Saving democracy from the ground up: David Pepper on how to fight the GOP and win

Former Ohio Democratic chair says progressives are fighting the wrong battles the wrong way — but there's hope

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 28, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

US Capitol Building (Getty Images/Douglas Rissing)
US Capitol Building (Getty Images/Douglas Rissing)

In January 2022, I wrote about David Pepper's book "Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind the Lines," writing that it stood out in the literature on democratic erosion "as arguably the most important for three reasons: It brings the subject down to earth, connects democratic erosion to corruption and the decline in America's quality of life, and provides a wealth of ideas about how to fight back to protect democracy."  

Pepper's new book, "Saving Democracy: A User's Manual for Every American" builds on that foundation, providing not just a user's manual, but a diagnostic framework to help users orient themselves to the task at hand. It's a bottom-up guide for saving democracy from below. Whatever else you may read about saving democracy — history, political science, cognitive science, etc. — this book is essential in terms of  translating a necessary diversity of understanding into coherent, unified (not uniform) action. 

"It's a pretty tough critique about current pro-democracy efforts" as overly narrow and passive," Pepper told me when he sent my a pre-publication copy. But it draws inspiration from a lot of people who are already changing that, similar in some ways to "The Persuaders" by Anand Giridharadas, but with a sharper focus on the nitty-gritty of what, why and how, as befits a long-time organizer whose great-great-great-great-grandmother was a conductor of the Underground Railroad. The larger point, Pepper said, "is to show people there's so much more they can do to lift democracy than they're ever told."

In my interview with Pepper, I focused on the action-oriented insights that flow from realizing that the forces opposed to democracy are fighting a very different and more proactive battle than those who are reactively — and only sporadically — defending it. There are whole areas he covers that we didn't talk about here: issues of messaging, election protection, fighting censorship and more. What I've tried to capture in this interview is Pepper's way of seeing, and his ideas on how to transform the fight for democracy from below — democratically, in fact — to make it as vibrant, inspiring and successful as our children and grandchildren will need it to be if America's promise is to be fulfilled. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

You begin your book with Rhoda Denison Bement. Who was she and why do you start with her?

She is a great-great-great-great-grandmother who I've heard about since I was a little boy from my mom, and I've always been fascinated by her, once you realize what people like her went through to get us some progress. She was kicked out of an abolitionist church before Seneca Falls because she was so fierce about the need for abolition. She did live to see the end of slavery, but [women's] suffrage was her other big cause, and she never saw it and then the generation after her never saw it. Only the teenagers when she died would've seen it. To me that really tells the story of how progress is made in America. I'm using it to say to people today that this very short-cycle, next-election, live-or-die viewpoint gives us the wrong timeframe to see the struggle we're in. 

You write that there are "two battles taking place" in American democracy being fought on very different terms.  So how does "Team D," the team that supports democracy, see things? What are its assumptions, what are its goals and how does it try to reach them? 

The side that I call Team D, that generally has an instinct for the small-d democratic process, its battle is based on two assumptions. One, it generally assumes that democracy is intact and generally assumes that it represents a mainstream view, so it's confident that it can win over the American public on its views. Because of those two things, this side is comfortable fighting a battle through elections. It believes, "Hey, if we go win elections — and we can win them — we'll get what we want as policy in America."

The problem is, that side then determined that since it's about elections, let's go win the most important federal elections — that'll get us everything we need. That'll get us federal policy, the presidency and everything else, which quickly leads this side to being focused, not entirely but mostly, on swing states and swing districts in federal elections, presidential elections. And as I explain, the problem with all that is the first assumption is not correct. 

"There's nothing more eye-opening about the flaws of your overall battle plan, if you're celebrating victories, than to learn later that they weren't really victories."

So this side celebrates when it wins those federal swing-state elections that it has decided as its primary battleground. It celebrates like it's won the entire American political battle. As we've seen too often, because the other side is fighting a very different battle, that celebration is premature. Often this side finds that within a year or two of the big celebration, it actually hasn't won. There's nothing more eye-opening about the flaws of your overall battle plan, if you're celebrating victories, than to learn later that they weren't really victories. 

So how does "Team A," which opposes democracy, see things? What are its assumptions? 

They're very keen-eyed about two things: One is the reality that on almost every issue their agenda is actually deeply unpopular. They're not under any illusion that they represent a majority when they want to ban abortions or do trickle-down economics or insane gun laws that are supported by 10% of Americans, not even a majority of gun owners. This side understands very well that its worldview and most of its agenda is deeply unpopular. 

