TPM Cafe: Opinion

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. It was published here and on the website for the Brennan Center for Justice.

It was a pretty good troll. On Friday, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign ran an ad on Facebook saying that the social media giant had endorsed President Trump. 

It hasn’t, of course — as the ad acknowledged a few sentences later. The goal, which it achieved and then some, was to draw attention to Facebook’s recent refusal to take down a Trump campaign ad that makes an objectively false claim about former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine, and the threat that stance poses to fair elections. Let’s see how you like having lies told publicly about you, Warren was saying to Mark Zuckerberg and company. 

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

The cacophony of radical right-wing violence that reverberated within the communities of Charlottesville, El Paso and Pittsburgh recently resulted in a long overdue decision by the Department of Homeland Security to treat white supremacy as a domestic terrorism threat. While DHS’ rhetorical shift is useful, it is now time for the government and private sector to counter the finances that help fuel white supremacists’ violence.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

The 2016 election and President Trump’s first term in office has transformed politics in this country. His election represented not only a radical change in policy but an assault on what we consider fundamental American values.

Going into the 2020 election, many on the left are thinking about the work that the next president and Congress will have to do to repair the damage done since 2016 and address the crises Trump has created and exacerbated. Protect Democracy, for example, has proposed a package of legislative reforms to prevent presidential abuse of power. However, some have argued that Democrats should adopt some of the tactics Trump has used and bend some rules to set the country back on the correct course.

This represents a big shift in the way we think about politics, and we need new terminology to accurately discuss what we believe in.

For most of my life, our political spectrum has run from the political left to the political right. People are socially liberal or socially conservative, economically liberal or economically conservative. Increasingly, this dichotomy fails to capture a new spectrum emerging in American politics — those committed to “liberal democracy” and those more willing to sacrifice it and live under a more authoritarian style of government in order to secure policy gains.

The emergence of this new political spectrum has come about through what has been called “the big sort,” where people’s identities are increasingly aligned with their political parties. Gone are the days when someone who shares your life experience across geography, age, race, and education may belong to either political party. Increasingly, if you know someone’s race, age and education level, you can guess their political affiliation. For example, as a 28-year-old non-white law school graduate, you can guess that I am a Democrat because 73% of non-white millennials lean Democrat as do 59% of voters with post-graduate experience.

Leaders from Modi in India to Trump in the United States to far-right populist movements in Europe are using the fact that our political opponents are often different from us across religion, race, age, and education level to make us fear and even hate them. Around the world, we have seen this suspicion of the “other” play out in political movements through a rise of would-be dictators using racism and a narrow view of national identity for their own political gain. In the United States, Americans increasingly view their political opponents as the enemy, saying that they’d oppose their child marrying someone of a different political belief. In 2018, in a perfect encapsulation of suspicion of the other party, we saw Republican voters wearing shirts saying, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat”.

Furthermore, because of the “big sort,” we have increasingly little interaction with people of different political parties and, therefore, less opportunity to challenge these suspicions or narratives from opportunistic political leaders. For example, I had not knowingly interacted with a Republican until a year and a half ago, when I started at Protect Democracy, a non-partisan non-profit working to prevent the United States from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. Working with Republicans has caused me to challenge my idea that the GOP is the enemy and forced me to think about the extent of my tolerance and inclusion.

I have found myself surprised by my Republican colleagues’ indignation around racism and sexism. And then embarrassed by my surprise. I have found myself moved by their willingness to fight their own party, which for some of them has also meant a loss of close friends or family, because they believe in higher principles and a version of America that more closely aligns with mine than with the Trump-led GOP on race and gender. I’ve become less judgmental and more curious. I also have more trust in the intentions, if not the impact, of my fellow Americans’ political decision-making.

