Democrats' Catch-22 by @BloggersRUs

Democrats' Catch-22

by Tom Sullivan

Impotently watching the spectacle of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and seeing him confirmed is something anyone left of Joe Manchin wants to avoid again, ever. Especially knowing time will catch up eventually with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The beloved icon will have to be replaced on an already right-leaning Supreme Court. If it is to be more than a kangaroo version of its former self, Democrats must wrest back control of the U.S. Senate. Holding the presidency alone will not do the job of rebalancing the court. Ask Barack Obama.

As Democrats bickered during the 2016 election, I repeated that gerrymandering (and vote suppression) in the states would not be stopped from Washington. President Hillary couldn't fix it. Neither could President Bernie. State legislatures control that, and Republicans control a majority of those. Reforming the Electoral College won't do it either. Liberal fixation with the White House left state legislatures across the country for Republicans to plunder, and they did.

Perhaps now, finally, we can address the fact that the Senate favors Republicans, and thus a Republican-approved Supreme Court and control of the national legislative agenda. But red-state senators are red-state senators because Republicans there go largely unchallenged, and because Democrats angling for the presidency don't think states with few electoral votes are worth their trouble. Likely, Merrick Garland and Ruth Bader Ginsberg think otherwise. Twenty or so prospective Democratic presidential candidates had better look beyond November 2020 at what being president would mean without being able to appoint justices of their choosing. That will take more than electoral votes. It requires Senate head count.

The January/February/March edition of Washington Monthly looks at how the red-blue divide arose and, indirectly, at how Democrats might regain some Senate mojo.

Daniel Block seems to trace the decline of broad, regional economic equality to Jimmy Carter's 1978 decision to deregulate the airline industry. Ronald Reagan then ushered in a decade of laissez-faire deregulation that, ironically enough, accrued to the benefit of blue coastal cities that prospered mightily from corporate concentration. Air travel to cities such as St. Louis and Milwaukee became costlier. Coastal giants bought out heartland competitors, consolidating operations and white-collar employment in more-connected, higher-cost cities and, with exceptions for places such as Seattle — home to Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen — the New Yorks and Bostons grew richer as St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee declined. An America built on a broad middle class and a flatter distribution of wealth began to Balkanize, and not simply because of de-industrialization, but because of economic policies that encouraged monopolies, directly and through non-enforcement of antitrust laws. As our heartland/coastal, urban/rural economic fortunes diverged, so did our politics.

The result?

“Even if you look at white non-college voters, the closer you get to the city, they tend to be more Democratic,” said Ruy Teixeira, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Maybe that’s partly because they’re used to living with people who are different from them, and that produces a certain kind of outlook that’s less Republican.”
Block suggests Democrats focusing on the urban concentration will not flatten the distribution. Nor will "improving educational opportunities and getting more federal aid" to areas experiencing decline make them more competitive (emphasis mine):
Strengthening competition policy and breaking up monopolies requires a national solution. This creates something of a catch-22. To win in more places, Democrats may need to foster healthier heartland cities. But to foster healthier heartland cities, Democrats need to win in more places.
There's the rub.

Washington Monthly's Claire Kelloway addresses the winning in more places side of the catch.

J. D. Scholten, a thirty-eight-year-old former minor league baseball player ran for Congress in 2018 against Rep. Steve King of Iowa (yes, that Steve King). He closed to within 3.4 percentage points in a district the last Democrat to run lost by 22.6 percent:
“I have a lot of folks calling me thinking of running for president and they want to know what their rural message should be,” Scholten says. His answer: “Talk about market consolidation.”
At 39 town hall meetings, Scholten spoke of improving the local economy by curbing agribusiness monopolies. Market consolidation may seem esoteric yet isn't to farmers and farm communities. Their problem is not lack of technology, Kelloway writes. It's a fair playing field:
Farmers are caught between monopolized sellers and buyers. They must pay ever higher prices to the giants who dominate the market for the supplies they need, like seed and fertilizer. At the same time, they must accept ever lower prices from the giant agribusinesses that buy the stuff they sell, like crops and livestock.

Start with how corporate concentration affects the prices farmers pay. In 1994, the top four seed companies controlled only 21 percent of the global seed market. By 2013, just the top three controlled 55 percent, with Monsanto alone controlling more than a quarter. With that increase in concentration has come a shocking increase in the cost of seed, because these giants face little pressure to compete on price. USDA data shows that the per-acre cost of soybean and corn seed spiked dramatically between 1995 and 2014, by 351 percent and 321 percent, respectively.

