On Election Day — you know, the day when millions of Americans showed up to stand in line and cast their votes — Hillary Clinton won a commanding plurality of the vote. The fact that Trump was installed as president despite losing the popular vote by 3 million votes is a profound injustice that delegitimates everything he has done and will do. The fact that the loser has been installed as president twice in as many decades, after a century where the Electoral College had been a purely empty formality, is a crisis and an outrage. We also know for a fact that the Republicans have rigged the vote for the House of Representatives so that Democrats would need to win a double-digit landslide to get even a narrow majority in that chamber. It so happens that the Republicans narrowly won the popular vote this time around, but they could have lost 10 more percentage points and still clung to power. And we can all surely recall when the Republicans stole a Supreme Court justice from Obama and installed one of their own choosing, after their illegitimate loser president was installed. All of this appears against the background of systematic voter suppression by Republicans, explicitly targetting racial minorities who tend to vote Democrat.
This means that all three branches of the US government, and the underlying electoral system, are operating in open defiance of the popular will. And all we hear about is how the Democrats need to change their strategy or message to start winning again. I share the view that the Democrats need to change their strategy and their message, but such commentary fails to grapple with the reality that they are facing. The system is rigged against them and is poised to grow even moreso if the Republicans manage to control a second round of redistricting and continue purging voter rolls.
But the Democrats can’t say that, because the Democrats can’t or won’t risk undermining the legitimacy of the system as such. In a very real sense, Democrats are no longer a political party. They are the party that is in favor of continuing to have constitutional structures and norms and something like the rule of law. They are the party of de-politicization, in an era when the Republicans are intent on politicizing literally every institutional lever of power until there is no remaining ground that is even nominally neutral. And this leads to obvious pathologies, where they avoid taking action that would look too “partisan” — for instance, prosecuting Bush-era torturers and war criminals, or alerting the public to Russian interference in the election as it was happening. So great is their commitment to institutional neutrality that they will not even use their institional power to counter obvious abuses by the other party.
Hence even if they are swept back into power, the Democrats have painted themselves into a corner. Any effort to restore the electoral system to neutrality will appear as a partisan power grab, given that the Democrats have failed to educate the public about the reality of gerrymandering and voter suppression. More generally, every time Democrats dutifully accept a new built-in advantage for Republicans, they set up a scenario where taking it away appears as an attempt to give an unfair advantage to Democrats. And so we are subject to an endless racheting up of Republican advantages and extremism, with Democrats occasionally sweeping in to clean up the worst messes caused by the other side — and being demonized for it.
Admittedly, there is a lot to be said for that option — even the thinnest veneer of legality holds open the prospect of taking back power peacefully, whereas delegitimating the system risks triggering a civil war that Democrats would surely lose. But you have to wonder how long a party organization can persist when its only apparent goal is to cover for the de facto tyranny of their opponents.