Our Democracy in Crisis, State and Local Power With Hillary Rodham Clinton & David Pepper


You and Me Both is a production of iHeartRadio. Podcast recording available HERE.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I’m Hillary Clinton, and this is You and Me Both. I don’t know about you, but the number one thing that keeps me up at night these days is the fragile state of democracy in our country. Over the past years, we’ve lived through some alarming assaults that have been decades in the making. You know, I saw unnerving signs that there were those who wanted to undermine our institutions, destroy the rule of law, rig and take over our elections, and not make it possible for a lot of people to fully participate. I saw all of that as a first lady, a senator, a presidential candidate, a secretary of state. And yet even with all of that, I am surprised at how far these efforts have come. 

I may not hold public office anymore, but I remain as committed as ever to doing everything I can to protect and preserve our democracy. And over the course of this season of You and Me Both, we’re going to take a hard look from various vantage points about the state of our democracy. I’ll be talking to experts and leaders and advocates who are doing incredible work on the front lines. Today, to kick us off, we’re looking at how our democracy is doing at the state and local level, which, sad to say, is not so great. 

Now later, we’re going to hear from a phenomenal young elected public servant out of Texas, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. But first, I’m talking to Ohio-based political strategist David Pepper. David is someone I’ve known and admired for quite some time. Back in his home state of Ohio, he has served on the Cincinnati City Council and as chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. David’s the author of a new book called Laboratories of Autocracy, and he explains in the book about all the ways that a state and its powers can impact on our lives. He’s got an incredible grasp of what’s happening not only in Ohio, but more generally at the state level, and he’s got a way of explaining it so that we can all understand. So that’s why I’m so excited to have him on this podcast. The first question I had for David is what led him to write this new book. What was he seeing in his state of Ohio and beyond, across our country?

DAVID PEPPER: I had no intention of writing a book at all last year, but by about April, my level of alarm about the state level attacks on democracy that most folks don’t see or the media doesn’t cover got so heightened that I started frantically writing this book to sound the alarm, and the subtitle is “A Wake Up Call From Behind the Lines”. And that’s literally why I wrote it was to say, all those out there, you know, in different parts of the country, you have to pay attention to these statehouse attacks on democracy. They’re relentless. And they’re effective. And if we don’t do something about them in almost every way we think about politics, they will continue and downward spiral. And even since I’ve written it, it’s gotten worse. So I appreciate the chance to talk about it today.

HRC: Well, the title of your book, Laboratories of Autocracy, is a play on the wonderful phrase from Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, his idea that states are the laboratories of democracy. In other words, you know, states could try different things, how best to provide health care or educate kids– all kinds of experimentation, which then could be proven at the state level and other states could follow, and even the national federal government could learn. And so the idea that you took what was viewed as a very positive description of what states could do, “laboratories of democracy,” and turned it on its head to be “laboratories of autocracy,” I think goes right to the heart of the problem. Most people, David, don’t know or realize how much power state legislatures, state governments, have. 

PEPPER: Right. And Justice Brandeis was right. You know, we’ve seen whether it was the Affordable Care Act coming out of state ideas, whether it was the battle to create marriage equality that was state level momentum. I turned the title on its head because folks turned the role of states on their head over the last 40 years. And you know, this sounds disrespectful. There are a lot of good state reps working very hard, but the broader point is that statehouses basically have emerged as the Achilles’ heel of American governance because of a mismatch. Huge amounts of power. No one knows about it. That’s not good for democracy. The power is over almost every issue we care about in politics: economics, social policy, climate change. But then there’s also the immense power over democracy itself. You know, they set the rules of the elections for the most part, although Congress can and should do more to fight back on those. They draw the district lines. As Donald Trump figured out too late but it’s the fact they control the Electoral College process in many ways. So huge power over the substantive things we all care about. And then a huge power over democracy itself. Almost no one knows. But here’s the bad news. Certain insiders figured it out, as you pointed out for years decades ago. And if certain insiders figured out a lot of money in the average person, does it know it? Things get ugly real quick. And that’s sort of what the book walks through.

HRC: Well, I think it’s such an important point, and I tried to sound the alarm starting in the 90s that there really was a well-organized and extremely well-funded effort to take over state houses state elected offices, state judicial systems, local offices and not just to wield power, but to wield power for purposes that sadly redound to the benefit of those on the right–corporate power, ideological power, even in some cases religious power. And Donald Trump sort of lit an even bigger fire under it, and so now clearly it’s on steroids. But let’s start with-

PEPPER: Correct.

HRC: -Ohio, because that’s where you’ve been living and working most of your adult life. I mean, one of the things I was surprised about when I was running for president in 2016 is how effectively the Ohio government apparatus had purged voters. Millions of Ohio voters who had voted in 2008 and 2012, mostly for Barack Obama, were wiped from the voting rolls! And I did not know that until, you know, I got into it.

PEPPER: Yeah, there’s a group of people who understand that their worldview would not survive in a robust democracy. 

HRC: Right.

PEPPER: Trickle down economics would not survive in a robust democracy. Too many people are left out. Attacking Roe v. Wade non stop, the crazy gun laws. None of that would survive in a world of robust democracy. They know that. So while we’re fighting over elections, they’re fighting democracy itself because only by keeping it at bay can they get their worldview in place long term. They need suppressed democracy. So decades ago, they understood that statehouses are the heart of democracy, and they could weaponize statehouses to both, you know, get their substantive ends done in undemocratic state houses, as well as use state houses to subvert democracy. Therefore, they could get a worldview that’s a minority view that would not survive in a diverse majority, which we are today. And that’s, that’s really what they’ve been doing. In Ohio, we are the canary in the coal mine because, as you know, we weren’t just blue in ‘08 for Obama. Ted Strickland was the governor, our good friend. We had a Democratic State House. And what they showed over the next decade, they were so furious that Obama turned Ohio blue in ‘08, not just because it was about the presidency. What happened when he won in 08? That Obama coalition won us the State House. We had 10 members out of 18 of Congress, Democrats did, after ‘08. So the Obama Coalition, more than just Obama, was this massive threat. And as we saw, beginning in ‘10, they went to town intentionally going after the coalition that they knew was a threat long term that represented the majority that would otherwise never let them accomplish their substantive goals. So they went after early vote, because that was the way that Obama coalition voted disproportionately. They went after young voters. But the tool they used in Ohio that was so effective, like Georgia, was purging. And by the way, just to be clear to voters who may not know this, you can update your voting rolls quite simply, based on who’s passed away and who’s moved. The Post Office generates the list of who’s moved on a regular basis. Health departments generate lists of who’s passed away. That’s not hard to do, it’s the 21st century. In Ohio, they also are purging people who vote infrequently. 

HRC: That’s right. 

PEPPER: That’s the net that has caught up millions of voters, disproportionately Obama voters, your voters, Democratic voters. And as I walk through in the book and your campaign Herculean effort to find those purge voters in ‘16, months of it. But even with the resources and the capacity of your campaign, it’s what everyone is focused on, we all worked hard and we worked together, I was a Chair then, to get them all registered, we still didn’t come close to how many had been purged. And by the way, that also meant we weren’t using resources to talk to swing voters or register voters because we were doing everything we could to get those unregistered voters back on. So they end up forcing you to burn everything at both ends, and it has a massive impact. It’s a devastating case study that when they decide to target the electorate that’s defeating them, it works. 

So why did they fail in ‘20? Well, one reason is this mechanism of voting drop boxes that no one’s ever cared about before. Drop boxes are in Anchorage, Alaska. They’re in Salt Lake City, Utah. No one cared. But in ‘20, those drop boxes were disproportionately used by voters of color. So now what are they doing? They targeted the Obama coalition with early voting purging, now its drop boxes. And this is why I reject the notion “we’ll just out-organize all this.” Of course, we need to organize as hard as we ever have. But the response to voter suppression enacted by law must also be government pushing back, at the federal level. To just say to your volunteers or future volunteers, “just go organize” – in some states, that will work. But when it’s close enough and the suppression is brutal enough, the greatest volunteer effort in the world is not going to be enough to overcome the kind of suppression we’re talking about. So the whole point of the book is to say if we don’t start engaging at the state level, ending gerrymandering when we can, but running in every district to at least hold them accountable, that lack of accountability is how everything else keeps going. And we’re seeing that in painful ways in states like Ohio.

