Interview with Sam Hudis of the Young Democrats of America — Part 1: The Elections

Sam at his home in New York City.

On the 6th of October, I interviewed Sam Hudis, the International Officer of the Young Democrats of America (YDA). It ended up being a long discussion, which is why we decided the publish it in sections. In this first section, Sam and I discuss the presidential election and the consequences of a Trump win, both within the US as well as for the world. We also spend some time discussing the pros and cons of the voting system in the US, versus that of the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. As the YDA is a federal organisation, Sam isn’t directly involved in a lot of the election strategising as YDA International Officer. Nevertheless, he gave a good insight into the general aim of political campaigning in the US. But first, we discussed the campaign tactics of Trump and Biden.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sam: At the Republican convention, they’re back to these very dark themes: Joe Biden is a communist, and they want to like abolish suburbs. Which is funny, because I think in some countries, if you said “abolish the suburbs” that would be popular. Trump at his convention did all this racially coded stuff, like the black people are going to come for your suburbs. I think he spent his entire strategy — which is I guess we’ve gotten used to it but it should be pointed out — instead of being a mainstream leader, instead of trying to convince the middle, his whole strategy has been to play into his base, sow social and racial and political divisions in America and just try to convince his followers that he’s the only one protecting them from like a communist revolution or something crazy.

Krijn: Or black people taking over.

Sam: Exactly. The politics are also racially coded in this case: a communist revolution means black people taking over and vice versa. This has been most of what happened in the election. And then there was this debate where the president of the United States was acting like a child, shouting over his opponent and the moderator.

Krijn: But this time he wasn’t debating against a woman, which meant it didn’t look as good shouting over his opponent. Because of course shouting over a woman is fine.

Sam: There is an extent to which that is true, but I also think that Trump was worse in this debate than he was in the ones in 2016.

Krijn: Yes that is true, he was more petulant now than he was in 2016.

After this, we moved on to discuss the consequences of a Trump win.

Sam: This is in itself a cliché phrase, but I think this is the most important election in our lives, because it has implications, not only for the future of the United States, but also for the future of the liberal democratic world, because if America…

Krijn: Don’t forget the planet. If Trump gets re-elected, the whole world might as well stop with climate change policies.

Sam: That’s true as well: environmental policy has no future if Trump gets re-elected. For the liberal democratic world, it would mean that America has consolidated this anti-democratic choice. I hope this isn’t too chauvinistic, but I worry about the strength of the global liberal democratic block if America isn’t part of it, and if America isn’t a leading part of it in the way that we have since — I wouldn’t even say since 1945, I would say since 1919: since Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles.

And this has immediate implications in other areas as well. For example, on a local level here in New York. The city of New York has a huge financial problem, because a lot of its taxes are levied on the financial activity that happens in the city. So, for example, our public transit system right now is facing a huge budget shortfall and we might lose most of our subway service if we don’t get some kind of federal government bailout, because in the United States, by law, states and local governments are not allowed to run a budget deficit. They can’t go into debt in the way that the federal government can go into dept at its will — the city and the state can’t do that. So if the federal government doesn’t send a huge amount of money to the support of not only New York City, but cities and states around the country, then massive layoffs city of government workers will follow, hospitals will close down, schools will close down, public transportation will close down; that in itself is would be a crisis on top of everything else. If Trump is re-elected, New York City has a very bad future.

Krijn: It sounds like the US will really turn into a failed state then.

Sam: Yes, unfortunately that has been the trend. As I said: this year that I’ve watched my country turn into a failed state.

Krijn: I just hadn’t realised, with all the economic issues, how easy it would be right now, for Trump to have a mechanism to make that happen.

Sam: Trump has never seen himself as leader of America, but only as a factional representative of his faction.

Krijn: He’s just such a narcissist that the whole idea of there being a country that he is somehow responsible for just doesn’t quite exist in his head.

Sam: That’s certainly true, but also, at least on a political level he understands the concept of delivering for his supporters. And he tries very hard to say: “I’ve gotten this for you. I’ve gotten that for you.” He’s a very transactional person. But when it comes to the cities, he says: “Well to hell with them! They’re all Democrats. The cities don’t support me, so to hell with them.” If the cities were republican, if the cities were where is supporters live, then he would do something helpful. But he doesn’t believe that he owes anything to anyone who doesn’t support him.

