The House of “Representatives”
The erosion of representativeness continues.
To make a dispassionate, professional assessment of where we are democratically speaking, I would state that we have a flawed, unrepresentative electoral democracy. Further, we are flirting with electoral authoritarianism.
I do not make that assessment lightly.
The flaws are linked to a number of items that I frequently discuss, but will not belabor here, that sum to the reality that our system gives more power to the minority of citizens than to the majority. We are still democratic in the sense that the government is controlled by elected officials (as opposed to aristocratic or theocratic pathways–which is not to say that oligarchs and theocrats don’t have influence, but that they do not directly come to govern via being in those classes of persons).
We know that the presidency can be won with the minority’s preference overcoming the majority’s. We know that the Senate over-represents the numeric minority of citizens. We know that the Supreme Court is populated by appointees that combine minority-elected presidents making appointments and the minority-overrepresented Senate confirming them (and, sometimes actively blocking the appointments of majority-supported presidents). It is further true, but less well known, that one party can win control of the House without winning the most votes nationally (as happened most recently in 2012 when the Republicans earned fewer votes, but still won more seats).
If I was writing about another country, I suspect that most people, regardless of their partisan persuasion, would have serious doubts about how democratic the country described actually is. But, once motivated reasoning kicks in in the US, a lot of people either want to talk about how this is about messaging or other subjective factors or, worse, cleave to the “a republic, not a democracy” argument.
And, to add insult to injury, the chamber that is called the House of Representatives is increasing being distracted in a way that is less and less representative and, indeed, as James Joyner noted a few days ago, has long been populated via non-competitive electoral “competitions” (scare quotes most decidedly warranted).
This torrent of words summarizing things I constantly talk about was inspired by this piece in the NYT: As Gerrymanders Get Worse, Legal Options to Overturn Them Dwindle.
More and more states — mostly Republican like Ohio and Texas, but now Democratic ones like Illinois — are drawing maps that effectively guarantee that the party in power stays in power.
North Carolina underscores how high the stakes and how weak the legal guardrails are.
Let’s focus on North Carolina which is the major focus of the NYT piece. The map in question has been drawn so that of 14 House seats, Democrats will only have a shot for 3. That’s 78.6% for Rs and 21.4% for Ds. That would be an entirely reasonable distribution of seats if that state was overwhelmingly Republican, but it isn’t. Here’s the state’s presidential vote from 2000 to 2020, which is arguably the best measure of the partisan preferences of the state’s population:
These numbers suggest that the 14 NC House seats should be a 7-7 split (maybe 8-6), not 11-3. Put another way, 7-7, or close thereto, is a proportional outcome, while 11-3 is highly disproportional.
The only way to come to the conclusion that an 11-3 distribution is representative of the citizens of the state is via partisan motivated reasoning.
North Carolina Republicans say they used neither racial nor political data in drawing the maps. Asked whether the State Senate map was a partisan gerrymander, the Republican co-chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, Senator Paul Newton, replied, “The courts will decide that.” But, he added, “No, it’s not. It is fair, and should be a fair and legal map.”
It is inconceivable that the NC GOP used no political data and produced an 11-3 breakdown of seats, unless there is some tortured definition of “political” being used here. Indeed, the results as pretty striking if no racial or partisan data were used:
The racial impact of the maps is sweeping. The government accountability watchdog group Common Cause said a quarter of the 36 state legislative seats held by African Americans, all Democrats, would be likely to flip Republican. The district containing the seat that a Black congressman, Representative G.K. Butterfield, has occupied since 1992 also lost much of its Black constituency, and he chose to retire at the end of this term.
The article notes that the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by SCOTUS plus an increase in Republican-appointed federal judges (not to mention on SCOTUS) means legal challenges to these maps are unlikely to be successful.
