UNRIGGED – A Politics for the People Conversation with David Daley

On Sunday, May 31st, over 90 people from across the country joined Politics for the People Host and Founder Cathy Stewart for an energizing conversation with David Daley about his new book UNRIGGED: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy.

If you’d like to jump right in, you can watch the whole conversation in the clip below:

In response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and the protests for racial justice that exploded in its wake (which, as of June 9th, are still ongoing), Cathy opened the call with a note of trepidation, saying:

I was so upset, horrified, by the killing of George Floyd in broad daylight, by the complicity and the silence of the three other officers, by the despair and the sense of hopelessness that so many people feel, and the protests which include both peaceful demonstration and acts of violence by some. So, I thought ‘What am I doing hosting a conversation about political reform? That seems at best, inadequate, and at worst, irrelevant.’”

However, she describes taking a step back in her thinking, assessing the big picture and asking others about how best to move forward. Ultimately, she decides that not only should the call take place, the call must take place, and explains her reasoning:

…we have a profound and systemic problem: the political processes that we use for self-governance are failing us, not only in some abstract sense but literally in the last 50 years of partisan politics preying on the tendency in America towards division and hatred, and exploiting that tendency to win elections and to keep elected officials in line…while I deeply care about social justice and ending poverty and healthcare…I have come to believe that unless, and until, we transform our political system and the way we choose leaders, we are going to be unable to address the profound failures in social policy and address the social and moral issues that we face.”

Before starting the conversation with David Daley, she offers one last thought to the listeners on the call:

This conversation tonight is one of many conversations across the country that Americans are having where we’re discussing and sharing and evaluating ideas and actions that we can take so that every American can live a life that is free from fear, from violence and poverty, and live in a country where the government is responsive and accountable to us.”

Watch Cathy’s full introduction to the call in the clip below:

In her first question to David Daley, Cathy recalls the last time he had joined them for a conversation on the Politics for the People blog, and asks him to catch us up to speed on the development of UNRIGGED from then to now:

I wanted to ask you to share your journey from writing Ratf**ked to writing UNRIGGED. How did you come to write a book about these citizen-led initiatives and campaigns to improve our democracy?”

Daley explains his change in thinking from writing Ratf**ked after encountering more and more people that were looking to develop solutions instead of just highlighting problems, some of whom were on that last P4P call:

As you mentioned, we did this call a couple of years ago and I often, in those days, felt as if I had this dark, stormy rain cloud over my head…I was talking about these big, systemic problems and the knots that our democracy had been tied up in and, especially after the election in 2016, I often would find myself in rooms where people wanted to talk about what they could do, and I was talking about the problem and how hard it would be. I started looking for solutions, and I heard some of those solutions on the call with all of you.”

He describes deciding to lend his voice to these growing movements for political reform, which were now far from being in short supply:

The world didn’t need another book about how democracies die – we had plenty of those. We needed a book about how determined people were to stand up and fight back for this democracy, and the examples were everywhere; all you had to do was go out and look around.”

Watch his full response in the clip below:

Cathy talks about the intimacy of the stories in the book and expresses her appreciation for Daley making the effort to be a part of these movements, giving him to ability to capture the passion and challenges experienced by the activists he writes about. She asks him:

Can you share a bit about the decision to not just report on the stories, but to actively participate and spend time in each of the key states you write about?”

In response, Daley recalls the time he spent in Idaho with activists fighting for Medicaid expansion:

It was an honor and a thrill of a lifetime to go out and ride along with these activists as they made this unbelievably amazing change. I mean, every day was amazing. And I learned so much. You know, I could have don’t these interviews from home I guess, or made a couple of phone calls, but if I had done that, I wouldn’t have had the experience of walking up this driveway in Idaho Falls, Ohio…with these activists who were determined to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in a bright red state where it had never – legislators had no interest in going there…and we walk up this driveway and there’s this bumper sticker on this truck that says ‘Vietnam: We were winning when I left…’ But they didn’t notice it. They just marched right on up to that door and they knocked on the door and they started talking to this guy, and it turned out he and his family fell into the Medicaid gap as well. And as they talked to him, he said ‘Yes, I know about this, I’ve signed your petition, I’m voting yes.’ And it was that kind of persuasion, this kind of trans-partisan persuasion, this sort of going up and talking to your neighbors, that was the solution there in Idaho…You see the most amazing things when you go out and do this.”

Watch Daley’s full answer sharing his experiences with the reform campaigns in Idaho and Alabama:

The first question comes from Dr. Jessie Fields, who asks Daley to weigh in on ongoing campaigns for non-partisan elections, given that the efforts he writes about in his book are non-partisan and citizen driven:

I think this is a very relevant time to make the political process directly responsive to, and inclusive of, all people. David, a key feature of the initiatives that you describe in the book is that they are non-partisan, citizen-driven coalitions that include Democrats, Republicans and independents across partisan, racial and ideological divides. But when those people who have come together in this new, this inclusive way, when those people go to vote for candidates in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, and in fact in almost all the states – even the ones with open partisan primaries – they will be divided again…So, there are ongoing efforts to change the partisan, divisive structure of our elections…what are your thoughts on these campaigns for non-partisan elections?”

