On March 21 of 1965, after months of state obstruction, violence, court orders, and federal intervention, thousands of soldiers of democracy began a historic march for freedom from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Eventually, the ranks of the marchers swelled to more than 30,000, reaching the state capital in defiance of the populist Gov. George Wallace. Republicans and Democrats, people of all faiths, atheists, radical leftists, and principled conservatives came together to advance democracy in America.
I recalled that historic struggle while grading finals this week at Linnaea’s, and it made me reflect not only on how the newest generation of Americans is coping with its own challenges to democracy, but how a new political center is being forged, locally and nationally, in response to the erosion of democracy. My students recognize it, as do my neighbors. I think we are seeing the outlines of a new center taking shape in this country, following the footsteps of those who sacrificed so much in Selma, steadily marching toward a more perfect union.
Yes, the new center is concerned about elections. When asked what one change they would make to reaffirm our democratic culture, the vast majority of my students, Democrats and Republicans, cited the Electoral College as a destabilizing institution. After all, as kids they spent their lives being told that the winner in an election is whoever gets the most votes. They understand that once every 100 years, you can get an unusual outcome (an electoral/popular vote mismatch) and survive it, but two in five elections, and a systematic bias in favor of one party over another, threatens the legitimacy of our electoral institutions.
There is broad agreement that no candidate or party should have an advantage over others because they are able to game the rules. The value of your vote should not depend on whom you vote for. Fixing this takes effort and organization, but we are seeing the results in lawsuits across the country striking down electoral laws that discriminate on these grounds, and the Supreme Court will hear several of these cases this year.
But it’s not just about elections. It’s about being informed, engaged citizens, like the thousands of citizens, including elected officials, firefighters, and public safety personnel from across the state who successfully opposed the Phillips 66 rail spur project last week. Not coincidentally, the same people who deny the risk of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also denied, right in this column last week, that there would be any increased risk from an additional 400 oil tank cars moving on our local rails every year.
Fortunately, the SLO County Board of Supervisors recognized that a broad coalition had taken account of the increased risk, the existing benefits, and the long-term effects of such a decision on energy and environmental policy. The lone wolf who supported Phillips 66 against the safety of her own constituents was 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold. Even 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton saw the wisdom of voting as if her job depended on it. That’s a big local win for the new center, and it reflects part of a broader shift in policy values for the country, namely the recognition that the environment and the economy are not locked in a zero-sum game. Environmental health and well being need not be subjugated to the economic interests of powerful corporations, and our prosperity is not tied to petroleum dependence.
The goal posts have also shifted in the arena of personal health, with a broad coalition, including several Republican officials, affirming that citizens have a right to basic health care. Rather than accept the best health care system that money can buy, we as a people increasingly support access to affordable care for all. This is a paradigm shift in U.S. health care policy, and it demonstrates the power of legislation to shape cultural norms. It also reflects an understanding of the benefits of science-based policy, a commitment to doing what works, and a recognition that it is not big or small government that works, but effective government. Indeed, far from a dismantling of the administrative state, the new center supports government investment (not tax breaks) in infrastructure, research, and development because that is what truly made America great. At least if we consider greatness in terms of economic prosperity, it was the 1940s to 1970s, and not the Gilded Age.
That era was broadly progressive and forward-looking, and great things came of it. Similarly, the new center doesn’t get hung up on which bathroom people of various genders use, or whether religious dogma should govern women’s reproductive rights. The new center is taking new steps across new bridges, like every generation must.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.