The issue is national, and is at the state level as well:
The onslaught of gerrymanders would further shrink an already minuscule number of competitive seats in state legislatures and the House of Representatives. Even before the latest maps, partisan advantages were so one-sided that four in 10 seats in state legislatures were uncontested. In the House of Representatives, gerrymanders could reduce the number of competitive districts — now perhaps 51 of the chamber’s 435 seats — by a quarter, said David Wasserman, the chief expert on the House at the Cook Political Report.
And, yes, gerrymandering is basically as old as single-seat districts, but it is currently worse than it has been historically because of computers. The ability to fine-tune a pro-partisan map is massive.
Look, for anyone who wants to assert that all this just means that Democrats have to work harder to win in NC, I won’t argue that that is superficially true. But I will note, as a practical matter, in a game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Akron Zip we can say that the Zip just need to play harder to beat Bama, but we all know what the outcome is going to be before the game starts.
I fully understand that there is a strong argument to be made that Democrats should be doing the same in the states they control (and they have, to a degree, done so, as noted about Illinois above). While this is defensible from the point of view that unilateral disarmament goes poorly for those who disarm, it is also true that the more we go down this path, the more the quality of our democracy erodes.
It is seriously difficult, from an objective point of view, to look at the United States of America, despite its own self-image, as an exemplar of representative democracy. We have elections, but they do not adequately represent the voters. Gerrymandering, specifically, means that instead of voters choosing politicians, the politicians get to choose their voters.
This is not a healthy situation. There are no serious proposals to fix the situation (i.e., anything that would take us away from single-seats plurality elections towards some more proportional). And those proposals that would at least improve circumstances marginally, like HR1 and HR4, cannot overcome the filibuster in the Senate.
A republic not a democracy, in other words an oligarchy or something close to it. Plus given the number of second and third generation politicians that occupy the seats that their father’s and grandfather’s once held, we are a shaky republic.
As someone mentioned the other day, one of the benefits of getting old is that I may not live long enough to see where this all ends. Best of luck to you youngns.
Ryan Cooper has a recent essay at The Week contending that “There’s only 1 real solution to partisan gerrymandering.” Spoiler alert: it’s your preferred outcome of multi-member districts replacing single-member districts. I gather that it’s currently illegal pursuant to a nearly-200-year-old act of Congress but not unconstitutional.
@Sleeping Dog: If I recall correctly, that was me (although I’m sure others have said it, too). And I do wish all the youngins well. As I was saying to a marketing student at a high school a while back “you guys are going to have to do be smarter than we were once you take control.”
raised hand on the Group W bench.
All of this may have been enabled by our archaic rules, but it did not just happen. Let me repeat a quote I’ve used before. In 1980 David Koch ran for VP on the Libertarian ticket. He didn’t particularly want to be VP, but as a candidate, he could skirt the campaign finance laws and put as much money as the brothers wanted into the campaign. They got 1.06% of the vote.
That’s Jane Mayer in Dark Money. She also said,
What I’ve been calling the Billionaire Boys Club birthed AEI, Heritage, and a much longer list of “think” tanks and foundations. They birthed the Federalist Society which nurtured judges that removed essentially all barriers to their money. They astroturfed the Tea Party. They created ALEC and other groups that lobby for and write state laws. They bought and paid for governors like Scott Walker and Mike Pence and other state politicians. (How else would anybody as dumb as Walker and Pence be successful?) They funded the REDMAP project that successfully focused on gaining GOP majorities in state houses in time for redistricting after the 2010 and now 2020 censuses. They likely paid for the software that makes the gerrymandering so precisely targeted. I’ve observed elsewhere, it’s not that Ds are so bad at messaging, it’s that they have nothing like the Kochtopus and FOX behind them. And a lot of their money is flowing to Sinema and Manchin to preserve the filibuster and water down anything that does pass.
This shit didn’t just happen. These wannabe oligarchs studied how to attain minority rule under our flawed rules, and their four decade campaign to exploit those rules is paying off.
@OzarkHillbilly:..Group W bench.
Is that anything like the dead pecker bench?