This seemed like a good point to ask about the YDA’s election strategy.

Krijn: Given this context, how are you, as the YDA, treating the election in that sense? In the end do you just do what you do at every election? Because despite all this it’s still just an election and you have to strategise and campaign and do it all the normal way. It’s just that the gravity of it is far larger, given what we have just discussed. Because it is happening now, and you’re in the middle of it!

Sam: That’s right! It’s October the 6th today, so we’re less than 30 days away from the election now. Fortunately, the polls look pretty good. I am less worried about this than I have been. But as for what the YDA is doing, we’re doing the same thing we have always done. We’re involved in a lot of voter outreach. Our state and local chapters haven’t been canvassing a lot this year, because of Covid-19. We’re not doing the normal campaigning thing where we’re going door to door, telling people to vote. But we’re doing a lot of phone banking and text banking.

I would say that is really the core of our campaign activity: telephone and text message outreach to remind people to vote. This is an American campaign tactic, because, as a baseline, we have some of the lowest levels of voter participation of any democracy. I think if other countries did this, it wouldn’t be as an effective a strategy, but in America because you only half, or 60% of voters participate in the election, our electoral strategy is really just to make contact with the voters who are likely to support us, and just remind them to vote, and be sort of scientific about it. For most of the year when we’re doing this outreach, we are identifying who supports us and who doesn’t. You enter all this data, and you keep these records, of which voters say that they support us and which don’t, and then of everyone who said that they support us, we go back and then we do what we call “get out the vote” and remind them to vote. And the people who said that they don’t support us, we don’t talk to them.

Krijn: They can forget about the elections.

Sam: That’s up to them, but we encourage the people who said they would vote for the Democrats to go vote. That is what we have been doing, and that is what we continue to do. Also because we now have early voting, so I think two or three million votes have already been cast in this election. I have my ballot. I could fill this out and put it in the mailbox tonight if I wanted to. So, in some ways, we’re not even 30 days from the election. We’re in the election right now. It’s not election day it’s election season.

This prompted me to ask which other elections are happening today. Which then resulted in a discussion of the pros and cons of the US’s electoral system, versus that of the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, the last three are the countries I am most familiar with, as I have lived in each.

Krijn: Besides the presidential vote, isn’t it the case that the whole of the House of Representatives, and a third of the Senate is up for election as well?

Sam: Yes, the whole House of Representatives and a third of the Senate.

Krijn: So the whole House of Representatives gets elected every 3 years?

Sam: Every two years.

Krijn: Every two years?!

Sam: So the President is every four years, the House of Representatives every two years, and then the Senate is one third every two years, so each Senator has an electoral term of six years.

Krijn: It seems insane that the elections for the House of Representatives are every two years.

Sam: Well, this goes back to Thomas Jefferson. In the 1700s, when they wrote the constitution, they believed that the House of Representatives should be very sensitive to popular opinion, which is why they made it every two years. And the Senate is theoretically supposed to be this non-partisan, more technocratic body, which maybe it was for a few hundred years, but it has rapidly turned into something very partisan. If you ask me, I think we should abolish the Senate and create a unicameral legislature. Because I think the Senate today serves no legitimate purpose, and only contributes to this democratic deficit we have in the United States.

Krijn: I can see what you mean by that. In that respect I find the German system very interesting. Because you have a bicameral system here, where the lower house — the Bundestag — is a directly elected parliament like the House of Representatives, but then you have the Bundesrat, which is actually the actual governments of the German federal states and their ministers.

Sam: That is the history of the US Senate as well actually. That is the way they set it up originally. The senate would have representatives from the state governments. But in the early 20th Century, we amended the constitution to provide for direct elections of Senators. Originally, they were representatives from the state governments. Although, in the Bundesrat is every state represented equally, or is it according to their population?

Krijn: It’s according to their population.

