Monday, January 28, 2013

Dealing with a Cornered Rat

So here's the good news...

I believe very strongly that the Conservative realignment that began in 1978 with NCPAC has finally run its course. Modern Conservatism, and the GOP which uses that ideology to legitimate its policies are both largely exhausted as forces. Demographic trends have left the GOP with an insoluble dilemma...

no candidate capable of broad national appeal can win the GOP primary process. The party is the captive of those extreme elements it successfully mobilized to achieve realignment in the first place. The base Republican voter doesn't LIKE America, as it is now. And no candidate that doesn't share the Base's disdain for Blacks, or Gays, or Hispanics, or cities, or Liberals, or science can win the party's nomination.

Conservative policies have been further discredited by the performance of George W. Bush in office. Even the most inattentive electorates can be motivated to fire a political party that presided over a series of economic, military and disaster relief failures.

But institutions lag behind the society that create them, sometimes by decades. And the current Republican Party is engaged in a vicious, desperate and ultimately doomed effort to maintain control of those institutions. Somehow, the Republicans intend to continue winning elections despite the unpopularity of their brand.

Their most recent success was the 2010 mid-terms. 2010 was an utter, unmitigated disaster for Democrats. We lost control of the US House of Representatives. We almost lost control of the Senate and would have, had the Republicans not insisted on nominating lunatics for a number of Senate seats they otherwise would have won. Most damagingly, the Republicans took sole control of a number of state legislatures. When the dust settled, the Republicans had complete control of 25 states, with the Democrats controlling only 16.

Image from Sabato's Crystal Ball, at UVA's Center for Politics

This would suck anytime. But for it to have taken place at the beginning of a decade was catastrophic.

The Constitution provides for a national census every 10 years. The number of delegates each state sends to the House is determined by their population, as reported by the census. States also use the same data to draw the boundaries of each Congressional district. These districts must contain approximately equal numbers of voters, in order not to violate the principle of "one person, one vote", at least within the state. (The principle is already violated in the Senate, Electoral College and between states.) 

It wasn't long before our revered Founding Fathers realized that the drawing of both congressional and state legislative boundaries could be done in such a way as to maximize the number of seats held by one political party, and minimize the number of seats held by the dominant party's opponents. The term for this nefarious activity, "gerrymander" is derived from Elbridge Gerry, the 5th Vice President of the United States. Gerry was governor of Massachusetts when that state drew the boundaries of its electoral districts for state and national office in such a way as to maximize the number held by Gerry's party.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

The basic idea behind the gerrymandered district is simple. By concentrating the likely supporters of the opposition party into a few districts where they will constitute a super-majority, one maximizes the number of districts where the opposition will be a minority. Throughout American history, every political party which has succeeded in controlling a state's political institutions has engaged in the practice. No one's hands are clean on this score, not the Democrats and certainly not the Republicans.

It's a horrible, undemocratic process. The purposes of elections in a democracy are to select elites who will make public policy, to hold those elites accountable for the outcome of those policies, and to legitimate the system in the minds of its citizens. The gerrymander undermines each of those objectives by insulating the dominant party from the will of the majority of the voters. 

And this is why 2010 was such a disaster for we Democrats and the country as a whole. Not only was it an ass-whipping of abusive proportions in terms of what happened, it also happened at the worst possible time; right before all those states the GOP had control of drew up the new, gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts.

And this is not Dwight Eisenhower's Republican Party, although it can be argued that it is the Republican Party of Richard Nixon. This is the Republican Party that led a 30 year conservative realignment of the nation's priorities, away from the New Deal and Great Society and back towards something that resembles the Social Darwinism of the 1920's. This is the party of Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove.

Naturally, they don't feel compelled to follow the "rules", especially if those "rules" are an impediment to gaining power. Some of the rules Republicans have broken are actual laws. The US Attorney scandal that cost Alberto Gonzales his job is an example of naked illegality.

Other "rules" were actually conventions, past practice, or precedent. In 2003, the Republicans got control of the Texas State Legislature for the first time in 130 years. Despite the fact that redistricting had already been carried out, the Texas GOP redistricted an unprecedented second time. This cost Democrats 6 seats in the US House which the GOP of course picked up.  The dispute over the legality of this process went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided states can redistrict whenever they want. And so they're pulling it again, in Virginia.  