They exhibit that all the time. This is why Mitch McConnell told Lindsey Graham not to bring up a national abortion ban after the Dobbs decision. He knows. That is why he shouted down Joe Biden when he brought up Social Security. They don't want their views to be at the heart of the political debate, because they know these are views that do not enjoy anything close to majority support.  

Their No. 2 assumption — which, unfortunately, is also correct — is that democracy can be undermined. It happens all the time in other countries, it's happened over and over again in our country. So their battle is not about winning elections on a fair playing field, because they know they would lose that battle. Their battle is about how to subvert democracy enough to lock in their minority viewpoint that would never survive in a world of fair elections, in a healthy democracy.

This is a lot of what I wrote about in "Laboratories of Autocracy," expanded on here. They clearly figured out that the way to win their battle plan, which is to subvert democracy enough to lock in their minority worldview, is with all the tools and all the power that come with dominating states across this country. That's the heart of their battle, and because of that they're not doing what Team D is doing, which is focusing on a few states every other year and every fourth year in particular. They focus on any state where they can gain power, anytime there's an election. And they're building toward that, working on that between elections through organizations like ALEC. So it's an all-state, state-based battle that they're engaging in all the time, versus a swing-state sporadic battle that Team D is is engaging in. As I write in the book, that's why they're winning. They are on offense all the time, and Team D is not.  

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You say that seeing things this way "makes painfully clear the strategic adjustments those fighting for democracy must make in order to succeed." You list seven of them. First you argue that "the battle for democracy is a long battle."

Just to cite a specific example, this is how Stacey Abrams succeeded in Georgia. She understood this was a long battle. She didn't quit after the first federal election went red. She knew it was a long, long battle, which I hope leads to optimism. Because it shows you can succeed even when, on the surface, under the old federal lens, you don't think you are. So for some people, including myself, that long lens brings more hope that you can keep making a difference even in tough years. 

The second adjustment is to argue that the battle must be fought in all 50 states. 

"We are seeing right now across this country an explosion of extremism — because we are not battling for democracy in all 50 states."

Absolutely. This is crucial. We are seeing right now across this country an explosion of extremism because we are not battling for democracy in all 50 states. People are watching in horror what's happening in Tennessee, Ohio, Florida. That's a major result of the fact that there isn't a counter in those states for the extremism. Why all 50 states? Because you're going to win sometimes if you compete everywhere, because this extremism is so over the top and often unpopular. If you actually challenge it effectively, as we saw in Kansas both in the governor's race as well as the [abortion] referendum a year ago, you actually can win. But you never win if if you're not there. This is how you take on the extremism, by getting in a strong counter-push in all the states. Right now this doesn't exist because everything is about a swing state now. 

The third adjustment is that state legislatures are the front lines of democracy and you have to contest every district.

Absolutely. The fact that 50% of the Tennessee Republicans who voted out the two Justins didn't even have an election last November explains so much of their behavior. This is a crisis across the country. Once you have no election where the public actually has a choice, and the politicians know that, the effect on these people's incentive warps them completely. You have an incentive to be an extremist as opposed to mainstream. You have an incentive against public service, because the public really doesn't matter anymore. The private players in your statehouse matter more. So the warping of democracy when so many of these people face no democracy, no accountability — we're seeing it play out. 

The most important solution is, obviously, we have to end gerrymandering. But in a world of gerrymandering it's still far better to run everywhere than to let gerrymandering succeed by not running in half these places. That makes it so much worse. We want to have, in every one of these districts a fired-up candidate who is knocking on doors, explaining what that extremist down the street did, what that statehouse did. They may win, they may not win. But it starts to bring accountability back to places that simply don't have it anymore. 

The fourth adjustment is to understand that local offices impact democracy in huge ways.

We saw it recently with [the mayoral election in] Jacksonville, right? There's so many things that a good school board and a good mayor can do. These are frontline offices in this battle for democracy. They can engage voters, they can stop censorship, they can appoint library commissioners. These are all frontline positions. We make a huge mistake on the pro-democracy side when we call all of these positions the "bench," as if their importance is only about whether these people may someday be in Congress. This is not the bench. This is the frontline. 

