Maurice Mitchell first became an organizer almost 20 years ago. After a Howard University classmate of his was killed by police officers, Mitchell began campaigning against police brutality and for divestment from private prisons. He would go on to help build the Movement for Black Lives, and today he serves as the national director of the Working Families Party, which works to elect progressive candidates to offices across the country.
But Mitchell’s sense of the problem has changed over the years. He used to think if he could just mobilize enough support and change enough minds, that would be enough to make progress on the issues that mattered most to his community. Now he knows that was wrong. If you want to change the outcomes the political system produces, you need to change the political system itself.
“As an organizer, your job is to build collective power in order to improve the lives of people like my mom, a Caribbean working-class person,” Mitchell tells me. “But when you’re doing that organizing, you quickly come up against the structural boundaries and limitations of our political system.” He points out that, for instance, despite overwhelming support for police reform in the wake of the national protest movement this summer, Congress has failed to pass a single bill on the subject.
“You can choose to either keep banging your head up against that wall, or break that wall down,” he says.
On Monday, Mitchell’s Working Families Party joined a total of 30 Black- and brown-led racial justice organizations to form Just Democracy: a multiracial coalition dedicated to advancing bold structural changes to America’s core political institutions.
The coalition is knitted together by a particular shared experience. Its members have all spent years — decades, even — building support and organization around the issues that drive them, from police brutality and mass incarceration to gun violence, environmental justice, health care, and reproductive rights. In many cases, they succeeded at generating supermajority public support for policy changes like universal gun background checks, greater accountability for abusive police officers, or a public option for health insurance. Then, over and over again, they watched the political system shrug off public opinion.
The premise of Just Democracy is that those failures aren’t aberrations but a direct function of how our political institutions were designed. The Senate and Electoral College systematically underweight the votes of people of color — and the judiciary operates directly downstream of those biases. Washington, DC, home to the largest plurality of Black Americans in the country, is excluded entirely from federal representation. The filibuster has historically been used to block or delay anti-lynching laws and civil rights legislation, and continues to halt progress on the issues closest to home for marginalized communities.
“We all have a shared challenge: a broken democracy,” says Stasha Rhodes, the campaign director at 51 for 51, which advocates for DC statehood. “Most of us are organizers who for a long time believed that if we got enough people to make phone calls and sent enough emails that change would happen. But how do you fix police violence or gun violence or the criminal justice system when the rules are rigged against you? We are done pretending we are playing in a game with fair rules, so it’s time to change the rules.”
Just Democracy’s members advocate for four pillars of democracy reform: eliminate the filibuster, pass DC statehood, abolish the Electoral College, and reform the federal court system. Together, they believe these changes are essential first steps toward making American political institutions more representative of the people they are supposed to serve, and ensuring that the needs of Black and brown Americans are met.
“For Black and brown folks, fixing our democracy is not some abstract thing,” says Stephany Spalding, founder of Truth and Conciliation. “The Electoral College, the filibuster, the justices on federal courts impact our lives every day. None of the issues that affect whether we eat at night or how safe we feel in our homes and communities will be addressed if we don’t deal first with structural change.”
By bringing together Black- and brown-led organizations focused racial justice to demand structural reform to US political institutions, Just Democracy hopes to send a clear message to the Democratic politicians who want their support: It’s no longer enough to claim solidarity with their goals; they must be willing to democratize America to make those goals achievable.
American political institutions systematically underweight nonwhite interests
America is, even as we speak, gripped by a crisis that perfectly illustrates Just Democracy’s critique: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has opened a Supreme Court seat that will likely be filled by a president who lost the popular vote and a Senate majority that represents a minority of Americans — cementing a conservative majority on the bench for decades to come, with untold ramifications for everything from voting rights to gun control to health care.
Since 2000, 40 percent of presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. A 2019 study found that Republicans should be expected to win 65 percent of presidential contests in which they narrowly lose the popular vote, and could potentially win while losing the popular vote by as much as 6 percentage points. And this November, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver calculates that Democratic nominee Joe Biden only has a 6 percent chance of winning the Electoral College if he wins the popular vote by 0 to 1 points, a 22 percent chance if he wins by 1 to 2 points, and less than a 50 percent chance if he wins by 2-3 points.
Chance of a Biden Electoral college win if he wins the popular vote by X points:— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) September 2, 2020
0-1 points: just 6%!
1-2 points: 22%
2-3 points: 46%
3-4 points: 74%
4-5 points: 89%
5-6 points: 98%
6-7 points: 99%
The Senate is even more extreme. In a 2019 Data for Progress analysis, Colin McAuliffe found that the Senate has a 3 percentage point tilt toward Republicans (double the 1.5 percent skew in the Electoral College). And that is probably an understatement — Silver recently calculated that the Senate is “effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole.” As my colleague Matt Yglesias points out, in 2014, Republican candidates won 52 percent of the popular Senate vote and gained nine Senate seats; in 2016, Democrats won 54 percent of the vote and gained only two seats; and in 2018, Democrats won 54 percent of the vote and lost two seats.
Because the president appoints federal judges and the Senate confirms them, these biases are also reflected in the judiciary, where the Trump administration has already filled federal court benches with an unprecedented number of young, highly ideological conservative judges, including two Supreme Court justices.
It’s important to underscore the mechanism that generates and sustains this partisan bias: US political institutions systematically underweight the interests of nonwhite Americans.