HRC: Well, I know our listeners cannot see me nodding vigorously in agreement with you, David, but it is heartbreaking to me on several counts, one that we have this well-organized, well-funded effort to upend democracy, to seize power, to promote what are truly unpopular, less than majority points of view, and that the other side is relentless. And I think it’s important for people to understand who’s behind this. Where did this really all come from, in your opinion?

PEPPER: So it’s a convergence of several things. You know, a lot of it was driven by dollars–the Koch brothers, a worldview ideology of trickle down economics that they view any kind of stronger government as a threat to because it’s going to pass regulations or enact tax policies that they view takes their dollars, and it goes beyond them. It goes to a broader population. They don’t like the type of economics that, you know, President Clinton led and Democrats always lead on, which is a middle class-based economy. They view that as taking from them. That’s a big part of it. And that’s what’s funding, you know, I won’t go through all the acronyms, but ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation, the people funding that are largely, you know, people like the Koch brothers, large corporations that view any government interference with their quote unquote economic liberty as a threat. 

But we also need to acknowledge we have this very sad history of white backlash whenever there’s a diverse majority that arises in our country and saying, “OK, we’re going to, we’re going to run the show.” It happened after the reconstruction, you know, huge numbers of registered Black voters in the South. More Black voters than white voters in states like Louisiana, they were electing Black mayors and council members and State House speakers and even members of Congress. Backlash was fierce, you know, allegations of voter fraud, violence, and that backlash led to a century of Jim Crow. We saw it, you know, after the civil rights movement and the laws of the 60s, all of a sudden, the Southern Strategy. We saw it after Obama won, as Isabel Wilkerson writes, Obama winning was in many ways this shock to this world that doesn’t want a diverse majority. He symbolized it, that Obama coalition symbolized it. What happens, 2011? Boom. They immediately pushed back. And obviously the prospect that large numbers of African-American voters in Atlanta and Detroit and Philadelphia elected Biden and Harris also triggers this fierce backlash. So there’s economics, but there’s also that very somber history. And again, I wrote my book frantically for several reasons. One is I have a five and a seven year old, and I don’t want them spending the rest of their lives fighting for a democracy that we lost. Number two, when I look at the history, the lessons of what we have to do are so clear from that history that I want to write it down and have people read it, because I think if you see the similarities to what led to not a decade of Jim Crow, but generations of Jim Crow, are so stark that if that doesn’t wake you up, I don’t know what will.

HRC: We’re taking a quick break. Stay with us. 

<ad break>

HRC: You know, when you concentrate on Ohio, which you know, is such an important state in every, every way, but particularly in elections as you know so well, you really bring it alive and shine a bright spotlight on what’s happening in your state. And I guess I would have to ask, why are local politicians more invisible to everyday voters than they once were? How much of that is due to the fact that we don’t have local newspapers in most places, we have what are called, you know, news deserts where there are no reporters covering City Hall anymore.

PEPPER: It’s a huge part of it. I always think about it this way: What are the things that make the Koch brothers happy? And let’s figure out how to do the opposite? OK, 

HRC: [laughs] That’s a good question. 

PEPPER: And what do they love? They love that no one covers state houses. They love that local papers are dying so that local state rep who everyone used to know, people don’t even know what that person’s doing. They love that in Ohio, you know, a third of the races, the average margin of victory for a decade was 50 percent or more, 75-25. So no one even knew an election was happening. So the point is, yes, what you described is one of the key ways that there’s no awareness. Statehouse bureaus are dying. Ohio, by the way, we have a very strong one. There’s still a City Hall reporter in Cincinnati. But a lot of cities, the statehouse people are the first to go. It’s further away. It’s a bigger expense. They have to live up there. And then the local papers just disappearing, not bigger cities, but smaller, like I said, that means that the coverage of the individual officeholder from, you know, Mansfield or from Manchester, no coverage whatsoever. So that combination is bad, and I’ll just give a couple of other layers for this. 