ALEC doesn't think of these state representatives as the bench. They think of them as the frontline. They're running school board candidates all across this country not to be the bench, but to be the frontline in their attack on democracy. We have to see it the same way: A school board standing up against censorship is pivotal at this moment. So all these races, all these folks that we can elect, can play a role. Most of the time these are not in gerrymandered districts. So if the other side is running toxic candidates and it's not gerrymandered, you have a better chance of winning. And we've actually seen, across the country, many of these far-right school board candidates lose because of it.  

Then there's the fifth adjustment: Always fight for democracy. 

"A school board standing up against censorship is pivotal at this moment. All these races, all these folks that we can elect, can play a role."

It's tied to the the long game, but we've got to get out of this this mindset that it's just about the election cycle. So much more support work is to be done days after the election, months after the big election and not even related to elections at all. I'm convinced that most of the best voter engagement is not about a political party or a campaign at all. That's too late. That's too transactional. That's too narrow. It's about people, folks in a community, all sorts of organizations that are not political, who are more connected to many of the people who are left out of the process.

Right now the political cycle is is pushing almost all the work into the final months before an election day, and as I argue, that's far too late and far too little. We have to incorporate this work into everything we do all the time. It can't just be tied to the two-year or four-year election cycle. Much of this book has come from all the conversations with the people doing this work around the country. I've been inspired to see that there are people doing it right, but the scale of that work is still far smaller than needs to be if we're going to succeed. 

The sixth adjustment you identify is to redefine the teams.

There's a real risk that we have blinded ourselves to think of the attack on democracy as basically being Donald Trump. I think that really simplifies in a way that, although kind of convenient, really misleads ourselves on what's really happening. At the state level, all this would continue if Donald Trump were locked up tomorrow for any of the investigations he's undergoing. They would still be banning drop boxes, they would still be gerrymandering, they would still be passing these toxic laws. 

If we only make it about Trump, we are we are excusing and giving cover to many other people. Ron DeSantis has shown every sign of being someone who will attack the basic principles of democracy. He already has, repeatedly. In Ohio, [Secretary of State] Frank LaRose has been actually more effective in attacking democracy through a polite narrative than anything Donald Trump has done. He's gerrymandered the state. He's violated the Constitution seven times. Now he's breaking an election law to have a special election in August. When we make it only about Trump and those who act or seem like Trump, we actually blind ourselves to many other people who seem more sort of civil in their appearance but are just as fierce, if not more so, in their attack on democracy. 

The last adjustment is: Accountability is everything.  

This is one that that I came to see more after I wrote this first book. The secret sauce of everything they're doing is that they're never accountable for any of it. Every time they aren't held accountable, it's not a moment of relief for them, it's a moment of inspiration to go further. Trump is a perfect example. Lack of accountability just spurs him to go further. That lack of accountability is now playing out in every state and every statehouse in these controversial red states. They don't feel accountable to the people, and they don't feel accountable to laws. 

And whenever they see accountability emerging, whether it be through a referendum effort, whether it be through a Supreme Court, like they had in North Carolina and Ohio for a short time — they'll see it now in Wisconsin — whenever they see a threat of accountability against what they're doing, they immediately work to strip that threat of any power. 

"There's a real risk that we think of the attack on democracy as basically being Donald Trump. I think that may be kind of convenient but really misleads ourselves on what's really happening."

Whenever we can exert power that brings accountability, we must. We can't shy away from that. I worry sometimes that Democrats are shy to be as aggressive the other side. But if you are a prosecutor and you have a case that you can bring, like we're seeing in Atlanta, knowing that many of these states are so locked up that accountability will never come at the state level — we have to remake accountability. That goes from the FBI cracking down on bribery in Ohio — which is happening, which is good — to local prosecutors, to people going to the bar association and challenging people's law degrees, to private lawsuits, like what we saw happen to Fox News. When we see accountability, it's an "aha" moment. Jean Carroll is a great example. People have to be brave enough to seek accountability at whatever level they can when we have a chance to, because the right wing is living in a world, for the most part, that has no accountability. It's critical we bring it back when we can. 

You write that the "first and biggest step" people can take is a shift in your mindset," which is about incorporating "saving democracy" into your personal mission statement.  What do you mean by that? 

I think of it very simply: You have two ways you can think about what you do for democracy. It's something you do among many other things, or it's a core of who you are and what you fight for. And the second one is that commitment. It's not just some activity I do on Fridays. It's a core of who I am, just like Rhoda Denison Bement. It was a core of who she was. I think about making it a core mission, like you would do when you make your New Year's resolutions: I am going to stand for this as a person. My nonprofit is going to incorporate it into its core mission: we serve people, but we serve people by helping enable them to be part of democracy. 

