Nevada’s Teachable Moment

There are lessons to be learned from the election. Will the nation listen?

voting illustration_by_jon_estrada_WEBJon Estrada

What did the 2016 election mean? Commentaries, analyses and tweets abound. For Nevadans, the answer is different, because the results turned out to be different. For only the second time in a century, Nevada’s electoral votes won’t go to the winning presidential candidate.

But that’s OK. Nevada will remain important nationally for a while. It’s just that Nevada is two years ahead of the country on many issues and has part of every demographic that exists, including rural voters who want Clark County to finance their belief that nothing should ever change.

That may mean something heartening: Nevada actually could be headed in the right direction after doing its own imitation of the presidential transition.

In 2014, Republicans swept congressional races and statehouses. In Nevada, that created a mess. The GOP took over the Legislature—and, for the first time since 1929, all statewide offices, too—and then elected ultraconservative Ira Hansen as assembly speaker. Indefatigable veteran reporter Dennis Myers of the Reno News & Review dug up columns in which Hansen came across as racist and sexist. Gov. Brian Sandoval, who had been privately unhappy with the Republicans coming into power in the Legislature, asked Hansen to step aside. He did.

Michele Fiore was still around. She became assembly majority leader and taxation committee chair. After finding she had $1 million in tax liens, her caucus removed her from those posts.

Then came Sandoval’s quest for a tax hike to make Nevada more appealing to business—thus education funding and what Republicans mistakenly call reform, ranging from unconstitutional vouchers to destroying as many teachers’ lives as possible—and subsequent support for another tax hike to fund a stadium.

Whatever else Republicans did with their power in Nevada, they didn’t win over the voters. While one state senate seat gave control to Democrats, the assembly swung from 25-17 Republican to 27-15 Democratic, thanks to better Democratic organization and turnout and, possibly, Republicans unhappy with some of their legislators trying to drag Nevada into the 21st century, or with raising taxes to build a stadium. Flipping two House seats, Democrats retaining Harry Reid’s Senate post and Hillary Clinton’s victory here suggest Nevadans haven’t been pleased with what the GOP has done in Washington, either.

Now, with control of  the White House and Congress, Republicans have to actually govern after spending eight years on unprecedented obstruction of the Obama administration. The opposition—defined as those who voted against bigotry and sexual assault—must figure what to oppose and how. Reid’s successor as Senate Democratic leader, New York’s Charles Schumer, suggested he could work with the incoming administration when they agree. As critics note, that normalizes and legitimizes a president-elect who spent a campaign encouraging hatred toward Mexicans, Muslims and women, and has chosen professional hate merchants as chief counsel and attorney general.

Democrats in Washington and Nevada don’t control the executive branch, which Theodore Roosevelt correctly called a “bully pulpit.” They don’t have a single official on whom all is centered. They have to come up with their own ideas and plans if they want their voters to stay with them and persuade those who didn’t vote for them to come back or give them a look.

Ralph Waldo Emerson declared 175 years ago, “The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. … It is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope. …” Republicans are claiming the mantle of innovation by proposing to destroy major social programs, although their presidential nominee actually said very little on that subject. But, agree with them or not, Republicans have an ideology. It’s “no.”

But Democrats need more than an ideology, especially in the states—those laboratories of democracy where they will have the opportunity to do some governing—including in Nevada. Nationally, they don’t actually need more of it if we view the 2018 elections not as national midterms, but as 50 state elections where Democrats (and Republicans) can target individual issues, such as those Rust Belt jobs that won’t be back and the deportation of Hispanic people, causing higher prices. In Nevada, with Sandoval term-limited, aspiring governors have the chance to think broadly and dramatically.

While Nevada’s approach can’t necessarily work nationally—Hispanic voters went Democratic and were actually registered, contrary to what the Las Vegas Review-Journal would like us to believe—it will deserve study. And when Democratic leaders aren’t fighting the evisceration of the republic in Washington, they’ll have some time to do that.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.