When the Left Plays It Safe, the Left Doesn't Win

  mal3k  / Creative Commons

mal3k / Creative Commons

Two weeks ago, the majority of Americans were let down by our electoral system for the second time in as many months when 304 state electors cast their ballots for Donald Trump. Today, Congress certified Trump’s victory in joint session, despite an unprecedented gap between the Electoral College and popular vote – and despite a widespread movement to persuade electors to block an unfit leader.

Of course, mass campaigns to lobby electors with targeted emails, phone banks, and grassroots protest also lack historical precedent. But support for all forms of resistance grew quickly as millions of Americans embraced a new, bolder form of advocacy to combat such a dire threat.

So why exactly did these efforts fail so spectacularly? As founding members of DemocrEC, a campaign that utilized the first and most comprehensive website enabling voters to contact electors directly and anonymously, we suggest this outcome was a direct result of weak Democratic leadership overtaking radical grassroots advocacy — a broader theme of 2016, led in this instance by a group known as the Hamilton Electors.

At DemocrEC, we took a decidedly bold stance from the start, declaring Trump an illegitimate President-elect and demanding electors honor the popular vote. Along with several other progressive organizers, we made the case for harnessing a fundamentally undemocratic institution to achieve a democratic result.

On the other side, the Hamilton Electors — rumored to be partnered with a well-heeled Republican strategist – assumed red state representatives would never vote for Clinton, despite damning reports of Russian interference in the election and her ever-growing lead in the popular vote. Instead, they urged electors to back a Republican "moderate" like John Kasich or Mitt Romney.

This strategy is undemocratic — and it would have done nothing to stop Trump. Instead, inserting a third candidate would punt the election to the Republican-controlled House, which would have backed Trump rather than alienate their base. Yet, with significant resources and funding behind them, the Hamilton Electors’ message came to dominate the public narrative. Despite reservations about installing an unelected figure to our highest office, many Americans embraced the Hamilton effort as the only viable path to block Trump.

Of course, in the end, their movement was not viable. Only two Republicans – including the one non-Democratic member of the Hamilton Electors – broke from their party to vote against Trump on December 19. Even worse, the group spent extensive time and resources lobbying Democrats to vote against Clinton in some misguided show of solidarity.

The end result? More Democratic electors broke with their party than Republicans, actively pulling support away from the candidate chosen by over 2.86 million more American voters.

The ineffective tactics and misplaced priorities of the Hamilton Electors reflect broader weaknesses in Democratic leadership. Since November 9, thinkpiece after thinkpiece emerged from liberal commentators convinced Democrats must tone down their tactics – whether by ditching so-called “identity politics” or tiptoeing around working class voters with mercurial priorities.

But what these analyses fail to recognize is that the effective Republican takeover of all three branches of government on November 9 was not so much a failure for Democrats as a victory for a system that is, in fact, rigged – though in the opposite direction Trump suggests.

Let’s consider the numbers. Despite record levels of voter suppression, ubiquitous Russian hacking, and an appallingly-timed non-announcement from FBI Director James Comey, Democrats still gained seats in the House and Senate – though still shy of a majority.

Clinton herself not only came within 150,000 votes of George W. Bush’s 2004 “mandate,” she won handily among voters with household incomes under $50,000 and those for whom the economy was a prime concern – hand-wringing hot takes be damned.

In reality, the clearest takeaway from 2016 is that even when Democrats outplay Republicans, they still lose. Winning, then, does not mean working harder within the confines of conventional wisdom – it means dismantling a system never designed to serve our interests and creating something better. Abolishing the Electoral College is a logical next step.

Indeed, if Democrats prioritized electoral reform in 2008 when they won a supermajority in both houses of Congress, our current crisis would have been averted. And, if Democrats had fought harder when this happened in 2000, we could have arguably avoided two major wars, prevented the Great Recession, and slowed climate change.

How many times is the Left going to roll over and accept an unfair loss rather than seize the opportunity to change the game – and at what cost? DemocrEC made clear from day one that even if electors refused to back Clinton, shifting the cultural narrative around Trump’s victory directly impacts his ability to implement repressive policies.

After the disheartening electoral vote, emerging Democratic leadership must succeed where the Hamilton Electors failed by recognizing there is no dignity in fighting injustice halfway. We must allow our full-throated outrage to guide us through the next four years rather than buy in, once again, to a system of respectability politics and half-step measures that result in loss after damaging loss.

Now that December 19 has come and gone, we must continue to boldly advocate, organize, and stand together against an illegitimate authoritarian bully, even if he will soon be Commander-and-Chief – because that is what true democracy looks like.


Amanda Werner is a public interest attorney and campaign manager at financial reform and corporate accountability nonprofits. Liz Folie is a campaign manager at a national healthcare nonprofit. Both are founding members of DemocrEC.