Daley responds:

Listen, our system is broken, and it’s broken in so many ways – around polarization, around partisanship…our party has become so closely wrapped up with identity and it’s all happened in a way that has put more pressure on the two-party system than it’s able to actually handle. And so, I think you’re right…all of these initiatives, all of these ideas are very, very popular, but our political system isn’t set up to deliver them. Part of that is our polarization. Part of that is polarization has been exacerbated by gerrymandering, and all kinds of ways in which politicians are no longer accountable to voters – indeed, they’ve become insulated from voters and they don’t need to listen…I think we need to find new and creative ways to get ourselves out of this…

Watch their full exchange in the clip below:

David Belmont poses the next Q&A question on the topic of citizens initiatives. He asks:

Dave, most of what people are able to achieve in affecting process changes in 2018 was don through the citizens’ initiative process. However, only 20 states have this process. Would you favor a national citizens initiative process? For example, if the nation had an initiative process that allowed citizens to pass constitutional amendments – 18 states have this – we could implement non-partisan redistricting for congressional elections nationwide.”

Daley responds with a cautious but concurrent answer:

I think you’re absolutely right; all of the major gains in 2018 came through the initiative and the states that don’t have that are going to have a lot harder time getting these kinds of reforms. I think we have to look pretty carefully at the initiative and I am perfectly in favor of the idea…I think we have to be careful about constitutional amendments, especially in this day and age, but I certainly think that the spirit there is absolutely right on. Whenever we can handle try to handle these issues as voters and citizens, it’s better than handling these issues filtered through politicians who have been set up in districts in which they don’t have to actually represent us.”

Watch their full exchange in the clip below:

Katie Fahey, director of The People, asks David about how to navigate change and what motivates people to devote themselves to it:

I think that in this moment you can just see and feel – all my friends, but also people I work with, talk to around the country – people so recognize the systemic problems and the failures, and they want to make change but where to channel that energy, or where to know what the right change is, is sometimes really hard…I was just wondering if you were noticing any similarities in the timing – but also, with you getting to meet so many people across the country who decided to go beyond their day jobs to want to really, sometimes, upturn their lives to try and make change, were their any similarities in those moments when people went from thoughts to action, or any other things you noticed that was similar between the people who were spearheading these things?”

Daley starts his response with:

I think if you look at what unites people, people woke up and they realized that the change they wanted to make was not beyond their ability, that they had something to offer to the process and that they could simply join in…

He then goes on to discuss the Idaho education initiative that the efforts of two grad students, who saw that their hometown needed them, took a break from their studies to fight to pass. He also cites the efforts of Desmond Meade in California and even Katie Fahey herself in Michigan, describing the creative problem solving they used to overcome obstacles they faced throughout their campaigns:

I think all of these activists realize these are big structural problems but the way to push back is one brick at a time, and that each of us have skills that can be useful to a movement. And when we start talking to our neighbors, the kind of change that can be made is sometimes change that we just can’t even imagine otherwise – and once people begin doing that, and they see what happens and how that makes them feel and the connections that get made and the power of the people, again – I think that gets kind of intoxicating.

Cathy adds:

I think what you’re describing, Dave…is that the American people are building new muscles, or muscles that we’ve forgotten that we have, and they’re the muscles of democracy and participation and owning our government and its mechanisms.

Daley wraps up the exchange responding:

We maybe didn’t think we had to use them, and honestly, when our government is functioning properly, we shouldn’t have to use them. You know, something is profoundly broken when we need to, in some ways, go to war with our own representatives over questions of representative democracy.

Watch the full conversation between the three in the clip below:

Steve Richardson prefaces his Q&A question with a quote from Daley’s book:

[Democracy has been broken] actively and intentionally by partisans who put their narrow, ideological interest above all else, who chose to aggressively suppress and ignore the will of the people, rather than committing themselves to listen to and represent all the citizens of a vibrant and ever changing nation.”

He then asks:

I believe representing all the citizens means looking beyond those who identify as party members, but the 43% of voters who as independents do not have equal rights. [Do] you agree that both major parties have failed us, and what do you think they should do to represent us?”

Daley responds:

I think a two-party system has failed us, I think these two parties have failed us and that we – the trouble is that it’s so hard to see structural ways around and through that because of all of the things that folks have identified in other questions…You see it in the voting records of members [of congress] and the ideological position of members – it’s all just gotten pushed so off to the left and to the right and you’ve lost that entire overlap in the middle where the art of politics as trying to build consensus and solve problems has just disappeared and I think we have to really re-imagine the system if we want to get a different outcome.”