It’s a reference to Alice’s Restaurant and the bench they send criminals to wait for psych evaluation for the military draft. With the singer eventually demanding an answer to the dilemma of, “I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench cause you want to know if I’m moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.”
So. Thesis: “Libertarian ideas serve as a very solid toehold for authoritarian practices”. True or false? Discuss.
Believing “the government shouldn’t do anything” or “We should be able to drown the government in the bathtub”, and following that policy where it leads, means you don’t have any way to oppose other power groups, who are well-funded and patient and work in a long time frame.
Libertarians may well be idealistic and well-meaning, but their ideas lead to “might makes right”.
Part of the problem is that I think too many wish for national-level solutions. Expecting some kind of blanket action by the federal government or the courts to force states to make changes, much less via amendment of the US Constitution, just isn’t practical and many are likely unconstitutional impositions on the authority of state legislatures. Even without the filibuster, HR1 and HR4 wouldn’t pass the Senate anyway.
While I understand the desire to find a “one neat trick” solution to make all the states adopt a certain set of rules, and also the hostility that many today have to federalism generally, the reality is that one has to work with the system as it exists.
My own state of Colorado, for example, changed its redistricting system via a constitutional amendment by a majority of voters (~71% of voters approved it). Like our voting system here in Colorado, I think it’s a model that other states should emulate. But politicians, voters, and activists need to put in the work in those states to build support for changes, just as we did here in Colorado.
If Republicans in states like Texas and North Carolina continue to demonstrate that they can gerrymander and voter-restrict control, with SCOTUS support and despite any Congressional efforts, I expect The Big Sort kind of things to bite. “But Austin is blue” won’t carry enough weight if the state can ban abortion and cripple local green energy. Not in the long run. And the distinctions appear to be increasingly regional. Given that, and absent some serious devolution of policy control (requiring Amendments), I expect a partition of the US. At some point, Washington State says they’re not interested in paying to fight Reconstruction again, and Texas says they’re better off without having to constantly fight to overturn Oregon’s vote-by-mail system.
Nothing corrupt about that, nothing at a…
Not corrupt at all.
@Andy: “ Part of the problem is that I think too many wish for national-level solutions.”
I wish for any solution at any level. Thank you for offering one example but how many states could that work in? NC? I don’t know if they have ballot initiatives. Could something like you describe pass there? Maybe but I doubt it. Texas, no way.
I’m very concerned about the direction our country is heading. What can I do about it? Not a damn thing as far as I can tell . It’s not a good feeling.
Exactly. All legal. “ When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” With an electoral victory endorsed in proper form by a few purple state GOP legislatures and a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court.
@Andy: I certainly applaud state-by-state solutions but would note that we are talking system-level problems that really only have system-level solutions.
But more fundamentally, states like NC and WI are doing far more damage to the system than CO or like-minded states can fix on their own.
I remember a fairly famous book in the early 90s that talked about states as “laboratories of democracy” but, sadly, we are also seeing how they can be laboratories of anti-democracy.
@Steven L. Taylor:
And I would just note again that even if you want national-level systemic changes, you can’t avoid the difficult work of advocacy in individual states because you need supermajority support in Congress as well as 3/4 of state legislatures.
And action at the state level is always how movements in this county have succeeded historically, in contrast with what many seem to want, which is constitutionally dubious legislation passed on a 50+1 basis that magically resists inevitable court challenges.
I don’t know how things work in North Carolina or most other states. The exact method or work necessary to start building support will necessarily depend on the specifics in individual states.
@Andy: I get what you are saying, but to me it is like Kennedy laying down the charge of going to the moon and having his advisors talk about the literal nuts and bolts that will need to be manufactured by various contractors. They wouldn’t be wrong, but they would be shifting the conversation in a way that ignores the overarching point, problem, and goals.
Moreover, if Colorado and a few states makes improvements, that is like some of the contractors in my example making some of the parts for the Saturn V, but only some (and, really, a hanful at best).