I'm consumed with the idea that we had to fight for this, so I incorporate it into what I do all the time. I'm literally writing books for that reason. I think once people put it there, they can see, "Oh my gosh, I'm on that nonprofit board. I can do it there. I'm an active member of my church, people listen to me." There's so many ways you can do it that once you put it as a core mission, it becomes far more clear than if you just are thinking, "I'm part of this one group and we do it every month and that's fine." Putting it into your core mission means you going to seek it out far more than you ever have before. 

We all have a footprint of organizations that we're part of in some way, of family or community things we do every day, ways we communicate. Most people use none of their footprint, or a tiny sliver of it, to lift democracy. What I'm trying to show people is that once you put it as your core mission, once you inventory what your footprint is, you will see that not only are there many opportunities within your footprint to lift democracy, but some of the best opportunities are in your footprint, and you never thought of them.  

You have another chapter called "Democracy Everywhere, Accountability Everywhere, Run Everywhere." That feels like an effort to define the nature and scale of the problem you're talking about.

It's truly a crisis that we have millions and millions of Americans living in a world with no democracy at the state level, and that is leading to the downward spiral of extremism. I mentioned this earlier: In a district with no opposition, all the incentives of your time and power are warped. You are serving an extremist agenda, because that's how you avoid a primary. That's why a new mindset is of paramount importance: We have to run against them everywhere and build an infrastructure that values running everywhere, which is something we do not have right now. So I call it a crisis: In a mindset where you largely care about federal swing states, you don't see this is a crisis. This is seen as how it works. We have to change that. 

There are ways to do it. There are ways to build that infrastructure from the bottom up. I was glad to see Joe Biden endorse in the Pennsylvania special election last Tuesday. We need to build an entire infrastructure that says we value these races so much that we're going to run in all them, and we're going to find ways to help these candidates.

Can you talk about Blue Ohio as an example of that?

When I wrote my last book, one of the first emails I got was from a woman in Missouri who started a group that was crowdfunding support for candidates in tough districts. She managed to put together technology that takes small-dollar regular contributions and then it gives out those contributions to candidates, but starting with the very difficult districts, not the swing districts everyone's already focused on. 

I was so excited about the idea that I said, "Let's bring this to Ohio." In only five months we had a thousand members putting in $10 a month, $15 a month, we have monthly meetings that are very well attended. In only five months we were able to take one data point and change it dramatically: In 2020 there were 13 Ohio state-level candidates — beyond the non-contested races — who had less than $5,000 in their entire campaigns. In only five months, we took that number and made it zero. We started at the bottom and worked our way up. 

"Amy McGrath raised $100 million in Kentucky because grassroots donors were told it would make a difference to democracy. Good for her. But some part of that spend would go so much further in states where we have all these uncontested races."

Again, this is a long game. [Kentucky Senate candidate] Amy McGrath raised $100 million because a mass amount of grassroots donors were told give to that race, because it would make a difference to democracy. Good for her. I don't criticize that. But some part of that spend would go so much further in states where we have all these uncontested races. Blue Ohio is trying to create a mechanism to do that in one state, and then do it in other states. If we keep growing, if we keep adding over time — it's all about the long game — all of a sudden you have this institution that is one of the biggest funders of statehouse campaigns in Ohio. It's funding the hardest districts first and it's doing it not for some special interest but because these people support democracy. So I think it's a wonderful vision, a big picture and something we can build on long-term. 

There's so much more in your book we don't have time to cover. So let me ask: What's the most important question I haven't asked, and what's the answer?

Two main closing points I'd emphasize: Right now, we too often accept the smaller electorate that is a result of purging and voter suppression, because our political operations only talk to the most frequent voters. That ends up leaving so many others out. It's critical that as we use our full footprints to lift democracy, we find as many ways as possible to engage the voters that have essentially been removed from the political conversation. That's why community organizations  and effective precinct organizing are so important. They allow us to get to folks who are too often left unengaged by standard political operations and campaigns.

Second, I'd highlight the second half of my last chapter. There's a unique opportunity at this moment, where all the work I mentioned can have an especially big impact.  The extremism of the other side, which has been hidden for so long, is now plain as day. We are seeing ever-growing awareness about the threat to democracy, as well as emerging and successful best practices of how to fight back. Some of that work led to historic state-level progress in 2022. The reason I rushed this book out as fast as I could is that, if done right, a broad collective push for democracy can be especially effective right now.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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