by JEFF GREENFIELD · October 6, 2017
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Turning to the courts won’t solve the party’s fundamental problem: connecting with voters.
Judging by the press coverage of what happened in the Supreme Court Tuesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy may be ready to cast the decisive fifth vote to put constitutional limits on the practice of political gerrymandering. The questions he asked strongly suggested he’d finally found a case in which a legislative majority —Wisconsin Republicans, in this case—had so blatantly rigged district lines to maximize its power that it had effectively deprived opponents of any chance to recapture the Assembly chamber.
For Democrats and liberals across the country, this is cause for celebration. Why? Because if the court strikes down the Wisconsin map, it also puts the map for congressional districts in several key states in doubt. And, while Democrats have also used their power to draw partisan lines, the net impact of gerrymandering benefits the GOP because it controls the process in key contested states. As Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice told me recently, “Republicans enjoy [a net of] 16 to 17 extra seats in Congress under the maps of this decade because of partisan bias … And as it turns out, these seats are in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio—battleground states, in other words.”
The conclusion Democrats are drawing? With 24 seats needed to take the House of Representatives, suddenly putting those 16 or 17 seats in play would go a long way to taking over the chamber.
It’s an attractive conclusion; and Lord knows the possibility of ending the steadily more outrageous phenomenon of partisan gerrymandering is a worthy goal in itself.
But if Democrats think this is the key to their political woes, they are kidding themselves. What ails the party—at every level—goes far beyond alleged Republican skulduggery. And a diagnosis of those ills requires an understanding of what the past decade has wrought.
The Democratic Party, as I wrote here even before the 2016 wipeout, finds itself in its worst shape since the 1920s. From its perch in 2009, when it had a (shaky) filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, a 256-178 majority in the House and control of a majority of states, it has seen a precipitous collapse. That fall began in 2010, when a wave election brought a loss of 63 House seats, six Senate seats—and, most notably—massive loses at the state level. Republicans gained control of the Legislatures in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and won 29 governorships.
These defeats did not happen because of gerrymandering (or voter suppression, for that matter), because Democrats had control of the politics before 2010. (When Democrats had political control in North Carolina, for example, it had some of the most unrestrictive voting laws in the country.) In order for the GOP to use its power to entrench its majorities, it had to win those majorities in the first place. That happened because Republicans and their conservative allies poured resources into a workmanlike effort to win control over state politics, while Democrats were mesmerized by the more glamorous fight to win and hold the White House.
Well, isn’t extreme partisan gerrymandering still a noxious tool whose end would help Democrats? Yes, but not nearly as much as you might think. To understand that, look more closely at what has happened in the past four elections. In 2009, Democrats held 60 Senate seats. They now hold 48, counting the two independents who vote with them, Bernie Sanders and Angus King. Some of those losses came in deeply red states, but Democrats also lost seats in competitive places like Colorado, Iowa and Wisconsin. Governorships are now in Republican hands not just in battleground states like Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin but also in Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont, where blue has been the predominant color for years.
What do governorships and Senate seats have in common? They cannot be gerrymandered. What has happened, rather, is that the Democratic Party has lost touch not just with the white working class, of which we’ve heard so much this past year, but with a much broader segment of American voters. When a party loses a statewide election, it’s not because their opponents have cleverly divided their voters into a district or two, or because their voters are “clustered” in a city or two; it’s the product of a larger political failure.
Further, the Democrats’ focus—maybe “obsession” is a better word—with ways to fix our political system has the unintended consequence of distracting them from the spadework of state and local politics that is at the heart of any successful venture. For instance, I’ve seen and read countless arguments that the composition of the Senate—where each state, no matter how big or small, gets two senators—is an undemocratic feature that gives Republicans an unfair advantage.
Well, first, there is this pesky fact that without such an arrangement, we wouldn’t have a country, given the fear of small states back then that larger states would overwhelm them. Then there’s that part of Article V of the Constitution that says, “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” In other words, it is the only part of the Constitution that cannot be amended.
But forget about that, and just take a look at the political lineup of the states. The 10 least populous states have 12 Democrats in the Senate (counting King and Sanders), while the GOP has eight). It may not be “democratic,” but the idea that the arrangement punishes Democrats is ahistorical. (The next time you hear a progressive lamenting that Wyoming has as many senators as California, ask them if they feel the same way about Hawaii, Rhode Island or Vermont.)
Finally, Democrats do not have to hold their breaths waiting for the Supreme Court to step in; they can put a stop to such gerrymandering by winning elections in which gerrymandering cannot happen. For instance, if Republican Governor Scott Walker can be defeated in Wisconsin next year, it breaks the GOP stranglehold on the redistricting process that will happen after the 2020 census. Or they can organize to do what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in California, and use the ballot initiative process to take redistricting out of the politicians’ hands and put it into an independent commission. (It may be significant in the current Wisconsin case that its voters do not have that power; any change has to come through the same legislature that rigged the districts in the first place. That’s something Justice Kennedy may take into account.)
Fundamentally, the crux of the partisan gerrymandering issue is this: The Democratic Party might celebrate a Supreme Court decision that puts limits on the practice, but to substitute that hope for the work of winning elections again is not simply an illusion, but a highly dangerous one.
Politico · by JEFF GREENFIELD · October 6, 2017