I was at first surprised that Bernie Sanders’s recent proposal to allow formerly and currently incarcerated people to vote was as controversial as it was. One of my takeaways from the 2018 midterms—and American politics since 2016 more broadly—was that voting rights were something all Democrats agreed on. On the one hand, gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia revealed that Republicans rely on subverting such rights as much as ever. But on the other hand, the Florida ballot initiative to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions showed that even in swing states, it is possible to win major advances for democratic participation. It was therefore somewhat strange that not only Pete Buttigeig (perhaps desperate to show that he knows what “red state” Americans believe), but also would-be “progressive” former prosecutor Kamala Harris and even Elizabeth Warren pushed back on the proposal. Minor candidate Eric Swalwell’s first major campaign success appears to be having popularized the retort that the Boston Marathon bomber shouldn’t be allowed to vote. In a race where many Democratic candidates have already adopted what had once been Sanders’s most radical proposals, such as Medicare for All, perhaps his opponents are struggling to find new ways to differentiate themselves from him. Or perhaps there is a real aversion to expanding democratic rights in such a way. David Runciman came face-to-face with this sort of aversion after proposing extending the vote to children in the UK, and so it would be no surprise that the feeling is even stronger in heavily incarcerated America.


This discussion over felon enfranchisement provides a good opportunity to look at where the Democratic 2020 contenders stand on how to strengthen democracy in Trump’s America. Nearly all the Democratic candidates have supported measures such as automatic voter registration, creating a federal election holiday, allowing felons to vote after leaving prison, and granting statehood to Washington DC. Though the candidates may choose to emphasize one over another, it seems safe to say that all are opposed to partisan gerrymandering, the Citizen’s United decision (though many are still happy to take donations from PACs), and Trump’s corrupt dealings and unaccountable demeanor. So when it comes to enhancing democracy, where do they differ?


Though she balked at Sanders’s proposal, Elizabeth Warren has nonetheless led the pack in supporting pro-majoritarian moves such as abolishing the filibuster and “packing” the Supreme Court, both of which Sanders has rejected. When it comes to “procedural extremism,” Warren may in fact be the more radical candidate between the two. Both, of course, have been strong defenders of social democracy, and thanks to them Americans may actually begin to understand what social rights and social equality have to do with democracy in the first place. Though Sanders did much of the work to put social rights to healthcare and education on the national agenda in 2016, Warren’s recent proposals to eliminate student loan debt, put a tax on wealth, and provide universal childcare are the most concrete statements in this campaign of how to maintain l’égalité des conditions. Other candidates have attempted to follow suit with their own versions of social rights, though few have made as many headlines. Cory Booker, for example, has offered to give each child a “baby bond” to close the wealth gap, while lesser-known candidates like entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Oprah star Marianne Williamson have supported a universal basic income (thanks to Matt Jackson for pointing out this feature of Williamson’s campaign, which I had mostly ignored). The fault line between advocates of enhanced social rights and more conservative Democrats like Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden (as well as candidates like Buttigeig and Beto O’Rourke, who are hard to pin down on any issue but who have not been major advocates of expanded social programs) might in fact be the major democratic divide in the race.


One unique proposal in this race comes from Washington governor Jay Inslee, who alone in the field has dedicated his campaign to the issue of climate change. Many Democrats have voiced support for the “Green New Deal,” but aside from Inslee, few have made it a major campaign issue, not even Sanders or Warren. Inslee’s call for a “Climate Conservation Corps,” inspired of course by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, is not just climate policy, but also a jobs guarantee and a national service program designed to bring Americans of different backgrounds to work together.


It is also worth mentioning briefly the form of the different candidates’ campaigns. Having organized a major grassroots campaign in 2016, and being the most committed of the current candidates to movement building, Sanders has the largest network of mobilized supporters. His organization Our Revolution comes closest among American politicians to the movement networks of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise. So far, however, we have seen few truly innovative methods of communicating with the public. Warren’s Medium posts and O’Rourke’s bizarre travel diaries are a far cry from Donald Trump’s tweets, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram, or François Ruffin’s Youtube channel.


Finally, one striking feature of this race is that there are relatively few calls for radical experiments in democratic participation. Unlike in French and European politics more broadly, no one is talking about referenda, citizens’ assemblies, or tirage au sort. Most Democrats will readily acknowledge that America is going through a crisis of democracy, but there is little question about the basic form that democratic representation ought to take. Of course, Americans already participate in referenda all the time, and “town halls” have survived as a form of democratic discourse since Tocqueville’s time. But the crise de la représentation that has been sweeping Europe has apparently not reached our shores. The Tocquevillian explanation for this difference is that American democracy is inherently more participative than its counterparts in Europe. The conservative explanation is that Americans love their Constitution (Electoral College and all) and have no desire to change. My explanation, though, is that Rosanvallon is not assigned reading for the American political and journalistic classes!


Photo Credit: Senate Democrats, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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  • Dan Gordon says:

    Excellent essay. I especially like part near end which compares with Europe–absence of calls for radical experiments in democratic participation.

    One part I didn’t digest with the same degree of appreciation:

    “Both, of course, have been strong defenders of social democracy, and thanks to them Americans may actually begin to understand what social rights and social equality have to do with democracy in the first place.”

    This separation of the author from “Americans” in a knowing way is worth a discussion.

    Jacob seems to presuppose that “social” and “democracy” are a natural fit. But given that the site is named after Tocqueville (and one could also bring up Arendt), one could reply that the two concepts are at odds.

    On a purely scholarly plane, the history of the word “social”–particularly, how it serves to forward a particular agenda while insulating the agenda from criticism–is important. Perhaps no word in the modern lexicon has the same capacity to suggest the pre-existence of a consensus that is beyond question. I believe the first dictionary to include the word “social” was Diderot’s Encyclopedia. The term was meant to substitute for theological ethics while avoiding the problem of what any substitute ultimately rests on. Keith Baker and others have written about this. A contemporary example would be that we all know “justice” is debatable but somehow when we speak of “social justice” we are reluctant to contest the usage–everyone allegedly agrees there is such a thing.

    Again, a fine article which reads easily and raises fundamental questions about democracy.

  • Jacob Hamburger says:

    Thanks for reading, Dan. I’m not sure I implied that “social” and “democracy” are natural or inherent fits, or that non-social-democratic points of view are illegitimate. In any case, that’s not really the issue for Sanders and Warren, neither of whom are in a position to presume any sort of supremacy for the notions of social rights. What they’re both doing is putting forward a political program that asserts these things as necessary for preserving American democracy in the current moment. I don’t actually know how much the word “social” figures into their own vocabularies, except that Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist”—this term for him doesn’t seem to go too far beyond what I’ve just described, though.

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