Supporting statehood for the District is a no-brainer for Democrats, including those running for president. Indeed, all of them support it, and those now serving in Congress have all co-sponsored bills to make the District a state.
But there’s something strange about this position: Despite being so obviously correct on the merits if you have even the barest commitment to democracy, and despite the political advantage that would accrue to Democrats if it became a reality, the party as a whole — both its politicians and its voters — doesn’t really seem to care beyond co-sponsoring a bill they know won’t go anywhere or checking a box on a questionnaire.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s true that there’s a public opinion problem for D.C. statehood right now. But unlike on some issues, this is one where you could bring about a substantial and relatively quick change in people’s beliefs.
Let’s start with those beliefs. Gallup came out with a poll on the question this week, and the results were surprising. Overall, only 29 percent of the polled population supported making the District a state, while 64 percent were opposed. Even more odd was the partisan breakdown:
You’d expect Republicans to be opposed, but why would 51 percent of Democrats not want the District to be a state?
Especially when the arguments against it are so weak. This is really not a complicated issue. There are more than 700,000 Americans who lack full political rights for no reason other than where they live. They have no voting representatives in Congress, and their city government’s budgets are controlled by that same Congress, meaning some jerky Republican from who knows where can decide what does and doesn’t happen in their city whether they like it or not.
I think it’s entirely possible that many if not most Americans don’t realize that D.C. residents lack congressional representation and might change their views if they learned that fact, though we can’t know for sure until someone asks that on a poll. But if there’s one thing preventing D.C. statehood from getting more support, it’s almost certainly that Democrats just haven’t made it a priority.
I’ve discussed this dynamic before: Political scientists have understood for some time that people take their cues on issues from the positions they see elites taking, in particular the elites from their party. If tomorrow some new issue arose — Should we create a national Ventriloquism Corps to bring this important skill to every U.S. school? — at first, people’s opinions would be all over the map. But once the parties settled on what side they were on, those positions would filter down to the voters.
If you’re a rank-and-file Democrat, when it first came up, you might not be sure what you thought about the Ventriloquism Corps. But after you saw all the Democratic politicians you respect talking about what a great idea it is, and you watched Rachel Maddow give a 20-minute monologue about its merits, and then you saw Mitch McConnell calling it socialism, and you saw a clip of the “Fox & Friends” nincompoops saying it would turn your kids gay, and you read an incendiary Trump tweet about it, well by god you’re going to decide that we need that Ventriloquism Corps.
So when it comes to D.C. statehood, I promise you that if Democrats actually advocated for it loudly and often, you’d see public opinion shift in their direction as everyone in their party lined up.
And this issue shows just how different the two parties are. In addition to statehood being the right thing to do, it would also inevitably mean an extra Democratic seat in the House and two seats in the Senate. Yet, incredibly, Democrats are in no particular hurry to make that happen.
If the voters who live in the District were mostly Republicans and not Democrats, the GOP would be fighting like hell for statehood. You know they would. They take every opportunity available to exploit every structural advantage they can find and create new ones where they don’t exist, whether it’s through gerrymandering or voter suppression. You think they’d leave two Senate seats on the table? Please.
So if Democrats actually care about voting rights and about the way Republicans have rigged our democracy in their favor, this ought to be something they talk about way more often than they have until now. And they should be warned: If you’re not on board, this young lady is coming for you: