object. As is often the case, the initiators of the culture war are on the left but it’s only when the right reacts to the insurgency that the media notices.
Getting back to Ezra Klein, he points out that one reason Democrats struggle in these elections is that they aren’t as flashy as the big donors would like.
“Democratic major donors like to fund the flashy things,” Litman told me. “Presidential races, Senate races, super PACs, TV ads. Amy McGrath can raise $90 million to run against Mitch McConnell in a doomed race, but the number of City Council and school board candidates in Kentucky who can raise what they need is …” She trailed off in frustration…
If you’re frightened that America is sliding into authoritarianism, you want to support candidates, run campaigns and donate to causes that directly focus on the crisis of democracy. But few local elections are run as referendums on Trump’s big lie. They’re about trash pickup and bond ordinances and traffic management and budgeting and disaster response.
At the end of this piece, what Klein has really done is explain federalism and democracy 101 to Democrats who are more interested in snappy rejoinders on Twitter. If you want to have power to control big issues you need to first gain power at the local and state level. And to do that, you need to actually care about the local issues that drive those elections and not just focus on the best daily rant about Donald Trump.
A much simpler way to say all of this would be to just point to Virginia where Democrats lost control of the state because Terry McAuliffe ran a one-note campaign tying his opponent to Trump while simultaneously ignoring the local issue (education) that actually mattered to voters. It turns out that approach didn’t work very well.
If Democrats want to win elections, they’re going to need to let go of their addiction to the resistance and start caring about what voters actually care about. So, bottom line, I think Klein is right about what is ailing his party (too much focus on flashy anti-Trump politics and not enough focus on voters’ concerns) but the fact that he’s still using Steve Bannon as a focal point of that argument shows he hasn’t quite learned the lesson himself.
Another hint this isn’t going to go well. Here’s the top comment on Klein’s story (with 1,800+ upvotes) from someone named Jorge in San Diego:
The common thread among my conservative acquaintances is they’re unsophisticated about political science, history and economics. I will consider any conservative viewpoint that is reasonable, but it’s like talking with sports fans– it’s purely emotional, based on winning. And winning is important, otherwise “socialists and illegals will be running the country.” I asked a friend the difference between news and opinion, between science and anecdote, and he just thought I was being condescending– because he didn’t have an answer. Half of our electorate is functionally uneducated.
Republicans are too dumb to talk to is not a good approach for winning state and local elections. This guy’s friend may have been unsophisticated but he was not wrong in intuiting that he was being condescended to by Jorge. Smugness is easy to detect and not likely to win you many votes.