For three-quarters of a century, the United States expanded and equalized voting rights. In 1913, the U.S. Constitution was amended to allow for the direct election of U.S. senators, rather than relying on corruption-tainted state legislatures. Votes for women followed in 1920; Supreme Court decisions against all-white primaries came in 1944 and 1953, and in 1962 against favoring rural over urban voters in state legislatures. Next was the 1964 constitutional amendment forbidding poll taxes; then the Voting Rights Act of 1965; votes for 18-to-21-year-olds in 1971; and a sequence of often misdirected but democratically intended reforms in presidential primaries, election finance, and the operations of Congress from 1972 onward. And then the pendulum reversed.
When the Electoral College and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 produced the first non-plurality presidency since the 19th century, the outcome seemed a freak. But in the years since, the freakish has become the familiar.
You may deplore this, but between now and 2020 you will not change it. In the interim, you must adapt. That means devising your political plans for the terrain you have, not the terrain you might wish for. The names Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy still thrill Democratic hearts. But Obama and Kennedy were realists, who regularly disappointed and vexed their most liberal supporters. Senator Barack Obama voted for ethanol subsidies and regularly went AWOL from political tussles over gun control. Obama was no Beto—which is why Obama actually won his U.S. Senate race in 2004. Beto enthusiasts are today recalling that Abraham Lincoln lost a Senate race in 1858 before winning the presidency in 1860. They are not recalling the innumerably more numerous politicians who failed to win a Senate race before not winning the presidency.
It may not be right that the middle of the country exerts radically more political weight than the coasts, or that white votes typically count for more than nonwhite votes. Right or not, those things are true, at least for now, and as long as they remain true, political realists must reckon with them. If 2018 offered a promise of at least some restraint on the Trump presidency, it also yielded a reminder of the hardest facts of American life and politics. Be guided by that reminder—the struggle for liberal democracy is too real and too dangerous for hearts undirected by heads.
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