You know, one other aspect that’s often overlooked is that, that a lot of the institutional knowledge of these papers is also getting hollowed out. When you and I, you know, would go to newspapers to get endorsements, you would have six or seven members of an editorial board. Many of those editorial boards are either gone or down to one person. Just like you have, you know, these long term columnists that understand statehouses that know what a gerrymandered or crazy budget looks like; they’re all gone. So not only is the coverage of the facts much less intense or hardly at all there, but the people who can provide a less heated analysis and Twitter or cable who could say right now, which needs to be said, the current attempt to gerrymander Ohio is absurd. And don’t take it from David Pepper, a Democrat, take it from us at this paper. We’ve seen this for 30 years. This is the worst we’ve ever seen. All that institutional knowledge is also gone because they can’t afford it. So if the State House business in Columbus gets no attention, and the elections, essentially, are predetermined, no one knows what’s happening. And here’s the worst part. There’s a double whammy to this. We now have, because of gerrymandering, an entire generation of both officeholders and citizens who essentially don’t think of their State House politics as a democracy. They’ve never really had a choice over these things. And that’s really damaging long term.

HRC: Oh, I agree completely. Well, let’s switch to the recommendations that you make because you, you end the book–which is so gripping, and I highly recommend it to everyone–but you end with a bunch of strategies to get our states back from being laboratories of autocracy to truly laboratories of democracy. And you reframe the whole discussion that we should be having at, you know, national, state, local, even individual level. So why don’t you run through some of those, David?

PEPPER: Sure. So let me just, the way I try and frame it is, you have one side that has believed that democracy is intact–us–and we generally focus on federal actions to get the substantive outcomes we want, right? And that generally means we go to swing states where we can get our federal majorities for president, senate, house. The other side is not battling that battle. They are in a very different battle. Their battle, because they know democracy is inconsistent with their worldview, their battle is against democracy itself. They fight their battle everywhere–every year at all levels. And as my seven year old, who plays soccer, would even observe, if one side’s always on offense everywhere and you’re playing in a few states in a few years, who’s going to win? They’re going to win. They are winning because of this. We have to change our mindset first and foremost. We got to go to where the battle really is, which is where they’re taking it, democracy itself. That reframes everything, and I go through all the specific ways everyone can take part. But big picture, what does that mean? First, you adjust your mindset. This is a long game battle. The best near-term example: Stacey Abrams. She knew Georgia was a long struggle for democracy. If she had simply given up every time Georgia was red, we wouldn’t have a blue Georgia. Even when she didn’t quite win the ‘18 governors election because of a very tainted process by their opponent, even that day, where she stood up and said, I’m not going to be governor, she said, we made progress. She has a long game mindset. She knew every voter that voted in her record turnout, every registered voter, every doorknock was progress. Two years later, who was right? She was. 

HRC: Exactly. 

PEPPER: She knew that it was a long game. So change the frame of everything, as are you building toward the long game or aren’t you? Measure your success accordingly. It also means get out of only thinking about swing states. If you’re competing for democracy, no state should not have a democracy. It’s guaranteed in the Constitution that everyone have a republican form of government. Make that real. So we should reframe our political approach fighting for democracy all over the country. And that also means at all levels: State House, State Supreme Court seats, Secretary of State. No longer let the Koch brothers be the only people focused on these things. 

Let me put it this way. We love to get excited about the most exciting candidates. You think the Koch brothers care about who’s exciting? No. If you are in a state rep spot and you win, they love you, because you’re going to do what they say. I love when we have exciting candidates, we all get excited. But when it comes to putting our money into races or volunteering, if someone’s running for an important seat that could affect democracy and that could be school board too, as we now know, help them out. Don’t just wait for the greatest candidate you’ve ever seen. 

One other thing I would say in the battle for democracy: If all we do is focus on swing races in certain states, or any states, that’s a short game mentality because we are thinking, well, the only thing we’re going to measure ourselves on is if we win the five or six swing seats in that state next year. Long game, it’s a disaster to leave 30 seats unchallenged in any State House.

HRC: Right.

PEPPER: That’s 30 places where they never hear our message, mainly in rural parts of these states. It’s 30 places where the incumbent never feels accountability, never feels challenged. We have to recruit to run everywhere. We need to celebrate someone running in a gerrymandered district as much as in a swing district. They are walking a race they probably are going to lose. We should celebrate them for stepping up! And again, when you think about it as a long game, all of a sudden that makes perfect sense. Ninety nine people running in Ohio in every district, every two years, that’s powerful. That’s how you win the battle for democracy. That’s the best thing for Tim Ryan is if there are 99 house districts, it’s the best thing for Stacey Abrams, because they’re carrying the message, they’re lifting turnout. If all you care about is this federal game and you don’t worry about democracy, you’ll never support those non swing candidates. You won’t even recruit them.

