Wednesday, 17 October 2018 18:15

Dear Senator Kamala Harris, RE: Election 2020

Update 1/11/19

Well, looks like you are, Senator Harris, in fact running for President.


Of course, that doesn't guarantee you'll actually be a good candidate, and I'm afraid you have too many advisers who can't see past the fog induced by their own college-educated suburban biases to realize what must actually be done to overcome Trumpism in 2020.

But here's hoping. Here's hoping that you and your staff will realize that the conventional wisdom afflicting most American political commentators and analysis is dead wrong. Here's hoping that you realize that the only way to beat a morally bankrupt Orangutan willing and able to do whatever he needs to stay in office, is to be innovative. To realize that America is not divided between "right/conservative" "left/liberal" and "swing/moderate" voters, and thinking they are, playing that game, will get you nowhere. To understand that to win you must do what Obama and Trump both did to win the electoral college: activate a segment of the electorate that doesn't usually vote.

America is a nation of tribes, each with greater or lesser habitual affiliation with a particular political party. Trump did, if you look at the numbers, lose significant numbers of traditional conservatives. But he replaced them members of America's underground racist elements by actively courting their approval. He won by being the candidate who could win over enough Republicans to, combined with his basket-of-deplorables racists, skate through Wisconsin and Michigan. Obama, for his part, did not win over diehard conservatives or swing voters, he won - in 2008 - a large chunk of people who didn't normally vote. And he did this, in many ways like Trump did, by speaking directly to them, by offering them hope and change.

Trump is Obama's shadow, and both won where establishment types like Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio lost because of this dynamic.

You can too. If you and your staff are willing to think well outside the usual liberal comfort zone, while also avoiding the deadly peril of talking down to people not of your tribe.

As you jump into the over-crowded Democratic Party Primary scrum -  joining a couple dozen other hopefuls who think, if only they can get lucky enough to pull a Trump and be anointed the party's leader in 2020, actually winning will be easy because he's so perpetually unpopular - here's my unsolicited advice: be different. Be, as I argue below, a leader. Someone actually willing to take risks, to buck the party line, and to promise actual meaningful reform despite the Democratic party, and not necessarily through it.

Don't run around spouting the usual talking points. Don't try to win on this policy or that. Be different. Be radical. Hell, team up with Beto, or better yet - get with veterans and rural democrats. The path to beating Trump in 2020 will not run through the Rust Belt suburbs. The GOP activists in control of the Michigan and Wisconsin state houses will make sure that those electoral college votes go to Trump. But that can be countered by winning states in the West.

I read in this article that you want to de-emphasize your Bay Area roots - which makes sense. Go ahead and do that. Announce your candidacy in the ruins of Paradise, California. Tell residents of the US West what they know deep down: That DC has failed them, that corrupt elites in the Northeast have rigged the economy to drain all wealth - human and physical - from rural America. Tell them that you will go to DC to bring about a new balance, respecting the preferences and interests of the under-served rural places, offering them a path to a better future.

All it would take is actual public investment, merging environmental management activities favored by urban amenity-seekers with the need for stable, living-wage jobs throughout the rural West. Moving urban money back into the rural hinterlands, transforming their economic prospects while ensuring that our common environment is preserved for future generations.

There are incredible opportunities, for anyone with eyes to see. I certainly hope you can sense them, and restore some degree of hope to this dying nation.


Dear Senator Harris,

I suspect that you are planning to run for President in 2020. I hope that I am correct, as I believe that you are the candidate who stands the greatest chance of beating Trump and saving America – provided you are willing to embrace an innovative electoral strategy that runs against the conventional wisdom that will inevitably be pushed on you by the Democratic party establishment.

The Democratic party has a terrible track record of nominating effective candidates for the Presidency. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton were all too easily portrayed as out of touch elitists, classic politicians with no fixed beliefs. Your primary competitors in the 2020 primaries at present appear to be Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and perhaps even John Kerry (again!), all of whom will be easily painted with the same brush.

Americans are scared right now, and frightened people tend to look to leaders who appear to possess both resolve and vision. This is, above all else, the secret to Trump and Trumpism. His supporters are disproportionately older, whiter, and male-r than the rest of the country, and among their tribe there is now a deep conviction that without radical change, the America they knew will be gone forever. To counter Trump’s chosen narrative, the same essential narrative used by authoritarian foreign leaders like Putin, Erdogan, Bin Salman, and Xi Jinping, his opponent must be able to articulate to the electorate two primary things:

1. That they are not creatures of the establishment, and personally recognize the threats facing ordinary Americans.

2. That they have a plan for reform that does not rely on partisan policy issues, but in coming up with a new Grand Compromise that defuses the rising tensions that threaten to destroy the Republic

I have spent most of my life caught between the worlds of the liberal and the conservative. I grew up outside Redding, California – one of the most Trump-happy districts in the state. I then spent a decade in academia at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I also, in the Summer of 2016, when the conventional wisdom held that Clinton was an obvious shoe-in, and Trump a disaster for the GOP, applied a different intellectual filter than typically represented in the major media outlets to predict – correctly, as it sadly turned out – the Trump campaign’s strategy and the real danger it posed to Clinton’s chances in the ‘Blue Wall.’