Sam: That is more democratically legitimate. What we have is we have a state like Wyoming, which has half a million people, and they have two senators, and then we have a state like California, which has 40 million people, and they have two senators. So, in the Senate, effectively the citizens of Wyoming have 80 times the representation of the citizens of California. That in itself creates an inherent partisan advantage for Republicans, but also there is a racial disparity, because the smaller states, which are over-represented, are much whiter than the rest of the country. It creates something that, more and more, we need to take seriously as a structural democratic deficit in the United States. If you really got me started on this: I am a strong proponent for major revisions in the US constitution, because I think it is not democratic.

Krijn: I would agree with you on that. Having just moved from a country which doesn’t actually have a constitution [i.e. the United Kingdom], but who’s system of government hasn’t changed fundamentally for the last 400 years. And one [i.e. Germany] that is technically as old as I am, because I was born two days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I would say that this country’s constitution is much better, than whatever happens in the UK.

Sam: Actually, the United Kingdom is more democratic than the United States.

Krijn: The difference there though, is that the UK doesn’t have any balance of power.

Sam: But that is better, because at least it is representative.

Krijn: But it is not representative, because you can win with a minority of the votes.

Sam: That is true. I’m thinking of our friends the Young Liberals in the UK where their party [the Liberal Democrats] gets more votes than the Scottish Nationalist Party, but they have five seats in parliament and the SNP has 47.

Krijn: And then there is the thing were both major parties are just run from London, so there is no regional representation. And it is just winner takes all, because as long as one party has a majority in parliament, they can just take all the decisions.

Sam: But the US is winner takes all as well.

Krijn: Not quite, because in the UK there are only elections for parliament. In the US you have separate elections for the President, the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the UK, because there is no constitution, Thatcher could abolish a whole tier of government, the London County Council, just because she didn’t like the person who ran it at the time. With no constitution, all it took was one act of parliament, and since her party had a majority, they could pass the law and abolish that layer of government. The building it was housed in is now an aquarium.

Sam: What are you talking about?

Krijn: London is made up of 30 boroughs. Back in Thatcher’s days there was an additional tier of government, the London County Council, that had its own government and parliament, and that would take care of city-wide things like transportation. But that tier of government was just abolished, and a city-wide London mayor was only introduced again by Blair in the 2000s.

But besides these quirks, the main issue with the UK in my opinion is just that government is over-centralised. All the main decisions are basically taken by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the minister of finance as well as the minister for economics. Every half a year the Chancellor brings out a budget which is so detailed that it even includes which railway lines will be electrified. And so, all other ministries are just resigned to execute the budget that the Chancellor has decided on. This then leads to very little deliberation, and very crudely made policy, because there is no consensus-building, and very few points of view or bits of expertise are actually taken into account. This is why I actually prefer the system in Germany, where not only do you need a coalition government, but then also far more active participation by parliamentarians when it comes to writing legislation. And then on top of that you have the Bundesrat, where the governments of the German federal states are represented, who have to agree on a law as well.

Sam: The reason that I have the reaction that I do, and a lot of Democrats like me, is that we’re still really scarred by the fact that when Obama was president, the Republicans — very successfully, despite always being a minority — managed to make it impossible to pass any sort of legislation. They managed to successfully prevent meaningful climate change legislation from being passed. They managed to really damage and water down the healthcare reform. They managed to thwart a lot of major priorities, that I feel Obama should have had the power to implement as president. And they were able to do that, in part because they have the Senate, which, as I have explained, is non-representative. They were able to make it impossible for the winning party, which commanded the majority of the country, to govern. That is why I actually look admiringly at the British system, because at least there the people who win the election actually get a chance to enact their policies.

Krijn: Whereas I look at both Germany and the Netherlands. Actually in the Netherlands when it comes to the parliamentary structure we are quite similar to the UK, in that we have one directly elected parliament, like the House of Commons in the UK, and one that functions more like the UK house of Lords, where it isn’t supposed to get involved in policy decisions, but is supposed to look at legislation on a more technical level, and see whether it is written well. But where the Netherlands is similar to Germany is that, because of the voting system, you have many more parties in Parliament, and you always have coalition governments.

Sam: I think that is the difference: in any system where you have to have a coalition, that, by necessity, depolarises the politics.

