Hmm. What Now?

By Mike Koetting February 8, 2022

I’m back. Sort of.

It has been a struggle for me to come back to the keyboard. Going into the holidays, it had been my plan to continue my series on what it takes to sustain democracy. But I’ve been unable to generate sufficient enthusiasm for an abstract analysis of what sustains democracy when all around me it seems that the actual battle to sustain our democracy is raging—and the results are much too uncertain. And I am totally frustrated by how much seems out of my hands.

Scott Stantis/Prickly City

I think, instead of considering what it takes to sustain democracy, I have to address the more immediate question of how to feel about the current times.

I started this blog almost five years ago, shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated. I was appalled by his election but had no idea how badly things could go from there. I figured America would find a way to cobble something together, just as we survived eight years of Ronald Reagan. I was unprepared for what we actually got–active stoking of polarization, an attempt to undo election results, and a country thoroughly and profoundly divided. At this point, I don’t see a path to resetting the gameboard. Folks on both sides of the divide have bunkered down and aren’t likely to hear a thing anyone says to them.

This is not a good thing.

And don’t let me leave you with any impression I see myself as above it. I am totally and completely unwilling to spend one second listening to anything that comes out of the mouth of a Trumplican these days. They no longer speak a language I recognize, even if a phrase here or there sounds familiar. On the one hand, I feel slightly guilty giving into the conundrum that if we never talk to the other side, we will never find accommodation. On the other hand, I don’t believe there is any accommodation to be had. If someone is not able to say that Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States, they have either denied the core idea of democracy or have rejected any idea of objective reality. Or possibly both. At this point, all the positions are in fact zero sum. So what is there to talk about?

Afterall, there is no reason for the Trumplicans to talk to us. The ideas promoted by Democrats are supported by a majority of the people in this country, probably around 60% of them. To be sure, this support is inconsistent, incoherent, ambiguous, contingent and subject to infinite parsing. Nevertheless, the general proposition is true and everyone oriented to time and space knows this. Unfortunately—if you believe in majoritarian democracy–the legal structure of the country has been constructed/evolved in such a way that it is possible for an even moderately determined minority to stalemate the majority, possibly even subvert it. That’s what’s happening and it’s hard to see how this gets better any time in the near future because the Trumplicans see absolutely no reason to reason to compromise. They can’t win a fair vote so why bother? They simply whip their voters into a constant lather about the evils of the liberal-socialist-godless cabal and exploit the many vagaries of our political structure to the limits.

The question many of us now face is how to respond to the sense of how little room is left to right the ship.

For openers, we need to recognize it could in fact get worse. Imagine Trumplican majorities in both houses and Donald Trump elected again. While none of us want to even think about this, we all know this could happen.

So the first thing we have to do is make sure that we at least keep the terms of the current stalemate by not letting that happen. That means we need to throw everything we can into Senate races and making sure Democrats hold on to the five key swing states in the 2024 presidential. I don’t think there are any higher political imperatives than these. Any House seats Democrats can pick up are good, but gaining there starts with a material disadvantage because of the way seats have been gerrymandered—although court decisions and Democratic gerrymandering are helping to moderate that disadvantage.

It would be hugely beneficial to chip away at Trumplican control of state legislatures. But that will be a tall order given that they have so thoroughly seized control of the redistricting process for legislatures. This gerrymandering makes it brutally clear how difficult it is to dislodge those who abuse power because they have so few scruples. Absent taking back legislatures, we need to hold on to governorships in battleground states. There are 7 states–including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania–with Democratic governors and legislatures controlled by Trumplicans. Those governors serve as a modest check on the worse ideas of the Trumplican legislators. Lamentably, we’ve already lost Virginia’s governorship, a state most of us had taken out of the “battleground” status. This ups the importance of legislative races there. It is also a frightening reminder of how easy it is for things to get worse.

Articulating it this way is a technicolor illustration of the difficulties of the time. It is hard to get people fired up to achieve a stalemate “It could be much worse” is hardly a slogan any political operative wants to organize under. Would we be better off to hold the promise of more? After all, one or two different Senators and Build Back Better is a done deal. But we have seen how fickle the public can be about “missed” promises.

More broadly, I am pretty jaded about the possibility of any big changes. I was optimistic that after Biden was elected and Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia that the boil might be lanced and we’d unleash a new wave of Democratic achievements. But the structural problems are large and I am now convinced that any change toward either Democratic or democratic ideas will be hard fought and small. Losses, I think, could be much more spectacular. Maybe the right strategy is to acknowledge we’re talking about a long, ugly campaign and entreat people to be prepared for a long march to preserve our democracy. And that any loss of courage could be the loss of the campaign.

In this context, I don’t know what to blog about. The idea of considering one policy or one specific issue seems almost irrelevant when our way of life is so up for grabs and the traditional venues of policy discussion are so broken. There certainly is no useful return from writing a series of blogs about how serious the danger is, because anyone reading this knows that as plenty of other people are making the point. In spades. No sense in adding to a constant drum-beat of gloom and doom. People are tired of reading about it….and it depresses the hell out of me to write it.

I could write about positive developments. There are many. And I may do that. But it would be a lot easier if I could imagine how these small developments make an overall change. The core problem is a government design that has led to complete gridlock—at best. A clever program in California, for instance, won’t change much in Alabama. And a brilliant candidate in Maryland won’t change the number of senators from Wyoming. But maybe somewhere in there is a development that will get enough cars out of the intersection that we can start to see how to unscramble the mess. We will see.

Scott Stantis/Prickly City

For the moment, however, my mind is as gridlocked as our politics. So I’m not sure what I am going to blog about. Or when. Accordingly, I am not at all sure when you should look for the next blog, although I’m guessing you probably weren’t waiting up nights any way. In any event, I can assure you, you’ll know about it very shortly after I do.

Until then, keep some faith. (And work like a banshee on the mid-terms.)

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

3 thoughts on “Hmm. What Now?”

  1. So good to “hear” from you.  Don’t give up, we need you!  I live in Indiana, so you can only imagine what it’s like here.  The plan is to work our butts off to get rid of Senator Todd Young and to keep Conrgessman Frank Mrvan in office.  We’ve already begun, struggling at best to right the ship here, so your words are always a welcome oasis from the insanity that surrounds us all!  2022 is going to be critical for us all.  “democracy needs a ground to stand on and that ground is the truth.” Marcus RaskinTake care,

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  2. Mike: Your dispirited tone doesn’t leak through–it bleeds through. You have every right to be dispirited. So many of us are. But you think so well, and have such broad knowledge, and such right instincts, that I am hoping the light will not go out and that you will continue. The world seemed so fractured and scary in 1968 (your final year at SLU, I believe; I had finished the year before and had gone on to grad school). I remember picking up the paper every morning and sort of holding it at arm’s length: “What will it be today?” But we got through the sixties (although maybe not until August 9, 1974). That’s what I sort of rely on: we muddled through. As bad as this time is (far worse, I’ve come to believe, than the sixties and 1968), I have to keep believing we will make it, although maybe just barely. Your acutely intelligent blogs are part of the way I keep faith, barely. Sailor, sail on.

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  3. Michael – I am very rarely the most positive person in the room, so thank you for this opportunity. This too shall pass. Probably. Sooner or later. Meanwhile, constantly repeating the AA Serenity Prayer could be helpful. I think you have put your finger on the only possible solution: work hard for whatever democrats are most likely to make a difference. There should be a way that blogging about this could help. If not, maybe your blogging time should be replaced with campaigning time. Good luck to all of us. – Jim

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