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David Sirota
David Sirota
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Those Other Elections


A month after Barack Obama's triumphant victory, we are still celebrating America's only authentic national religion, and it isn't Christianity — it's presidentialism, the worship of the president as an all-powerful, all-knowing deity who is the only important political actor in our country.

This theology explains why both the public and the press corps seem far more interested in the Obama family dog and the Obama daughters' choice of elementary school than what happened down ticket on Election Day. In our nation, presidential pooches and prep schools are front-page stories. Local democracy is, at best, filler surrounding classified ads and comic strips.

That said, the Founding Fathers would be happy to know that, though their efforts to constitutionally constrain presidentialism failed, we still go to the trouble of holding non-presidential elections. And those contests could mean as much policy progress as what happens at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

For example, 2008 capped off a stunning string of state legislative victories that leaves one-third of Americans now living in 17 Democratic "trifecta" states — those where Democrats control the governorship, state house and state senate. Trifecta-state Democratic legislators and governors now have the unobstructed opportunity to play a pivotal role on everything from setting national energy and health industry standards to addressing rampant wealth inequality.

Chief among these trifecta victories was the one giving Democrats control of New York's government for the first time since the New Deal. The Empire State is home to the financial industry and one of the largest economies in the world, meaning Albany Democrats can make a particularly huge impact with their state laws. They will need to be pushed, though — and that's where the Working Families Party (WFP) comes in.

The third party, which is organized around a narrow set of populist economic positions, has leveraged its ballot line in New York's fusion voting system to help progressive Democrats win key elections.

Because of the party's decisive work in recent campaigns, Democrats "owe a heavy debt to the WFP," as the Albany Times Union reports, and the WFP will be calling in that debt by demanding passage of priorities like a millionaires tax — a major revenue raiser in a place that domiciles Wall Street. With the party's additionally important 2008 gains in Connecticut and Oregon, the WFP may be the model for a new kind of third party politics — one that isn't defined by attention-hungry presidential gadflies, actually does the unglamorous work of local organizing and ultimately wields significant power.

Here out west, the election represented both legislative changes and paradigmatic earthquakes that bode well for the rest of the country.

As the Denver Post reported, Democrat Mark Udall's resounding U.S. Senate victory in the face of Republican Bob Schaffer's relentless criticism of him as a "Boulder liberal" has effectively defanged the entire "liberal" attack in a once reliable GOP stronghold. Additionally, not only did Colorado become the first state in history to elect both a state House and state senate headed by African-Americans, it saw a grassroots campaign led by the Colorado Progressive Coalition make it the first state to reject a ballot initiative that has gutted affirmative action and equal pay laws in other locales. According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, that was one of 22 out of 26 national conservative ballot initiatives that went down to defeat in 2008.

These are just some of the structural shifts that happened beneath the Electoral College vote maps wallpapering our church of presidentialism. They may seem obscure, unimportant and small in comparison to the Beltway's palace dramas. But they have set the stage for precisely the kind of nationwide "bottom-up" change that Washington's filibusters and fighting all too often prevent.

David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," was just released in June of 2008. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at



3 Comments | Post Comment
So "addressing rampant wealth inequality" is a legitimate purpose of government? Horror of horrors, some people actually have more money than other people! Does it ever occur to the so-called "progressives" (read socialists) that a good many of the rich may just possibly have made their money the old-fashioned way -- by EARNING it?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Scot Penslar
Thu Dec 4, 2008 9:34 PM
Re: Scot Penslar

You mean earned it like the guys on Wall Street who gamed the system, ended up by screwing everyone, including themselves but get a free bailout by their frat boy buddies at the Federal reserve and the Treasury? These same people have gotten trade deals which have destroyed the American working class and enriched themselves and where did those jobs go to, Scot? To COMMUNIST CHINA AND COMMUNIST VIETNAM. I don't know your age, Mr Penslar, but I'm 61 and remember an America where people who had a decent educatiuon and worked hard could support their families , when the average CEO made 40 times, not 400 times the pay of his average worker. There has been a massive wealth distribution and it's gone from the working class to those at the top. If that's your idea of America, then keep voting Republican or DLC Democrat, they'll be only to happy to keep shoving it where the sun don't shine.
Comment: #2
Posted by: michael nola
Sat Dec 6, 2008 9:27 AM
I agree that we worship the office of the presidency way too much and would be smarter to spend our time and energy more so on more local offices and local third parties, like WFP or even Progressive Dane.

But we don't need fusion voting to make this happen, we need to change folks habits to vote strategically together in local third parties and push for PR or PR-STV to be used in local legislative elections.

I also think that even "top two" could be made to work better if say the number of candidates in the "top two" primary for a single member office was limited to eight and then every primary voter got to endorse at most three of the eight candidates, so it's the two candidates that get the most endorsements that proceed on to the general election. Think about how if that were used for many elections(apart from municipal and state-house of reps where PR or PR-STV general elections would be used) it would change the dynamics of elections!

I think we'd see more interest and more interesting primaries and closer general elections, in which local third parties, now contesting only the elections with PR voting systems, would be able to leverage their strategic voting to win influence with the more moderate and less ideologically pure main party candidates.

Comment: #3
Posted by: dlw
Tue Feb 24, 2009 10:58 PM
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