Despite the fears that Donald Trump may be our next president and destroy our democracy, early polling indicates that Clinton will win the election, and may even win it dramatically. Despite her flaws and “unfavorables,” she’ll be seen as the better candidate or at least as the lesser of two evils. Trump’s go-it-alone strategy (forsaking the help of the Republican National Committee), his continued proclivity to alienate sizable portions of the electorate, and his lack of a “ground game” strategy will insure the Clinton election.
Yet Clinton’s victory will turn sour quickly for those who expect that her approach to change, more incremental than that of Sanders, will lead to positive results in a variety of domains: immigration reform, women’s health, environmental regulation, gun control, and even restraints on Wall Street rapaciousness.
Even though Democrats may retake the Senate, the Republicans will still control the House of Representatives, though not necessarily by the sizeable margin (247-188) that they presently enjoy. The Democrats attempts to link local Republican candidates to Trump’s toxicity will produce only modest changes. Republican incumbents will be able to successfully divorce themselves from Trumps agenda and, while some Republican voters may not vote at all, enough will, preferring that their representative return to Washington if for no other reason than to maintain divided government. That the current divided government is a paralyzed government requiring wholesale changes will not dissuade enough Republican voters in districts already stacked in favor of the Republican candidate. Republican candidates will work vigorously to portray Clinton as no better or even worse than the disastrous Obama and will make the argument that they are a bulwark against a hyper-liberal America.
This mighty impasse is primarily due to a Republican strategy employed eight years ago in the wake of Obama’s first presidential victory and the return of the House briefly to Democratic control in 2008. This strategy was the handiwork of a few Republican strategists who looked into the shifting demographic landscape that some prognosticators translated into an enduring Democratic majority. [See Judis and Teixeira’s 2004 The Emerging Democratic Majority.] Obama and many Democratic Senate candidates gathered far more raw votes than their Republican opponents and the futurologists predicted even greater gains for Democratic politicians due to the decline of aging white voters, especially in the South, who made up the base of the Republican party. While increasing the difficulty of voting was one strategy for countering the population and ideological shifts (great changes in attitudes about gay rights for instance), the more efficient and enduring plan of attack was to redraw the state congressional maps so that more Republicans than Democrats would reach the House of Representatives, even though self-declared Democrats outnumbered Republicans in those states and even though Democratic candidates for the Senate would prevail over Republican rivals.
That is the insightful and disturbing discovery of David Daley who in Ratf**cked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy documents the Republican strategy that has produced a lock on the Congress that may not be undone for another generation, way into the third decade of the century. The naughty word in the title is insider political speak for a blow against a rival accomplished with little cost to the perpetrator.
At the center of Daley’s drama is Chris Jankowski, a brilliant Republican strategist from North Carolina who realized that the election of 2010, an off-year election in Presidential politics, provided an opportunity to establish Republican control of state houses. By practice, the party in power in most states gets to redraw the congressional district (and state district) boundaries in the wake of the decennial census. If the state’s governor and two branches of the legislature were Republican, the change could be easily accomplished, especially given the reluctance of the Supreme Court to intervene in these intra-state matters unless there were manifestations of flagrant racial inequalities.
While the title indicates that the plan was “secret,” Daley reminds us that Karl Rove, Bush’s politican strategist, was quite public about the plan in the wake of the 2008 Republican defeat. Democrats, given the same opportunity to fund down-ticket races and keep state legislatures blue, were “asleep at the wheel” and handed their rivals an easy victory. Democratic voters who turned out in great numbers for Obama but stayed home in 2010 abetted the Republican gains.
By investing modest amounts of Republican money into obscure state house races, the balance of power could be flipped. Purple states and even blue states could be turned red. Through late campaign “shock and awe” mailers directed at Democratic incumbents, some with longstanding and stellar records, the Republicans could be the new majority party. David Levdansky, a 12 term moderate Democrat from Western Pennsylvania, could be brought down by an advertising blitzkrieg that linked him to “irresponsible spending” on the Senator Arlen Specter library. State houses in states with sizable congressional representation — like Ohio (16) and Pennsylvania (18) and Wisconsin (10) — became Republican.
In Operation Redmap the state Republican establishment seized the opportunity to redraw the congressional boundaries and often resorted to secret meetings between party leaders, strategists, and computer experts to achieve results advantageous to the party. Thus Pennsylvania went from a state with 12 Democratic congressional representatives and 6 Republican to one with only 6 Democratic reps. This despite the fact that 51% of all votes cast in the congressional election were given to the Democratic candidates. For this performance they ended up with 28% of the representation in their delegation.
The Republican over-representation was accomplished in most cases by gathering Democratic voters, especially minority voters who traditionally vote Democratic, into the fewest number of districts possible. Thus one gerrymandered district in Michigan is a contorted figure that encompasses the most distressed neighbors in Detroit and in Flint, a community 40 miles to the Northwest. The left-leaning citizens of the research corridor towns in North Carolina are similarly bundled. In these districts the Democratic candidate wins handily, often taking three out of every four votes. There are Democratic voters in contiguous districts but not sufficiently many to prevent a Republican from taking in 55% of the vote.
Daley reminds us that gerrymandering has been around since governor Elbridge Gerry redrew the Massachusett’s boundaries in 1812, but he also tells us that the highly irregular districts created during the 2010 remap are unprecedented.
