Mellman: The next American revolution

Mellman: The next American revolution
© Greg Nash

Revolutions are rarely made by the powerless.

Sometimes they’re made in the name of the powerless; sometimes the formerly powerless seize power during later stages of revolutions. But most often, the very condition of powerlessness means they lack the resources to make a revolution.

Much academic ink has been spilled attempting to elucidate the causes of revolutions, but the theories far outnumber the theorists.

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Nonetheless, most analyses highlight two factors that appear important, though not sufficient, to bring about revolution — dysfunction and competing centers of legitimacy.

Dysfunction, in this context, calls out a lack of harmony between the socio-economic system on the one hand and the political system on the other. Some segments of society see their political power stunted, while their socio-economic influence grows, creating disequilibrium.

A second pervasive feature of revolution is the emergence of competing sources of legitimate authority. Leading up to the October Revolution, the Provisional Government and the Soviets competed for Russians’ loyalty.

America is quickly developing these two revolutionary prerequisites. I’m not suggesting we’ll soon be at the barricades, but unchecked, the crises precipitated by our disequilibrium and competing power centers could be deeply damaging.

First, disequilibrium.

Our Electoral College system means the majority of voters need not rule. The Democratic Party owes its creation importantly to Andrew Jackson’s Electoral College defeat, despite a popular vote victory, and each time there’s been a discrepancy since, it’s the Democrat who’s won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College.

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Similarly, each state has two senators, regardless of size, setting up the possibility of radical disjuncture between the body’s output and Americans’ views.

However, for most of American history, Senate matters passed with support from about 68 percent of senators, who in turn represented about 68 percent of the U.S. population, according to Joshua Tauberer of GovTrack. The potential for disharmony was rarely realized.

But consider some of the most consequential recent votes. Justices Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchBiden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold McConnell has 17-point lead over Democratic challenger McGrath: poll Kavanaugh urged Supreme Court to avoid decisions on Trump finances, abortion: report MORE and Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughBiden hits back after Trump's attacks on Harris Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Joe Biden played it safe MORE were confirmed by senators representing 45 percent and 44 percent of the population respectively.

Last year, five circuit court judges and other Trump nominees were confirmed, while tax cuts and 10 laws rolling back Obama-era regulations were passed by senators who represented just 43 percent of Americans.

But it’s not simply population; economic power is no longer in harmony with political power.

According to a report by Brookings Institution scholars, when George W. Bush defeated Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreWillie Brown now pleased Harris accepted Biden offer after advising against it Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause Will Pence choose partisanship over statesmanship in counting ballots? MORE, the Republican won counties responsible for 46 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, while the Democrat’s counties accounted for 54 percent of GDP—a meaningful, but not radical disjuncture.

Fast forward to 2016 and the results are far more startling — the counties won by Donald Trump account for just 36 percent of America’s prosperity.

By these accounts, socio-economic power is decisively in the hands of Democrats, while Republicans control our political institutions (for now).

Combine that disequilibrium with competition among centers of authority, that Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate Democrats say White House isn't budging in coronavirus relief stalemate MORE (R-Ky.) seem determined to foment.

States’-rights-advocate-when-he-feels-like-it President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE is pulling out all the stops to prevent half the country’s states from setting higher auto emission standards than the federal government.

The attack is even more brazen on COVID-19 issues. Leading Trump’s charge, McConnell lashed out against “blue state bailouts” over federal coronavirus relief, apparently ignorant of the fact that New York is the top net giver to the federal treasury, while Kentucky takes more, in the net, than all but two other states.

Now Trump is threatening to withhold education dollars from states that don’t open their schools, safety be damned.

At some point, frustrated governors may just say to Trump, “we’ll keep our federal tax dollars here, come and get them if you can.”

That’s a crisis of competing centers of authority.

Democratic victories would return political power to the national majority which also wields socioeconomic power, but GOP wins will exacerbate dangerous dysfunction.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years, as President of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is President of Democratic Majority for Israel.