It seems like whining to criticize the Republicans for exploiting loopholes in the rules. A case can be made that Democratic outrage at such Republican "dirty tricks" is simply frustration with not having thought of these ploys first. But consider this...

to pass the redistricting measure in the State Senate, they waited till a Democrat was out of the state to attend the President's inauguration. They then sprang the measure, unannounced, during a session of the State Senate on Martin Luther King's birthday.

In the Texas case, Tom Delay got the Department of Homeland security to track the location of Democratic state legislators who were hiding from a quorum call. He also laundered illegal campaign contributions through the RNC.

And mid-term redistricting is just one of a variety of Republican "dirty tricks". Many Americans were shaken out of their catatonic political apathy by GOP efforts to suppress the vote in the last election. Again, I am aware of the tired cliche that "politics ain't beanbag" (obviously coined by someone who's never played beanbag with teen-aged brothers). But if one of our major political parties sees its electoral advantage in having fewer people participate..

well, that has PROFOUND implications for democratic practice.

Image from

I could go on. Current liberal outrage is focused on a number of Republican controlled states that are flirting with the idea of changing the way in which they apportion their Electoral Votes. Most states are "winner take all", with the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state getting all of the Electoral Votes that it casts for the Presidency. Proposals in a number of states, including here in Pennsylvania would divide that state's Electoral Votes between its Congressional Districts. Naturally, the Republican controlled states considering the measure are all reliably Democratic during presidential elections. 

The fact that Republican state officials are willing to dilute their state's influence on the presidency for merely partisan advantage is somewhat shocking. It tells you everything you'll ever need to know about the self-identity and values of those officials. These are GOP partisans, first and foremost. Considerations like democratic representation, political legitimacy, and "fairness" are entirely subordinated to securing partisan advantage.

Compared to their efforts to manipulate elections, the Senate Republican Conference's excessive use of the filibuster seem almost low-key.

Fortunately, there is no need to accept Republican efforts to undermine the popular will in order to eke out a few more dollars for their corporate masters. There are a number of steps Democrats can take to roll back Republican gains which they've attempted to lock in.

The first of these steps is mid-decade redistricting. The Republicans have established the precedent of doing so, and the Supreme Court affirmed it. So any state legislature we regain control of, in 2014, or '16, or 18 can be gerrymandered again. Smart progressives have objected to this idea, as being underhanded or somehow unethical. The Supreme Court disagrees, but in any case...

we don't have to do a partisan gerrymander. Democrats who gain control of their state legislatures need to immediately move to end partisan gerrymandering and replacing their system with a non-partisan districting board. Not only does this end our short-term problem with current Republican gerrymanders, it ends it permanently. Returning to a partisan system is probably very difficult politically. Finally, it allows the Democratic party to support a policy that can be cast as purely a good government initiative.

It should be noted here that Ohio voters turned down a non-partisan redistricting referendum last Fall. I am told by my Ohio dwelling family members (N=6) that the ballot measure was deliberately worded so as to be obscure, and then successfully labeled as incumbent protection by a multi-million dollar campaign.

Another area where Democratic political interests are congruent with good government is in the area of countering Republican voter suppression. Democratically controlled state legislatures should push hard for early voting, weekend voting, more polling places and vote-by-mail. Once the security concerns are addressed, Democrats should push for on-line voting, as well. Republicans represent a decreasing segment of the country's demography; more voters means more Democratic voters. And partisan advantages are the minor consideration here...

the important thing is to encourage as many citizens as possible to participate in their own self-government.

Susan B. Anthony

Finally, there's the Electoral College.

The very fact that we have one of our two political parties attempting to manipulate the Electoral College to give them a better shot at the White House should be all the proof required that the Electoral College is a silly, antiquated practice which has no more place in a modern political system than monarchy. In every single state legislature where such a measure has been introduced, Democrats should introduce competing legislation: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Then, they should ruthlessly publicize the fact that they've done so. Targeted interviews with state newspapers and local news reporters would begin to familiarize the electorate with the concept. Unions could educate their members, the DNC could fund some TV spots...

and that'd be the end of GOP attempts to game the EC. The EC would be irrelevant, and we'd have a better, more democratic system of government.

Good public policy wins elections. Allowing one political party to manipulate the rules of the electoral system is bad public policy. We can reverse Republican attempts to game the process and get credit for promoting the public interest as well.