America’s New Democracy Movement

While media coverage since the 2018 US midterm elections has focused squarely on Donald Trump, a growing movement of citizens and activists from across the political spectrum is thinking more broadly about the future of American democracy. And progressive political reforms have been winning support in some unexpected places.

Laura Tyson , Lenny Mendonca

democracy protest

BERKELEY – In last November’s US midterm elections, voters sent a clear message about the concerns weighing on their minds and the values they hold most dear. Not only was this midterm cycle the most expensive on record – owing to unprecedented fundraising gains by Democratic candidates – but voter turnout was the highest in at least 50 years, rivaling the turnout for presidential elections.

Propelled by fundraising and turnout, Democrats won 40 seats and reclaimed control of the House of Representatives, hitting Republicans with the biggest midterm losses since 1974, three months after President Richard Nixon resigned. Notably, Latino turnout was up significantly, and there will now be a record-high 42 Latino members of Congress. It was also an historic year for female candidates; the next Congress will include 126 female lawmakers – the largest cohort ever.

Clearly, President Donald Trump’s behavior in office helped energize female and Latino Democratic candidacies last year. But Trump also amplified voter turnout on the Republican side, by actively campaigning for the party’s candidates. The Republicans’ losses in the House have thus been widely interpreted as a repudiation of Trump and his policies.

Since the election, the media’s attention has largely been focused on what the outcome means for the 2020 presidential election cycle, which is already underway. But the story of the 2018 midterms is about more than Trump and the future of his presidency. It is about an American electorate yearning for democratic reforms. Like in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, when citizens and states spearheaded a wave of measures to improve democratic governance, voters from both parties used the election to signal their support for democracy.

More than two-thirds of US voters live in states that allow ballot initiatives, a reform tool that was introduced by the Progressive movement more than 100 years ago. And in 2018, voters in 17 states voted on more than two dozen ballot measures that were designed to make government more representative and responsive. In fact, the number of democratic reform measures on the ballot last year reached a new record.

One important type of democratic reform focuses on the problem of partisan gerrymandering. In 2018, large majorities supported redistricting reforms in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio (in a ballot initiative this past May), and Utah (by a slim margin). With the exception of Colorado, Trump won all of these states in 2016.

Moreover, reforms to expand and protect voting rights also won popular support in four states last year. For example, in Florida, which had some of the closest statewide races in the country, an historic measure to restore voting rights to citizens with past felony convictions passed by a two-to-one margin. In Michigan, where voters were evenly divided on gubernatorial and US Senate candidates, 65% of the electorate supported an initiative to introduce same-day voter registration and other pro-democracy measures. And a similar initiative passed handily in Nevada, too.

Meanwhile, eight states and the District of Columbia already allowed for automatic registration in last year’s election, resulting in big voter-registration gains overall. And Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting in congressional elections.

Voters in several states also made clear that they want more ethical and accountable governance. Missouri voters, for example, passed a package of ethics reforms tightening campaign-finance restrictions for state lawmakers. New Mexico established an ethics commission to investigate allegations of misconduct by state officials, candidates, and lobbyists. North Dakota did likewise, and also approved a ban on foreign political contributions and a new requirement that campaign-finance information be made publicly available. And New York City strengthened its public election-financing program.

With the federal government mired in dysfunction and now in its third shutdown since January 2018, voters are taking charge. Come 2020, there is every reason to expect that “progressive federalism” will usher in democratic reforms on a scale not seen since the heyday of the original Progressive movement. As James and Deborah Fallows write in their recent bestselling book, Our Towns, “All across the country, in smaller towns outside the media spotlight, a new America is being built … working toward practical solutions to the problems of this age.”

The New York Times columnist David Brooks is telling a similar story from the right, and spearheading a new Aspen Institute initiative to build on the lessons of strong local communities. And the media company NationSwell is producing a daily feed of stories about successful government innovations from around the country.

Progressive federalists are also building the infrastructure and amassing the resources to compete in 2020. Groups such as the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, the Democracy Initiative, and Democracy Works are mobilizing new talent, technology, and resources to scale up solutions that are already working. California Forward is pushing for state-based reform through the “50 State Solution” pilot program, and New America is fostering an exchange of ideas through its Laboratories of Democracy project. Finally, the Unrig Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, in March will showcase major new efforts to expand the movement.

Like the 2018 midterm elections, these stories and institutions reflect the electorate’s growing desire for democratic reforms, and that message is finally gaining attention at the national level. Along with health-care reform, a commitment to make government “more responsive, effective, and transparent” was the centerpiece of the Democrats’ message in the midterms.

And now, the party is planning an early vote in the House of Representatives on a bill to establish nationwide automatic voter registration, restore key provisions to the federal Voting Rights Act, shift redistricting from state legislatures to independent commissions, and strengthen disclosure rules for campaign financing.

These are all essential steps to revitalizing American democracy. Though the bill is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, it will be a harbinger of the mounting power of progressive federalism in the years to come.

Laura Tyson, a former chair of the US President's Council of Economic Advisers, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior adviser at the Rock Creek Group.

Lenny Mendonca, Chairman of New America, is Senior Partner Emeritus at McKinsey & Company.

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