David Pepper’s Saving Democracy: A User’s Manual for Every American
David Pepper, former Democratic Party Chairman of Ohio, has followed his exposé of the Republican state legislature strategy in Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call from Behind the Lines with his new book: Saving Democracy: A User’s Manual for Every American. The new book answers the question most asked after the first book – yes, but how do we fix it?
The Two Battle Problem
In his second book, David Pepper first recaps his argument that Democrats are losing because we are not engaging in the same battle as MAGA. Typically Democrats have had more interest in Federal elections and policies and using them to enact policies to reflect American preferences. This leads to an overemphasis on a few “swing states” and Federal candidates, with many voters only participating in a presidential election cycle. This preference is so strong that Democrats even have to work hard to turn out our base for Federal midterm elections! The Republican strategy has been to exploit weaknesses in our democracy so that they can enact their unpopular policies state by state. They have long focused on taking over state legislatures through subversion of the census, extreme gerrymandering, and radical judicial appointments. Once in power, Republican legislators enact voter suppression laws and are difficult to dislodge. Since most legislation is passed in the U.S. at the state level, their efforts decisively affect legislation on key issues such as guns, voting, abortion, the environment, etc.
The result of the two battle problem? Past Democrats have ceded victory to Republicans in state legislatures. State and local contests are not funded or supported by the Democratic party. Rural districts are abandoned. There are large numbers of uncontested state house elections, which allow extremist, counter majorian people to get elected and stay in power.
The consequences are dire. Uncontested seats allow Republicans to hide their policies from debate, which allows private interests to continue to siphon off public monies. Our democratic system expects there to be an adversarial process- that is the only way we can hold our elected officials accountable.
Uncontested state house elections lead to extreme policies tested and won at the state level, which ultimately affects us at the national level. Texas’ abortion ban which included a private bounty encouraging Texans to sue doctors was written by a Republican State Senator who ran unopposed in 2022—despite the fact that the ban is deeply unpopular. According to polls, only 11% of Texans support a total abortion ban. The Ohio six-week no-exceptions abortion ban that forced the ten-year-old Ohio girl to seek an abortion in Indiana was introduced by a Republican who ran unopposed in 2022—despite the fact that less than 10% of Ohioans support a ban with no exceptions. The author of the Mississippi abortion ban that ultimately led to the Dobbs decision was written by a Republican who ran unopposed in 2019, which was the year after the law was adopted.
The Solution: Fight both battles!
David Pepper points out that we could devote just 15% of the money donated to aspirational federal races (ex. Amy McGrath in 2020 raised 100 million dollars and lost by 10%) to contest state races. There would be a meaningful impact, even if many races are not won in the current round. Indeed much of what needs to be done can be likened to “sweat equity” where money is leveraged to a bigger impact by doing the work. We need to build voting infrastructure, and recruit and support candidates – ideally no one should run unopposed.
Scaling Up: Dedicating your Entire Footprint to Democracy
The rest of his book is dedicated to laying out a blueprint for how the average citizen can leverage their own network or “footprint” to fight for democracy. There are so many good ideas there that we will explore them individually. This month we are discussing Practicing David Pepper’s Saving Democracy Conversations.
What you can do right now
There are good opportunities to get involved in important state races right now. Abortion, education and voting rights are on the line. Turn Purple 2 Blue will be posting actions as they become available. We’re watching two states right now:
1. A special election in New Hampshire: A democratic win here would remove republican control from the NH state house. Read more here.
2. Virginia Elections: The entire state house is up for reelection, and there have been some redistricting changes. We need to hold the Democrat’s slim majority in the State Senate, but there is an opportunity to take back the House of Delegates. Find Virginia Actions here.
Can we undo decades of ceding the battle of the State Legislatures? To paraphrase a Chinese proverb: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now. So let’s get started!