Krijn: Yes, it really does. And that, to me, it creates a kind of balance of power, but through coalition building, which functions differently from the system in the US, where different political bodies need to work together to enact legislation.

Sam: I would rather have that political system, absolutely.

Krijn: I’m pretty content with what we have in the Netherlands and here in Germany. But I see your point about the Senate and indeed the constitutional court being fundamentally unrepresentative.

This general discussion on how representative and how desirable different democratic systems are then led to a more specific discussion on the possibility of removing the limit on the maximum number of judges in the US Supreme Court

Sam: At least what we can now do with the Supreme Court is remove the limit to the number of judges. Just like with the Mayor of London, the size of the supreme court is not determined by the constitution, it is only determined by statue. If Joe Biden is elected president, and we have a Democratic House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate, we could change the statute to increase the number of judges.

Krijn: How likely do you think that will be? And to what extent is this something the Democrats and the YDA are focussing in their campaigning?

Sam: I think it is really hard to say. One thing that I think this year should teach all of us, is that we need to be a little bit more humble about predicting. So if you’re asking me how likely it is: I have no idea. But if the Democrats get a chance to do it, I think they should. I think it’s an appropriate response. And if you ask most people in the YDA, I think they would agree and feel this way as well. Although I haven’t even discussed it. But I get the sense that they think the same way about it. It is not something that anyone is campaigning on right now, because Biden’s strategy — sort of as a reaction to Trump’s strategy being all about his base — is to try to unite the country and be a president for all Americans. Since this would be a divisive topic, that wouldn’t play well with Republicans, he tries to avoid talking about it. He was asked whether he intends to change the maximum number of judges on the supreme court during the first debate, and he refused to answer the question. And I saw an interview with Kamala Harris on cable news, where she was asked the question, and she said she wouldn’t answer the question. So they don’t want to say anything about this. Which is actually encouraging, because if they didn’t want to do it, they could just say they weren’t going to do it. In the context of the campaign, it would be more politically expedient for them to say no, so the fact that they don’t means they want to keep their options open.

Finally, we spoke a bit more about the mechanics of the campaign and the election itself. Discussing the increased number of ‘swing states’ this presidential election in particular.

Krijn: What do you know about specific congressional districts being targeted and other aspects of the campaign like that? And in the state of New York are there many seats being targeted, or is it so much of a Democratic stronghold, that there isn’t much campaigning going on?

Sam:  You’d be surprised actually. New York City is very Democratic, but the state is very big, and there are large parts of the state that are rural. The president is very popular in parts of the state. So there are some swing congressional districts in the state of New York. But in general, because YDA is structured federally, asking me what the YDA is up to, is a bit like asking members of the IFLRY Bureau what all the IFLRY member organisations are up to. The YDA is very decentralised, so the answer is that every state chapter has their own campaign plan, they know their local area best, and they know what areas they are targeting. So I actually don’t know much about the detail of the strategies that each state chapter is pursuing in their state.

Pennsylvania right now looks like it’s one of the most crucial swing states. According to statistical analysis, it looks like it sits at the balance of power between Biden and Trump in the Electoral College. That’s why there is a lot of focus on Pennsylvania, but also other swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida. Actually, it’s a bit of a wider playing field this year, in the sense that there are more states where it is uncertain whether a majority of people there will vote Republican or Democrat. Biden has been doing pretty well in the polling, even in places like Georgia and Texas, which have traditionally been very Republican states.

Krijn: Is the fact that there are more swing states a good sign for a win for Joe Biden, or does that just make the outcome more uncertain?

Sam: The Electoral College is an undemocratic institution and it contributes, along with the Senate, to what I call our American democratic deficit. It is problematic that it exists in the first place — my vote for president doesn’t really count for anything. But things being as they are, the fact that there are more swing states means that you have more Americans meaningfully participating in this election. Regardless of the outcome, that is a good sign. So it’s good to have more swing states. I don’t have a meaningful vote here in New York when it comes to the presidential election, neither do people in California. The fact that there now are people in more states that actually get to influence the outcome of the election is a good sign. At least it makes the country a little bit more democratic.

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