Watch Daley’s full response in the clip below:

Bryce Johannes, who is also a political author, poses the next Q&A question about a national conversation:

I would like to know if the author thinks it would makes sense to have some form of a moderated national conversation about what changes are needed to make representation work…if you agree that such a discussion would make sense, also, do you have any ideas who might be able to encourage and moderate this discussion?”

Daley responds:

There’s a lot of energy around voting and democracy reforms because people are earnestly trying to repair the system. I mean, you’re asking a bigger question in some ways as to whether the system can be repaired through democracy and voting rights reform. I think a lot of us have to believe that it’s so because to not believe would probably leave us spiraling into despair. We work on what seems possible in what’s in front of us…I think we have to have a real national conversation on voting and participation. I mean, maybe that’s what comes out of all of this on the other side.”

Watch the full question and answer in the clip below:

Tiani Coleman asks her Q&A question on the timing of reform:

I’m just wondering what role you think timing plays in passing democratic reforms. I ask this because, as independents voters, we support most of the reforms that you write about and these are reforms that have been talked about for a while…and now they’re starting to pass. But as independents, we also support some of the newer reforms, such as the top-two and top-four non-partisan primaries, so I’m wondering if you think that these grassroots movements need to be in the public consciousness for a while before they take enough root to be successful with the activists, or – how can we speed up the passage of these new reforms?”

Daley highlights how the ranked choice and non-partisan systems may actually benefit the parties, and that adding that perspective may help to funnel reform through such a strongly partisan system:

The trick, I think, is that we’re trying to get these reforms passes but they have to be passed by the two parties in power in so many of these places, and that makes it super complicated because things don’t move through these legislatures if they don’t have a base in one side or the other, and as soon as these ideas have got a base on one side the other side hates it and thinks its out to get them – it’s really tricky. I think that there are ways though to have all of these conversations change. I think about Justin Amash and how he was thinking about a libertarian run for the White House and decided against it. In the weeks in which he was pondering this seriously, you had Republicans and Democrats both screaming at him that he was going to tip the election to the other side – he was going to be the spoiler…so there’s a solution here right? Ranked choice voting is a great solution here. It’s helpful for Amash and the libertarians and the independents because they get a seat at the table, in some ways, without have to be called a spoiler all the time…but it’s also good for the Democrats and the Republicans…These are reforms that I think can be cast in ways that are good for the two parties and are good for independent voters and are good for fair hold democracy.”

Cathy chimes in with her experience witnessing the fight for ranked choice voting in Maine and seeing droves of independents come out to support reform in a primary election that they could not vote in:

…I think you see something there about the character of this new community of voters – now somewhere in the order of 42% to 44% of Americans consider themselves independent. So just to add that in the mix of this very interesting moment, an engine for reform.”

Watch the full discussion in the clip below:

Next, Harry Kresky asks about the connection between political reformers and the social just protests that have been taking place in all 50 states:

…how do you reach out and overcome our own cynicism and despair and the cynicism and despair that abounds in the aftermath of the murder of Mr. Floyd, the pandemic – what do we reformers have to offer that can take on the whole picture and the social-political-moral crisis that the country is undergoing? How do we not simply want to get out in the street and protest, but how do we not simply want to get out in the street and protest, but how can we make that connection which is so important?

Daley offers his thinking in return:

I think that we have done this to ourselves…some of this does feel sort of meaningless in a moment like this – the idea that if we have ranked choice voting, we won’t have cops killing people in the street and we’ll fix centuries of institutional racism. It’s not going to happen, right? But we need a better way of solving problems, and I think that our electoral system has divided us and intentionally fomented so many of these divisions, and that if we’re able to change that system, we can at least start talking about these problems in different ways again. That’s what we need to do, we have to find a way to talk to one another in a different way and solve problems. The current way isn’t working…we’ve got a lot of work to do. These systems that we are working with are not only broken, but they’ve been wired to be deeply and profoundly – I mean, unfair is too weak of a term.”

Watch Daley’s full answer in the clip below:

The final Q&A question comes from Mike Rakowsky. He describes his experience fighting for criminal justice reform in New England and how they seemed to hit a certain point where they couldn’t take the reform any further. Now in Arizona, he asks:

In Arizona, where I am now, they have terrible restrictions on ex-offenders regaining that eligibility [to vote]. What do you see is the prospect for what has been really started strongly in Florida to have the opportunity to gain a foothold in other states across the country?”

Daley offers this response to wrap up the final question of the call:

[The Florida campaign was] able to frame the messaging in that debate around second chances and fairness and they were able to build this impressive left-right, black-white…it was a really amazing campaign…Americans understand this as being a question of fundamental fairness, and I think that’s the amazing thing about what passed in 2018. Whether we’re talking about redistricting or felon voting rights or ranked choice or Medicaid expansion – and I hope that this gives us hope as we go into 2020 and voting in a pandemic – we can do this, because to most Americans, these are still elemental questions of fairness. They’re questions of right and wrong, not right and left. They still resonate with people.”

Watch the final question in the clip below:

Watch the full conversation below:

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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