American Democracy Betrayed
Elizabeth Drew reviews an interesting and important book in the NY Review of Books:
Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy
by David Daley
Liveright, 257 pp., $26.95
Political paralysis. Hyperpartisanship. Decline of political civility. Denial of voting rights to groups that support the opposition. Low voter turnout. There may be other valid grievances about what’s become of our democracy, but that’s a useful list to start with. To mention them raises the question of where to begin to resolve at least some of our political problems. I’m not alone in thinking that the single problem most worth attacking first, the solution to which could go a long way toward untangling our political morass, is the blatantly partisan manipulation of our system of decennial redistricting by the states.
Redistricting works in a circular fashion by which the states get caught up in an ongoing cycle of self-protecting exploitation of the advantages of incumbency. Thus a party wins control of the legislature of a state that then draws its state and congressional districts in a way that maintains that party in power. (Also winning the governorship helps a lot.) With that power the controlling state party can decide to try to limit the voting rights of groups that might disturb this convenient arrangement and elect a president of the other party.
So much of our political commentary is clouded by a perceived and real need to be “evenhanded” (the pressures, especially on broadcasters, and especially from the right, are real) that the picture of what’s going on in our politics is often distorted. The inescapable fact is that Republicans have historically been more attuned than Democrats to the political advantages of gaining and maintaining power at the state level and more inclined to involve themselves in what might seem unglamorous structural questions.
One result is that the Republicans are overrepresented in Congress. They’ve pulled that off by working to dominate state governments and thereby get themselves in a position to draw most of the congressional districts, which gives them the power to perpetuate themselves in Congress. Thus—if they’re of a mind to—they can block whatever a Democratic president wants to do. As a result, we have a distorted contest for power between the two parties for control of the executive and legislative branches.
As of now, through redistricting, the Republicans have built themselves a bulwark against losing control of at least one of the houses of Congress—barring an unusually strong landslide. So well have the House Republicans protected themselves or been protected from a contest from the other party that, according to the Cook Political Report, only 37 out of 435 seats are being contested this year. While the precise number can be affected by other factors such as retirements or whether someone from the opposition party decides to run, redistricting, or incumbent protection, is the overwhelmingly relevant factor.
Since “gerrymandering”—drawing an oddly shaped district to give one party an advantage—has been with us since the early 1800s, what’s so different about the redistricting of today that causes such a fuss, if not yet a sufficiently strong one? The early gerrymandering was quaint compared to the current practice. The system for protecting incumbents that was used for over two centuries has turned into something else.
The Republican sweep of the House in 2010 led to efforts—and an opportunity—to preserve those gains, or as many of them as possible, by transforming the practice of redistricting in the individual states into a national party effort to shape and maintain a House majority. That effort employed sophisticated means—organized computer data that show the block-by-block makeup of an area—and money from the party and allied interest groups to win and keep power in one of the houses of Congress, irrespective of what happens in the presidential election or the overall party breakdown of the votes for the House.
The sorry story of how the House of Representatives became unrepresentative is clearly laid out in a new book, Ratf**cked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy. Despite the wise-guy title, David Daley, editor in chief ofSalon and digital media fellow at the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, has written a sobering and convincing account of how the Republicans figured out the way to gain power in the state legislatures and, as a consequence, in the federal government through an unprecedented national effort of partisan redistricting.
By contrast the Democrats simply weren’t as interested in such dry and detailed stuff as state legislatures and redistricting. Besides, as a Democratic strategist told Daley, “The Republicans have always been better than Democrats at playing the long game.” Daley argues that the Democrats blew it after their triumphant election in 2008 of the nation’s first black president. The celebration went on too long. For the Republicans, Obama’s victory represented the threat of long-term Democratic dominance.
The thing to do, some Republican operatives concluded, was to focus on winning as many seats in state legislatures as possible in the 2010 midterm election and then press that advantage in the redistricting that would follow—picking up federal and state seats to offset Obama’s 2008 victory. The result was the Republican 2010 sweep of state governments as well as the House of Representatives—they picked up a stunning sixty-three House seats (taking control of the House) and six Senate seats (expanding their minority status), and also took control of twenty-nine of the fifty governorships and twenty-six state legislatures (to the Democrats’ fifteen).
At the time, national attention was on the congressional sweep, which resulted mainly from a major Republican assault on Obama and the recently passed Affordable Care Act and an effort (essentially guided from Washington) to form the Tea Party, an antigovernment “grassroots” movement. But arguably the more significant result of the 2010 election was that in the states the Republicans were in a position to redraw most of the congressional districts—and they did so with an unprecedentedly high-powered national project called REDMAP, or Redistricting Majority Project.
REDMAP was a new way to aim for successful partisan redistricting by concentrating first on winning the greatest majority possible in the congressional and state elections preceding the next Census and using the state majorities to redraw the districts. So successful was the Republican-dominated redistricting after 2010 that, in 2012, while the Democrats won 1.5 million more votes for Congress than the Republicans did, they gained only eight seats, hardly a change at all. Thus the Republicans, sheltered by the previous redistricting, held a thirty-three-vote advantage in the House despite the fact that they’d been decisively outvoted.
And then, in the next midterm election, in 2014, the Republicans parlayed dislike of Obama and their advantage from the redrawn districts into another wave of successes in gaining more congressional and state-level seats. The resulting situation was overwhelming Republican political power at the state level after 2014: they controlled thirty-two governorships, ten more than they had in 2009; they also controlled thirty-three of forty-nine state houses of representatives, and thirty-five of forty-nine state senates. (Nebraska has a unicameral state legislature.) Democrats held 816 fewer state legislative seats than they did before Obama was sworn in as president.
The Democrats to some extent brought this on themselves by not bestirring themselves to vote in the midterm elections. . .
And do read the whole thing. The solution, as pointed out in the review, is easy and obvious and works, and a handful of states have done it (California and Iowa among them). But it won’t happen unless the public pushes it through.