Opinion: Democratic divergence: Blueprint for a better democracy


Andy Robinson

Democrats defied the odds on Nov. 8. No doubt, the party appeared to be in trouble in the days leading up to this year’s midterm elections — but when election day rolled around, Democrats did the impossible by winning key battleground races in the Senate and House, in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. American voters, turning out in the millions, appear to have (largely) rejected election deniers, conspiracy theorists and soulless celebrities. But unfortunately, these individuals across America have nevertheless gained millions of followers on social media, successfully radicalizing millions.

Even here in Palo Alto, we are not immune to this online-fueled extremism and division. Ingrid Campos, the controversial candidate for school board, has expressed her distaste for the discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools, raised questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and spread misinformation regarding COVID-19. Despite this, Campos got nearly 10% of the votes in this year’s race for the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education, as of Nov. 14.

Even here in Palo Alto, we are not immune to this online-fueled extremism and division.

No doubt, the unrelenting anxiety and anger that has rocked the nation since 2016 continues to roil through the American political landscape. Since then, the Democratic Party has functioned largely as a resistance party to the extremism of Donald Trump and his Republican allies, a strategy that is quickly becoming ineffective. Polls repeatedly indicate that voters, particularly young voters, are fed up with the two party system, believing that the American system needs transformational change in order to maintain our democracy.

The Democratic Party must reckon with how to … deliver on a comprehensive agenda that deals with the root causes of poverty, climate disaster and social instability.

But the electoral process remains unresponsive to their needs. Yes, the Democratic Party has asserted a strong challenge to Republicans in the 2022 midterms against extraordinary odds. But, the Democratic Party must reckon with how to not simply hold back extremism and election denial, but deliver on a comprehensive agenda that deals with the root causes of poverty, climate disaster and social instability. As the primary opposition party in the face of extraordinary extremism, they have no choice but to succeed.

The Senate: A Democratic hurdle

It is true that the Democratic-led House of Representatives and the Biden administration supported legislation regarding healthcare expansion, climate change legislation, voting rights, abortion rights and a plethora of other needed measures. But they have failed to pass in the closely divided Senate due to the maintenance of the filibuster, a procedure that allows any member to indefinitely block legislation from going to a simple majority vote. Without 52 Senate seats, the number (in theory) required to abolish the filibuster, along with control of the House, which after the 2022 midterms it appears the Democrats have lost, the Democrats will never be able to implement anything beyond rudimentary reforms.

But the Democratic Party is almost entirely an urban and suburban coalition, making it extraordinarily difficult to ever win 52 Senate seats, the House and the presidency all at once. If Democrats want to win big, I believe they need to center themselves on combating corruption, cronyism and economic injustice in addition to their already-effective technique of rejecting extremism. 

New leadership

The first thing the Democrats need are new leaders with new ideas. Democrats must support term limits, forcing an immediate mandatory retirement of members who have served longer than 12 years in the Senate and 10 years in the House. A decade is plenty of time to be a successful legislator. 

Frankly, I am weary of the current trio of central governing figures, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi given the fact that all are over the age of 70. None of them have grown up in a world of global interconnectedness, rising economic inequality, social media and other technologies, and by their age alone I believe are ill-equipped to understand today’s challenges, not only because of their age, but the mindset of compromise with the other side (even when the other side cannot do the same) that their age has given them. And despite Biden’s advantages, he is unlikely to be an effective president at age 86, the age he would be at the end of his second term should he choose to run. Anna Eshoo, our current congresswoman, will be 80 years old in a month. Hopefully in future elections our district can elect a more youthful member of Congress.

Countering corruption

Furthermore, these new leaders must embrace an agenda that attacks corruption at all levels of government. Republicans and Democrats alike take millions of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry, the defense industry and the oil industry (Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, anyone?).  Eshoo has taken millions from the pharmaceutical industry despite (and unfortunately because of) her position as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Health in the House. Understanding and internalizing these facts is as startling as it is disheartening, and has unfortunately decreased my faith in electoral politics. 

To combat this cynicism, Democrats should proudly reject corporate PAC (political action committee) money and stand up to these corporations. Yes, national politics is an extraordinarily expensive venture, and to disseminate campaign ads and other media, big national campaigns need to spend sums in the millions of dollars. But by showing voters that the Democrats are the party rejecting corruption and will therefore listen more to the individual voters donating to their campaigns, they can increase their voter confidence that they will act in the best interests of voters. While I was not eligible to vote in the 2022 midterms, in 2024 I intend on voting for candidates who take campaign finance reform as seriously as I do.

Rural resonance

With an anti-corruption message and a new generation of leadership that looks at today’s challenges with a greater degree of lived experience, the Democrats must speak to the issues rural voters are concerned about, and not just the urban-suburban coalition they are comfortable targeting. 

But appealing to rural voters is not just something the Democrats should do — it is something they must do. Unfortunately, as stated above, the Democrats cannot do a thing about climate change or transforming our healthcare system without a willing Congress, and winning a large majority can only occur through victories across rural America, a region overrepresented in Congress.

The truth is, no one knows the perfect message for Democrats to win back rural voters — least of all a high schooler from Palo Alto. But looking at the issues rural voters care about would be a good start. Rural voters, in particular, feel as if the Democratic Party has left them behind and that Democrats in big cities look down on them, leaving them vulnerable to the Republican Party particularly given the cultural conservatism in these voters. Victories such as those of freshmen congresswomen Mary Peltola in Alaska and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in Washington show that courting rural voters through authentic, charismatic and pragmatic candidates is possible.

Time for action

Biden may have won decisively in 2020, but his election has only temporarily prevented the rise of an extremist version of right wing populism, one which could eventually translate into fascism unless Democrats can win 52 seats soon. I’m not convinced that the Democratic Party will change its ways overnight. It must be up to the Democratic voters to push for candidates who embody these values.