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4/24/19

A simple strategy for restoring felon voting rights

Once in office, immediately frame your victory as a national referendum on felon voting rights. Give Congress one month to pass legislation, warning them that if they fail you will be forced to start using the blunt instrument of mass pardons in order to enact this clear democratic mandate.

If they miss the deadline, begin by issuing pardons that will draw as little opposition as possible: clear cases of wrongful conviction, some innocuous subset of non-violent offenders, and so on. Repeat the initial demand, warning that you will issue even more pardons if Congress fails to pass legislation. Repeat, repeat, and repeat until Congress passes legislation or it becomes politically impossible for you to continue.

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This proposal may seem extraordinarily radical, risky, and combative, and I have no doubt that even sympathetic socialists can come up with legitimate strategic and legal quibbles over the particulars. To its credit, however, I think that this kind of strategy recognizes several important political realities that socialists need to come to terms with moving forward:

1. The modern presidency, despite its serious shortcomings, still has more democratic legitimacy than the Senate, the Supreme Court, state and local governments, and arguably the House. Socialists who are committed to meaningful parliamentary or direct democracy need to recognize that what we have ain't it, that what we have was not even designed to be it, and that there is no point in pretending otherwise. Right now the presidency is both our most democratic institution and our best hope for creating a better democracy, and socialists should not hesitate to use it.

2. The president's most viable route to enacting the democratic will will often be through executive action. This is really just an elaboration on point (1), but we should be clear-eyed about it: in the immediate future, Congress will pose an often insurmountable obstacle to democracy. The most effective way the president has to deal with this is through his executive authority: either by simply using it, or by leveraging it to force legislative concessions. Presidents need to bow to this reality and proceed accordingly by pursuing an agenda that is open to working outside of antiquated legislative norms.

3. Our next president should maximize her political leverage by moving as quickly as possible after she is elected. When a president is elected, there is always significant uncertainty about how much of a power-shift has just taken place - and yet there is also extraordinary ideological and institutional pressure on our elite to affirm, out of respect for democracy, that whatever has just happened is legitimate. That's why, despite the usual allegations of foul play at the polls, elections also usually end with the opposition making a big show of respecting the results, congratulating the winner, and declaring hopes for their success.

This moment can never last, but as long as it does, our next president needs to take the opportunity to affirm that a change has taken place - to ratchet in new norms and a radical shift in our politics, all with the memory of a recently mobilized and commanding political majority close at hand. There is never a better time to pursue socialist ambitions as aggressively as possible.

4. One of our immediate priorities should be to expand and entrench our power. This is just remedial Machiavelli so I don't want to dwell on it - either you accept it, or you don't - but since US socialists are so allergic to wielding and maintaining power, the point has to be made. When we take control of the state, one of the very first things we need to do is ensure that all of the antidemocratic obstacles placed in the way of our continued control of the state are completely destroyed. If you do not do this then it is probably only a matter of time until the enemies of democracy take power once again and tear down everything you have accomplished. This was one of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration, and it allowed the radical right to exploit the Achilles' heel of his incrementalist politics.

The left must not let that happen again. As I argued four years ago, one of the best ways to prevent that would be for our next president to move quickly to enact democratic reforms through executive action - and that calculus hasn't changed.