If you’re a Republican, one delicious irony of this whole development is that the approach is an outgrowth of what Daley calls the “unholy alliance” between the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republicans. Eager to get more African-Americans into the Congress, black leaders pressed for the Voting Rights Act to achieve their goal. Districts were specifically drawn to insure minority representation. Yet the initiative came at a cost. While African-American representation from Southern states increased, so too did overall Republican representation. The moderate white Southern democrat became an extinct species.
The sophisticated Republican friendly re-mappings were possible because of the growing sophistication in computer software, a ten year change that Daley describes as analogous to the shift from horse and buggy to rocket ship. Map makers could now use a program like Maptitude to incorporate census information and a host of other information (about levels of education, frequency of voting, purchasing decisions) to calibrate the new districts. The result might be a misshapen district that might have more than 100 surfaces and one that would divide counties and communities and even homes around a common cul de sac. With such tools the mapmakers will be able to easily incorporate changing information about population movement and housing values.
Very few of the big electoral vote states were not flipped. Illinois was one; Democratic majorities in the state houses and in the governor’s office remained. The Illinois Democrats were no less willing to seize the advantage, especially looking to Chicago’s collar counties to pick up numbers, a situation made more crucial given the overall reduction in congressional seats due to population loss. One such change that worked to the Democrats advantage was the realignment of the 11th district, a DuPage County Republican stronghold. The newly drawn district incorporated six different counties but importantly added to southern DuPage large sections of Aurora and Joliet, communities with large Hispanic populations. In both 2012 and 2014 Bill Foster, a Ph.D. in physicist, prevailed. Previously Foster has won in a special year election (2007) when Dennis Hastert resigned and then after a full two year term was defeated in the 14th district which extended from the western suburbs practically to the Mississippi River. In 2016 Foster’s seat in the 11th is considered safe. Only three of the 18 Illinois congressional districts are expected to be contested in 2016.
Daley offers a few signs of hope. One is in the practice of Illinois’s neighbor, Iowa, which has four congressional seats. In the 1980s “reasonable” Iowans decided that map drawing should be put in the hands of an independent commission and not left to the party in power in election years ending in 0. The result has been that three of the four districts have almost always been contested over the last two decades. Of course, the homogeneity of the state and the symmetry of its counties help make healthy democracy possible. Daley is pessimistic that other states can act as impartially and in the spirit of true democracy as Iowa. And in some cases like Arizona, the remapping process has become vitriolic.
The most pernicious effect of this change, one that architects like Jankowski might not even have anticipated, is the election of rabid partisans and extremists. When a Republican victory is assured and the primary is more important the general election in the district, the candidate with the most uncompromising positions wins. Virginia’s Eric Cantor, the House Majority leader, unexpectedly lost his seat to an anti-government Tea Party rival who made much of Cantor’s extravagant ways and inside the beltway status.
The nativist Tea Party emerged in the wake of Obama’s election, promising to take America back to its supposedly better days and committed to anti-government obstructionism. The confluence of this movement and Operation Redmap has resulted in paralyzed government and given Obama a few more gray hairs. Norm Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, long-time congressional observers, capture the state of affairs in the title of their recent book: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Or try on liberal columnist E.J. Dionne’s Why the Right Went Wrong.
If the Republicans have a long-standing lock on the House and if Republican voters continue sending highly partisan Freedom Caucus types to Washington, Clinton’s version of the “hope and change” agenda will be thwarted, this despite the fact that the majority of American’s agree with her on issues like funding Planned Parenthood and restricting gun purchases and establishing a higher minimum wage. Ms. Clinton has given little indication of how she will defang her obstructionist rivals.
Daley offers us a number of solutions to the current crisis of unrepresentative government, but also is not sanguine about the chances for any immediate reform. One proposal that he endorses is the call for multi-member districts. Under such a provision, a state like Illinois which has 18 congressional districts would be shifted to four or five. Imagine that one district would be Chicago and its contiguous suburbs, another the collar counties, a third the northern part of the state excluding the first two districts, and two additional downstate districts. Each of these population-balanced districts would send to Congress three or four representatives. Each district ballot would contain multiple candidates, not just Republicans and Democrats but also independents, Green Party folks and libertarians. And instant run off system would determine which three or four representatives would earn a seat.
One advantage of such an approach is that it reduces the ill-effects of the winner-take-all approach in the districts. In the current model, a Democratic voter in downstate district is disenfranchised when the Republican wins, even with a narrow margin. So too a Republican in Cook County whose vote is now inconsequential. In an expanded downstate district (one bundling three or four of the current districts), it’s possible that one of the representatives will be a Democrat.
It’s not just the achievement of fairer representation that is appealing. The belief is that candidates running in these super-districts will have to avoid extremism if they hope to get elected. A Republican candidate will need to court Democratic voters if she hopes to be land in the top three of vote seekers. The dream is that Washington would become a far less partisan place. Of course, the chances that the parties in power, whether Republican or Democrat, will give up a system that keeps them in power is unrealistic. And the prospects for passage through a state referendum are thin given the fact that this somewhat complicated matter isn’t a riveting one for the electorate.
Americans are transfixed by presidential politics and the media feeds their appetite through extensive coverage of the presidential primaries and the general election. Little attention is payed to the linkage between the executive and legislative branches of government which as Daley is quick to remind us is at the heart of the governance matter. Trump who sees the legislature as a rubber stamp for his autocratic fiats never talks about this linkage. Clinton, who should, has up until this point been reluctant to do so.