HRC: You know, I cannot help but underscore that by saying it’s been one of my real disappointments that Democratic donors, Democratic political consultants, Democratic activists, Democratic voters are so focused on the immediate, the flashy, who’s the candidate of the moment. And we haven’t had people on our side of the political divide invest in media. The other side certainly has, as we know very well. They haven’t invested in the kind of institutions that you mentioned, like ALEC, that has helped to put really regressive legislative agendas through state legislatures across the country. They are so candidate focused, and it’s mostly a very narrow group of candidates who attract their money and their attention. And it’s almost the opposite of playing the long game, so I could not agree with you more. Well, before we wrap up, I have to ask you, how do we inspire young people to actually get in that arena and run for these offices? And as you rightly point out, run for every one of them? 

PEPPER: Yeah. I mean, I think we reframe it as the broader battle for democracy. We have to say to these young people, don’t let the last 10 years make you think that politics can’t be about good public service. You know, there’s a reason why back in the day a John Glenn wanted to be in politics. It was a noble pursuit. It’s how you change the world for the good. It was patriotic. And we’re seeing right now a whole army of people like Josh Mandel in Ohio or Josh Hawley running for the worst reasons. And so I think we have to find people and say, not long ago this was where you went if you wanted to make a difference. And, and then frame it all is a much broader battle for democracy than it currently is seen. And we have to all do this with funders and voices. We need to celebrate everyone who runs. That itself is a victory for democracy. They just gave people a choice that those rigging these elections didn’t want them to have. We need to come up with mechanisms to say to every one of these people who runs, we’re not just going to encourage you to run, we’re going to lift you. We got to take the billions that are spent in presidential races and smooth it out over four years over the entire country. So when we ask someone to run, and we celebrate the patriotism of them running, we also back it up with support. So it’s got to be frame it better. But once you’re in, we’re still there. And if you lose – which many will lose in gerrymandered district–we don’t walk away. But Democrats walk away from people who lose, and it’s terrible. Some of my favorite- some of my favorite people in Ohio that I keep up with all the time, were veterans or people who, who were the first in their family go to college, who ran in impossible districts. Because of their runs, they actually lifted other people to victory to State House or somewhere else. We need to say to them that victory is partly because of you and we’re going to keep going with you because you did something that was really tough. In a long game every election, even if you lose, if you do it right, is additive to the next election. More voters voted, more voters registered, and we had to surround all these candidates with that kind of thinking versus “thanks for running, you’re not in the swing district, so you don’t get support. And after you lose, it’s like you never ran.” That’s a guaranteed long term failure. We have to change all that, and I think we then will get a lot more people interested.

HRC: I agree with that 100 percent, David Pepper. I am so happy to talk with you today, and I’m so grateful that you are out there in the arena every day with your speaking and your writing and your advocacy and everything you’ve been doing, not only in Ohio but around the world.

PEPPER: Thank you very much. This was an honor to speak with you.

HRC: David Pepper’s book is called Laboratories of Autocracy. And you can follow him on Twitter for regular updates from the frontlines of this crucial battle for our country’s future. 

Related Posts

Set Your Calendar: a Special Issue 1 Invite!

Set Your Calendar: a Special Issue 1 Invite!

You're invited! We're excited to announce that on Tuesday August 8th we are having a Virtual Election Night Watch Call (and, we hope, party)! The eyes of the country are focused on Ohio right now, and we'll be joining together (virtually) to watch...

read more
Join Us for a Post-Election Debrief

Join Us for a Post-Election Debrief

Over the course of the election, we saw so many folks like you pour their heart and soul into this election. Phone banks, text banks, door knocks, postcards – doing everything everywhere. And while many of the national results were uplifting, in Ohio the outcome was...

read more

Read the Report

Enter your email for a copy of our whitepaper, which explains:

• why downballot races are the most powerful, untapped resource for Democrats,

• how supporting downballot nominees will transform statewide and national races,

• what impact our model would have had on crucial elections (2016 and 2020)

And more!

Wonderful! The report is on its way...