The great mistake most Democrats make in national elections is forgetting that America is not a nation of conservatives, liberals, and centrist moderate ‘swing’ voters. It is, in fact, a massive and complex nation full of tribes, each with their own particular way of viewing the world and their own form of political language. In reality, as Pew Research notes, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ labels only strongly apply in total to around 40% of Americans. In contrast, a full 30%-45% of Americans are so disgusted by national politics that they rarely, if ever vote. Elections now come down to turnout, because when a third of the electorate no longer bothers to reliably participate, the winner in any given contest is usually the one who can reliably turn out their base. This reality ultimately underpins the GOP efforts to restrict voting rights now underway wherever they control state governments.

The reason Barack Obama won in 2008 is that he, unlike most recent presidential candidates, was able to ‘activate’ a dormant segment of the electorate, particularly young and non-white voters who had previously sat out elections in frustration at their options. Unlike most recent presidential candidates, Obama – like Reagan – was able to communicate a vision of America that, even if it did not match empirical reality, was sufficient to mobilize large numbers of voters who rarely bother to turn out.

Trump, in a strange way, is Obama’s dark counterpart. He actually lost a significant portion of the normally-reliable Republican electorate – witness, particularly in the west, the increased vote share given to third party candidates – but in effect exchanged those lost voters for another, typically low-participation tribe: white racists. This worked primarily because the Democratic elites decided early on to support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in despite of all the warnings about how low her approval ratings were among ordinary Americans. They were unable to recognize the hollow nature of her support, because they didn’t care to deeply question the methodology of major polling firms, which, using ‘likely voter’ screens that relied in part on recent history of voting, systematically missed the voters Trump aggressively mobilized.

The conventional wisdom in American politics - sustained as it is by media outlets which themselves are structured to appeal to a particular tribe, offering their audience what amounts to a half-mythic narrative about events that tends to reinforce pre-existing biases - is increasingly wrong. The Democrats’ 2020 hopefuls are already seeking media attention, allies, and funding, all thinking Trump will be easy to beat. Just like they did in 2016. And, against Bush, like they did in 2004 and 2000.

This conventional wisdom, accompanied by the apparent presumption that nothing fundamental has changed in American politics, risks leading Democrats and Americans down a terrible path in 2020. A careful examination of Trump’s rhetoric reveals not simple opportunism, but an extremely dangerous, constantly-repeated refrain: ‘Illegals’ are the reason Democrats win elections. Couple this to the assertion - made and repeated in 2016 - that he would not necessarily respect the result of the election if it did not favor him, to the ongoing effort to de-legitimize all protest and criticism, and the threat to America and the Constitution should be clear. As Masha Gessen has argued, would-be dictators tend to tell you exactly what they want to do. They test the waters, then evaluate pushback.

In 2020, there is a very real possibility that a close election will result in Trump using the power of his office to defy the will of the people, even perhaps the Electoral College. Only a clear signal from the American electorate, a strong victory in the Electoral College, offers a chance of rolling back Trumpism given the nature of this unprecedented threat to our system of government.

But to accomplish this, Senator Harris, the Democrat who faces Trump must defy popular expectations about what to expect from Democrats. The candidate must present as someone fundamentally different than the creature die-hard conservatives expect the Democratic Party to run. The candidate must be able to put Obama’s coalition back together, and go a step further: they must be able to appeal to those conservatives, especially conservatives in the American West, who are dismayed by what Trump is doing to their party. I think you can be that candidate. And I think I know how you can win.

First off, you should announce your candidacy as early in 2019 as possible. And you should announce alongside your chosen Vice President, who - and this is absolutely essential - must be a combat veteran, ideally a woman. Tammy Duckworth or Tulsi Gabbard or someone similar would make an excellent choice.

The purpose here is to present yourselves as, from the get-go, the Resistance government-in-waiting, and the ultimate expression of anti-Trump. Two women, running for office, one a children of immigrants and the other a military veteran, represents a direct assault on everything Trump represents. You should do everything possible to create an image in the minds of the electorate of the Trump administration ending, and you being the ones to fix what he has broken. Make yourselves a clear alternative, both to Trump and the Joe Biden wing of the Democratic establishment, and the 60% of Americans who perpetually disapprove of Trump will gravitate towards you.

And you begin to make that argument by laying out a clear, coherent vision of what Trumpism leads to, the dangers it unleashes upon an already-dangerous world. You make America’s unending wars a centerpiece of your campaign, and you lay out how you’ll restore America’s place of pride in the global community. You present a compelling vision for foreign policy reform, reassuring our shaken allies while simultaneously promising a new kind of foreign policy that brings America’s actions in line with its values.