This is important, not only for me as an individual but for American democracy as a whole. We know from the research that “levels of personal trust tend to be linked with people’s broader views on institutions and civic life.” Put simply, if we don’t trust each other then we don’t trust our democratic process to deliver for us. To be sure, our processes are not neutral and often rooted in historic inequality and power disparities. However, if we are unwilling to engage in the project of improving the processes of liberal democracy and are instead focused solely on implementing policy we agree with at all costs, we may create more problems for ourselves in the future.

Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine. "

For example, some Members of Congress have called for the next President to declare a national emergency to address the actual emergency of climate change. They would have the next President replicate the abuses of President Trump by bypassing Congress for the sake of policy expediency. While I deeply appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis, I also see the danger in a Democratic president legitimizing Trump’s abuse of the National Emergency Act — it could be abused yet again when someone I disagree with gets elected again.

Even as I look back on President Obama’s presidency, I can see the ways that President Obama — struggling with a Republican Senate that wouldn’t work with him — laid the groundwork for some of the abuses that we’re seeing under President Trump on appointments and executive orders. President Trump has taken that lesson and gone well beyond it. I fear what a president with similar inclinations to Trump, but more strategic wherewithal would do.

American politics is no longer split merely between left vs. right. We are in an era of American politics when some people recognize and value the frustrating moderating effects of the checks and balances of American democracy, whereas others view it as a hindrance to achieving their policy goals. Right now many think that it’s those in the opposing party who don’t care about democracy, but I am not convinced. We need a better way to discuss the precedents in decision-making the parties are cementing and the dangers they may be setting us up for.

We need an additional ideological spectrum to talk about politics in America today, one that places those who care about our democracy on one end, and those willing to live under a more authoritarian style of government for policy gains on the other.

As I watch the 2020 primary season play out, I find myself looking beyond a candidate’s policy preferences and paying attention to whether their plans for implementing their agenda will help or hurt our democracy. I believe it’s not enough to win. We have to think about the process and structures we’re leaving in place for the next person, whose policy views we may not agree with. I want to know what candidates will do to prevent the emergence of another president like Trump. How will they make sure our checks and balances work so that someone can’t blatantly disregard norms? How will they ensure elections are free, fair and accessible? What will they change to make sure the marginalized are protected and our right to dissent is maintained?

In order to solve the new problems we’ve been confronted with, we need new solutions. Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine. By including this new political spectrum in our thinking, we can ensure that we work to preserve and perfect our democracy for future generations.


Aditi Juneja is an attorney and communicator for Protect Democracy. She co-founded and led the Resistance Manual and She was named to Forbes 30 Under 30 for Law and Policy in 2018. She holds a B.A. in Economics from Connecticut College and a J.D. from New York University School of Law.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

In just the past two decades, two presidents have been elected without winning the popular vote, leaving many Americans questioning the virtue of the Electoral College.

And if you’re unhappy with the current system for electing presidents, you should be wary of a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and the possibility that it could be upheld by the Supreme Court.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

Much has been made of the out-of-work, Midwestern factory worker as a symbol of American decline. But just as symbolic is a gleaming 1.6 mile stretch of road at the northern tip of one of the country’s most elite locales, San Francisco, California.

The newly constructed Presidio Parkway, which replaces one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, is a hulking chunk of concrete snaking through the eucalyptus trees and tidal marsh of the Presidio, first inhabited by the Ohlone people and now a public park and national historic landmark. Though lauded for its innovative design, the project has a Trumpian twist — it was paid for through smoke and mirrors.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

In soliciting election interference from Ukraine’s president, Trump did what had long seemed impossible; he committed an offense that even the most impeachment-phobic lawmakers couldn’t ignore. You don’t have to agree that this behavior is materially worse than other known misconduct — we certainly don’t — to celebrate that this particularly flagrant misstep sent the Democratic caucus over the edge. And since House Democrats are no longer paralyzed by a fear of falling into an unwanted impeachment inquiry, it is our hope that the Democratic caucus will finally begin to act like the opposition party it was elected to be.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

The lights are out at the Federal Election Commission, and it comes at a time when we need the campaign finance regulator more than ever.