Today’s seeds are often genetically modified to produce higher yields, but that doesn’t translate into more net income for the farmers. Not only is the cost of genetically modified seed high, but patent monopolies often make it illegal for farmers to use a portion of their crops to produce their own seeds, as most did in the past. Moreover, even as farmers are paying monopoly prices for a diminishing selection of seed strains produced by handful of giant corporations, they also are paying monopoly prices for fertilizers and pesticides, often to the same corporations. Since 2017, the Big Six seed and agrichemical companies have shrunk to four, after Dow merged with DuPont and Bayer purchased Monsanto. The top four producers of nitrogen fertilizer controlled 34 percent of the market in 1977, but by 2015 had increased their share to more than two-thirds.
Average farmers are paying three times more on inputs per acre today than two decades ago and receiving pennies more per bushel of corn they can sell to perhaps a single agribusiness buyer in the area. Grain, poultry, hogs, cattle, same problem, leading to higher consumer prices and “confined animal feeding operations” to combat the "ruinous competition" among farmers and price fixing by processors.
“Part of that rural identity is being independent,” argues Scholten. “Now [rural communities] are reliant on a corporation rather than being self-employed, and I think that’s part of the issue.”
Breaking up monopolies is an issue that nearly won Scholten a seat in Congress held by King in a bright red state since 2003. Aggregated wealth, in effect, rules unchecked and unpunished, allowed to hoard wealth at the expense of 99 percent of living, breathing, working Americans, and they live it. The Obama administration's kid-glove handling of financial giants that crashed the economy in 2008 contributed to the Democrats' loss of hundreds of legislative seats across the country, to the disastrous post-2010 gerrymandering in GOP-held states, and to the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump. Maybe we should do more than hope the next Democrat in the Oval Office will fix it all?

The chart at the top from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows the current state of control at the state level. But the graphic below sums up the split. (State controls means one party holds both legislative chambers and the governorship):

And in the United States Senate, 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and 2 Independents. Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes nationwide than Donald Trump in 2016, but only 19 states outright, splitting Maine. Clinton won only one state with a Republican majority legislature in both houses: Virginia. Republicans hold a majority in the Virginia House of Delegates by one seat determined by drawing.

Do the math. Democrats need to win legislatures so they can unrig gerrymandering, voter suppression measures, and build benches of candidates who can win Senate seats needed to rebalance the Supreme Court. That's the other catch. The redder the state, the less infrastructure for supporting Democratic candidates when they arise. Having an attractive candidate with winning issues and lots of money sometimes is not enough. Scholten outspent an incumbent and lost. Skilled, local (not imported) campaign support is essential, but lacking in many places Democrats need to win back.

Image via OpenSecrets, Center for Responsive Politics.

The reason is, sadly, Democrats have no national program dedicated to local infrastructure-building. Everything is ad hoc, if it exists, as is any mechanism for passing down skills from one class of local activists to the next. The top-down focus is on campaigns for electing candidates. Under-resourced county committees run on vapors and do what they've always done the way they've always done it. It is all state party organizations in the capitol can do annually to raise the money to pay the salaries, keep the lights on, meet their statutory requirements, and maybe teach newcomers something about how a precinct works and how to pull a simple walk list from VoteBuilder. There is no Ranger School, no SEAL training for teaching county officers advanced election mechanics. Those trainings exist only for candidates and campaign staff. They come via non-party organizations like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, or re:power (formerly Wellstone). Legislative caucuses at the state and federal level raise their own funds and run their own operations for supporting candidates they choose. Their focus is on building legislative head count first — enough warm butts in seats to make a majority. Growing capacity at the local level for building that legislative bench is incidental. Besides, they expect locals will muck it up anyway.

Regular readers already know I don't believe Democrats can win where they don't show up to play, with or without winning messages about undoing about market consolidation and restoring a level economic playing field. Plus, Democrats cannot play to win when they decide to show up if they don't have game. Nobody teaches the coordination and support skills county committees need to give lower-tier candidates a shot at winning. These are the kind of "put your pants on one leg at a time" processes activists in larger cities learn by doing from larger, better-funded, professionally run campaigns — the ones that don't show up in remote places Democrats don't win because Democrats don't show up. Catch 22. I have a modest tool for teaching counties how to do more with less here. There will be a 2020 update available early next year.

If you build it, wins will come.