You need to make the case, to the American people, that Trump is leading us into a terrible conflict. You should anticipate the administration launching strikes against Iran or another ‘enemy’ in 2020, and remind Americans that the path of great-power conflict, of Cold Wars and military competition, ultimately leads to the mutual destruction of all involved. What America needs is negotiation with allies and competitors, formal rules that all can abide by, and the resumption of strategic (and conventional) arms limitation talks with Russia and China.

Alongside this effort, you should focus on veterans issues. America’s 17 years of war in the Middle East has led to thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of permanent disabilities. Trump has openly attacked disabled and non-white veterans – and if you take a look at the electoral results in military-heavy districts on the Pacific Coast, you’ll note that they actually voted for Clinton, not Trump. Veterans by and large loathe Trump. They know exactly how dangerous he is. And that is one of his greatest weaknesses. A critique of America’s recent foreign policy, presented through the lens of the veteran’s experience, will distinguish your campaign.

Your second major effort should focus on the slow death of rural America. Lost in much of the partisan rancor is the reality, slowly becoming more widely accepted in Europe, that the pressing need to combat climate change must be paired with a focus on rebuilding rural economies. Renewable energy, environmentally-friendly land management, carbon offsets, and the like could bring jobs to rural areas while also moving America down the path of sustainability. Climate change adaptation and mitigation must be paired with material improvements in the quality of life of people living in rural areas, who all-too-often experience urban liberals setting environmental policy that favors a particular, urban cultural view of Earth and the environment over the preferences of people actually living in rural places, whose livelihoods are under constant threat.

In the U.S. West, the Republican party survives by turning every issue into a rural vs. urban struggle. You can undercut this dynamic, and alter the Electoral College map in 2020, by producing a coherent vision for rural revitalization that allows local government greater autonomy in setting local environmental rules, and directs substantial funds to promote the full-spectrum of renewable energy production. The urban-rural divide in the U.S. West is partly an artifact of the national-level Democratic party simply failing to take into account the needs and preferences of rural Americans. This is fatal in national elections, because states like Alaska and Montana may have only a few Electoral Votes, but they add up.

Third, you must make securing America’s elections and ensuring that every vote is counted a fundamental pillar of your campaign. The fact of the matter is that the GOP actively engages in voter suppression, Russia meddles as it sees fit, and voting machines are vulnerable to tampering. American now perceive that elections themselves are less than free-and-fair, and this represents a knife at the throat of our politics.

Your campaign needs to pioneer, in conjunction with companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, a social media platform designed specifically for politics. It should be a hybrid of sites like Facebook, Duolingo, Ballotpedia, and PolitiFact, and shift political discourse away from platforms that aren’t truly meant for it, to one that is designed to balance the essential ability of citizens to discuss, organize, and engage in grassroots politics with the need for an underlying set of accepted facts that the majority of people can agree on. Such a platform would allow elected officials to see what their constituents care about, to accord them greater opportunity to interact and even pursue collaborative design of legislation and policy. It could also serve as a turnout-booster, giving accurate information about when and where to vote to voters based on their phone’s location data.

Helping to begin the development and deployment of an open, non-partisan platform in partnership with the private sector would offer voters evidence of how you are already working to restore faith in America and its institutions. It would demonstrate that you are not merely a politician, and that you can think and work outside the box that the average American now assumes the Democratic establishment will try to draw around you.

The bottom line is, Senator Harris, that you could very well be the next President of the United States – if you are willing to commit to that goal, and pursue a very different sort of campaign than is typical. Something Democrats and others who have too much formal education and too little understanding of the average American too often forget, is that the essence of leadership lies in taking a principled stand, then holding to it even if things go wrong. The Clintons and the other elites of the modern Democratic party they largely created are so unpopular precisely because they are seen as untrustworthy. Right now, Americans are taking a devil they think they know over politicians they are certain routinely lie to them, because despite the official metrics showing that the economy is booming, for half of us the Great Recession never ended.

Can you restore Obama’s coalition? Can you turn the West Blue? I think you can. If you can be different and authentic, if you can carefully and consistently demonstrate that you are not another elitist Democrat. Which depends on adopting the right narrative, one that directly counters Trump and his dystopian vision for America without falling back on the usual ‘liberal’ talking points about universal health care and climate change. With the world as terrifying as it is, narratives about leadership will determine the outcome of 2020, not policy. But they must be authentic, rooted in simple truths, because Americans (particularly young Americans) are actually quite good at spotting inauthenticity. We are advertised at quite a lot, after all.

If you can refuse the false dichotomy of left vs. right, red vs. blue, conservative vs. liberal, speak the language of a leader who seeks a just compromise that benefits all of America’s tribes, and not just her own, who openly recognizes that we are in the midst of the great challenge of our times, and that Trump must stopped in 2020 if there is to be any hope of saving this country – you can be the next President.

But if you want that, you have to start now. Announce you are running, and that you will win. Act like you have already won.  Start building your coalition, talking to people in places the Democrats don’t usually focus on, and even meeting with leaders among our international allies. Be a visionary. Be different. Be the President we need, starting right now.