Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

During Tuesday night’s debate, there was a discussion about the need for common-sense gun control. After several candidates blamed the NRA and the influence of big money in politics, Pete Buttigieg responded with this.

[This is] the conversation that we have been having for the last 20 years. Of course we need to get money out of politics, but when I propose the actual structural democratic reforms that might make a difference — end the electoral college, amend the Constitution if necessary to clear up Citizens United, have D.C. actually be a state, and depoliticize the Supreme Court with structural reform — people look at me funny, as if this country was incapable of structural reform.

Following that debate, Ezra Klein wrote that the mayor gave “the single most important answer” of the night.

The reality is Democrats are debating ever-more ambitious policy in a political system ever-less capable of passing ambitious policy — and ever-more stacked against their policies, in particular…Policy isn’t the Democrats’ problem. They’ve got plenty of plans. Some of them are even popular. What they don’t have is a political system in which they can pass and implement those plans…The hope that you can pass laws through bipartisan compromise is dead. And that means governance is consistently, reliably failing to solve people’s problems, which is in turn radicalizing them against government itself.

Klein identifies the biggest challenge Democrats face that almost no one is talking about. Even if climate change is the existential threat of our lifetimes, not much can get done about it given our current political system. That will remain true no matter who wins the presidential election in 2020. So Democrats beat each other up over whether or not they support things like the Green New Deal when all any plan amounts to is a bunch of words on a piece of paper.

The problem Klein misses is that all of the structural reforms mentioned by Buttigieg are also destined for failure because they would have to pass through the same political system. Amending the Constitution to eliminate Citizens United faces an even steeper uphill battle.

The answers candidates gave to this problem over the two nights of debates indicate to me that they haven’t been paying attention to how things have changed over the last decade. On one end of a continuum, you have those who promise to unite the country. While that alone is suspect, we also have to ask what difference it would make if the political divide wasn’t so enormous. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans made it clear long ago that, as Zachary Roth put it, “being outnumbered doesn’t mean losing.”

Almost everything the majority leader does is wildly unpopular with voters. But he’s figured out a few things that Democrats haven’t grappled with yet, which is how to break our political system so that it doesn’t work anymore. Martin Longman did a good job of describing how he’s done that. In the meantime, McConnell is busy stacking the courts so that conservatives can legislate from the bench, meaning that no matter how united we are, voters don’t have a voice. Republicans also have Fox News and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine to ensure that at least part of the population is either indoctrinated or confused about what is happening.

As Klein wrote, all of that is radicalizing voters against government itself, which is what Mike Lofgren pointed out eight years ago.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

On the other end of the continuum are those candidates who promise to fight. Frankly, I’m not even sure what that means. But at its root, it is a solution that might be even more naive that the one proposed by the uniters because it assumes that Mitch McConnell and Republicans will back down if Democrats present their agenda with strength and persistence. But what that ignores is the fact that a broken political system is working for Republicans. Until that is no longer the case, Democrats can fight for their agenda as fiercely as is humanly possible and it won’t change a thing.

Instead of tackling this issue, many Democrats are doing things that actually feed into the problem. The first, as Longman pointed out, is that some of them seem to be in a competition for who can propose the most bold agenda. The more they hype the possibilities without addressing this challenge, the more they set the public up for disappointment, cynicism, and the kind of radicalization against government Klein talked about.

Another position taken by some Democrats is even more damaging. It happens when they join with the media’s favorite narrative about how “both sides do it.” We heard this from several candidates during the debate when, in service of their bold ideas, they cast our current situation as a failure of both parties.

No one has to suggest that Obamacare solved all of the problems with health care or that rejoining the Paris climate accord is sufficient. But a failure to call out Republicans for their blatant attempts to break our political system while dismissing the progress Democrats have been able to achieve only exacerbates the problem, not to mention the fact that it comes close to inferring something similar to Trump’s “I alone can fix this.” Like it or not, politics is a team sport and when players are constantly pointing to the inadequacies of others on their team, it is a losing strategy.

Frankly, there aren’t any easy answers to the problem Klein described so well. The one thing Buttigieg has going for him is that at least he’s talking about it and offering potential solutions, even if they aren’t realistic in the current environment. We need to start somewhere.

Contrary to what a lot of people suggest, Barack Obama was keenly aware of what was happening during his presidency and adopted a series of strategies to address the problem. They all met limited success. If one of the most gifted politicians of our time had trouble breaking through, that tells you something about the difficulty of the challenge we face and the inadequacy of the current rhetoric about how to address it.

As a starting point, Democrats need to do an accurate analysis of what’s happening and abandon the notion that uniting or fighting will fix things. From there, it is imperative that they find a way to communicate how our political system is broken and be clear about who is responsible. Kamala Harris often talks about the need to speak the truth—especially when it’s hard. She and the other Democratic candidates could start with this one.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!