In just a little over a year, American voters will elect the next president, all of the members of the House and a third of the Senate, as well as eleven governors and 45 state legislatures in 2020.

After the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election, federal regulators like the FEC should be more active than ever. Yet the agency voters need to fight against foreign interference in our elections has been sitting idle.

The agency still opens and closes on business days, but the FEC has lost its quorum of commissioners. This effectively paralyzes an agency that was already plagued by gridlock.

Back in March, there was a small glimmer of action from the FEC when it announced a settlement with a super PAC for violating a ban on foreign nationals’ spending in the 2016 election. Chinese owned company American Pacific International Capital gave $1.3 million to the pro-Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise. The settlement slapped Right to Rise with a $390,000 fine and the Chinese company with a $550,000 fine.

Yet any hope that the FEC would tackle Russian interference was dashed when the commissioners deadlocked on a key question in August.

The FEC could have looked into Russian agent Maria Butina and Russian official Alexander Torshin and their alleged involvement with the NRA during the 2016 presidential election, but it refused to investigate. The current chair of the FEC put out a statement expressing her frustration with the agency: “Some allegations are too serious to ignore. Too serious to simply take Respondents’ denials at face value. Too serious to play games with. Yet in this matter…this agency barely lifted a finger to find out the truth behind one of the most blockbuster campaign finance allegations in recent memory.”

As I explain in my book Political Brands, Torshin, in particular, deserves some scrutiny. He is wanted for money laundering in Spain, and he ingrained himself into the upper echelons of Republican politics by making friends at the top of the NRA in the lead-up to the 2016 election. His employee, Butina, is still in federal prison in Florida after pleading guilty to other crimes.

Earlier in 2018, the FEC deadlocked on new rules to prevent foreigners from spending in U.S. election. And for years, the FEC failed to move forward with any new rules to address dark money (instances when political donors are unknown).

Already hamstrung by the commissioners’ inability to come to any agreements, the FEC lost its quorum in August when one of its commissioners quit to join a private practice. Though the FEC was nearly inert before, it now legally cannot do many of its basic functions.

I’m scheduled to testify about this during a House committee on Wednesday. This is the first House oversight hearing on the FEC since 2011, so holding the hearing is a step in the right direction.

However, the impediment to strengthening campaign finance regulation does not lie in the House. It has already passed H.R. 1, an anti-corruption bill that includes several campaign finance reform measures and changes the makeup of the FEC.

Standing in the way of H.R. 1 and every other democratic reform is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). He could allow votes on H.R. 1 in its entirety, or certain measures within the bill that would ensure a more resilient and transparent 2020 election. I hope Senator McConnell will do the right thing, but I’m not holding my breath.


Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a Professor of Law at Stetson Law, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the author of Political Brands.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

Since Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, political observers have sought to understand the elusive Obama-Trump swing voter — Americans who voted for the Democratic candidate in 2012 but who switched party loyalties in 2016 to vote for a candidate who regularly invoked negative stereotypes of racial minorities.

My latest research may shed more light onto this mysterious group of voters.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

When I was a young engineer, I took a break to teach science in an elementary school. I taught third graders about climate change, and we discussed sea level rise, among other issues. The degree to which some students absorbed the harsh realities of the climate crisis, how terrified some were of the rising tides, raging fires, hotter summers and wetter winters was unsettling. They didn’t see climate change as something to anticipate at some unknown time in the future, but instead something to be feared right now.

Today, it’s becoming harder to avoid the devastating effects climate change is having on our planet, and we’re starting to view this crisis as those third graders did.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. This post was adapted from a previously published study at the Brookings Institute. 

In the wake of Hurricane Dorian  the fifth hurricane to reach Category 5 status over the last four North Atlantic hurricane seasons— the question keeps nagging: Is there nothing that will disrupt the nation’s political stalemate on climate response?   

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