The Electoral College’s Republican tilt is driven, in part, by racial bias. Analyzing the results of the 2016 presidential election, statisticians Andrew Gelman and Pierre-Antoine Kremp found that “per voter, whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos, and 57 percent more power than those who fall into the other category.”
Behind the Senate’s partisan tilt is that it overrepresents people living in small states who tend to be whiter, on average, than people living in larger states. California, which has large Black and brown populations, and Wyoming, a predominantly white state, have equal representation in the Senate, despite the former having over 60 times more people than the latter.
The result, as the New York Times’s David Leonhardt calculates, is that the Senate gives the average Black American only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American, the average Asian American 72 percent, and the average Latino 55 percent.
McAuliffe finds that this racial skew distorts policy preferences on issues ranging from gun control to the minimum wage to environmental policy. For instance, 48 percent of Americans believe controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting gun rights; however, when you weigh voter preferences as the Senate does — giving equal representation to each state — support for gun control drops a whopping 5 points, to 43 percent.
Why? Because the Senate overweights the preferences of white Americans, who tend to favor gun rights, and underweights the preferences of Black and brown Americans, who tend to favor gun control. By that same mechanism, McAuliffe finds that support for a $15 minimum wage also drops 5 points (from 58 to 53 percent), and a $100 billion yearly investment in green social housing drops 3 points (63 to 60 percent).
Across the board, American political institutions are structured in ways that diminish Black and brown voices, make legislative reform supported by marginalized communities more difficult to get through the system, and ensure that even if those reforms somehow make it through the legislative process, they can be gutted by a hyper-conservative federal judiciary.
This is the status quo that Just Democracy’s coalition members aim to change — and they have a few proposals to do so. First, they want to see DC become America’s 51st state, which would give the capital’s 700,000 predominantly Black and brown residents the right to vote in federal elections and begin to rebalance the Senate’s racial and partisan skew (although it wouldn’t come close to fully fixing it).
“The Senate does not represent the diversity of our country,” says Rhodes. “Out of the over 2,500 senators in American history, only 10 have been Black. If Washington, DC, were to become a state, it would have the largest plurality of Black voters in the country. This is about giving the voters who have been most left out greater equity in an institution that has historically excluded us.”
They also call for getting rid of the Electoral College — a difficult demand, given that the Electoral College is written into the Constitution. However, as my colleague Ian Millhiser points out, it can be done without a constitutional amendment: If a bloc of states that control a majority of electoral votes all agree to allocate those votes to the winner of the national popular vote, they can effectively neutralize the Electoral College and ensure that the popular vote winner wins the election (this is called the National Popular Vote Compact).
Third, Just Democracy advocates for reforming the federal court system, beginning with an expansion of the Supreme Court. There are multiple ways to do this, but the aim of each is to reverse the impact that an undemocratically elected Senate and president have made on the courts, prevent future administrations from completely reshaping the entire federal judiciary, and ultimately ensure that the fate of issues closest to home for Black and brown communities aren’t dictated by a conservative court majorities for decades to come.
“I think what Democrats need to realize is that even if we win back both the Senate and the White House come November, we could lose everything if we don’t reform the courts,” Rhodes tells me. “Voting rights, reproductive justice, gun violence prevention — every progressive policy is at risk. And the people who are going to bear the brunt of those decisions are Black and brown people.”
The reform on which everything else hinges
While DC statehood, Electoral College abolition, and court expansion are all important, the Just Democracy coalition members I spoke to agreed there was one reform more important than all the others: eliminating the filibuster.
“Getting rid of the filibuster is our number one priority because without eliminating it, we can’t do anything else,” says Rhodes. “When people talk about Just Democracy, if they say 30 Black and brown organizations came together to eliminate the filibuster and nothing else, that’s enough for me.”
The filibuster has an odd, idiosyncratic history, but the important thing to know about it is that it prevents any legislation from passing through the Senate without a 60-vote supermajority (save a handful of policies that can be passed through the much more limited budget reconciliation process).
Democrats may win back the White House come November. They might even secure a slim majority in the Senate (although it won’t be easy). But they aren’t going to win 60 seats. That means basically everything Democrats have sworn to do come January 2021 — massively expand voting rights, mandate universal background checks for guns, implement sweeping police reform, offer statehood to DC and Puerto Rico, decarbonize the US economy, introduce a public option for health insurance, lower prescription drug costs, raise the minimum wage, make housing more affordable — and things they haven’t (like expanding the Supreme Court) depends on whether they choose to eliminate the filibuster.
The good news is that if Democrats retake the Senate, this really will be a choice — all it takes to eliminate the filibuster is 51 votes. And in our conversations, Just Democracy coalition members were clear about what this choice represents: a test to see whether Democratic senators care about democracy, and actually intend to fulfill the promises they’ve made to the activists in their base.
“What I want people to realize is that it’s not enough for politicians to say they support working people or support Black people,” says Mitchell. “If they don’t take seriously the need to reform the filibuster, they aren’t serious about getting anything done. Period.”
In this sense, Just Democracy is not only advancing a bold democracy reform agenda — it is trying to redefine what it means to care about racial justice in America. “There is an asterisk next to American democracy,” says Rhodes. “Land of the free, except if you’re Black. If we’re serious about how we challenge racism, just saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t get us there. We need real structural reform.”