(And yes, I understand the low probability of sucess, but that shouldn’t stop a proper diagnosis).
@Steven L. Taylor: Sadly, I agree with you about the prospects for success, and also about the need for a sound diagnosis. Elections should be a cornerstone of our democratic republic, but as it stands, they’re more like a stumbling block.
@Steven L. Taylor:
This analogy does not make any sense to me. The Constitution is not anything like a major engineering project and states are not anything like federal contractors.
The fact is that most of what you want to do requires changing the Constitution which requires supermajority support in Congress as well as the states. A President giving an inspiring speech that causes everyone to line up behind the effort to enact the leader’s vision only happens in Hollywood or, very rarely, in sui generis situations that are in the federal government’s wheelhouse (like the moon program).
There is simply no avoiding doing the actual work to build the necessary political support for these changes. And the political support that matters in terms of actually achieving such goals resides in the states.
And yes, that work is hard. It’s intentionally supposed to be hard. Gimmicky attempts to end-run the process are, IMO, just a waste of time and will lack legitimacy.
Thanks to Rucho all a party has to do is avoid explicitly racist districting. Partisan considerations are not a legal issue, even if “incompatible with basic principles of democracy.” I continue to think that was the tipping point where our decline became inevitable. 100 years from now, if we still have a USA, that decision will be treated with the scorn thrown at Plessy v Ferguson. More likely, historians in whatever comes after us will point to it as the moment where the defeat of classic Western European liberal government (not liberal vs conservative parties today but liberal as in the Enlightenment) became inevitable in the US.
The analogy is not perfect, but you cannot fix the system if only some of the states make changes.
Did I say otherwise?
And what gimmicks am I supposed to be proposing?
@Steven L. Taylor:
The problem for me is I don’t know what you’re proposing.
You seem to dismiss the argument I put forward which is that state-level action is required to build the consensus for big changes at the national level, much less to make the very difficult climb to amend the Constitution. My view is that the math on changing the Constitution means that efforts in the states are unavoidable. And it seems you do not agree with this.
Yet you’ve offered no alternative argument besides the vague reference to the Kennedy moonshot and a couple of comments about “system-level problems.” I already told you the Kennedy thing doesn’t make any sense to me in the context of this discussion and I doubt it will until you make the effort to explain it.
Or, as an alternative, offer some alternative theory about how your goals can be achieved some other way.
@Andy: The problem with state-level action is that it’s highly unlikely to happen in the states that are the biggest contributor to the problem. If you have a 50-50 state that has a Republican governor and legislature, they’re going to use every tool at their disposal to keep power and to get Republicans elected for the next decade. That, in turn, will make it harder for Democrats to take power and do the same.
So, really, the only place these reforms will happen is in place like Colorado and Virginia, where they’re not really needed. And even here, where we enacted a districting commission in the 2020 election, it’s really hard to get acquiescence to the map. And I’ve seen no movement for MMD.
Congress has the power to do all of this pursuant to both Article I and the 14th Amendment. But I don’t think they have the will, either, at least right now.
@Andy: First, I didn’t propose anything in the post, so there’s that. I have writtem extensively on the kinds of reforms I think ought to be pursued in the past, of course.
I will say that if a couple of states fix their representativeness problem, it won’t fix the system level problems that I outline in the post.
My attempt at analogizing was that systemic change (which is like going to the moon–a massive, difficult task with multiple parts and sub-goals). If all we have constructed were parts of the Saturn V, we aren’t going (and even if we have the whole Saturn V, we aren’t landing without the LEM–and that is just talking about the big pieces, not all the little ones needed). Likewise, if a handful of states make changes, we aren’t fixing the national system.
This is a system-level problem that cannot be fixed by state-level action.
My theory of change, which I know is highly improbable, is trying to educate people as to the scope of the problem and the significance of the possible fixes. It will require a combination of national legislation and amendments to achieve. It will be very hard to achieve.
And, of course, mobilizing support is key.
To shift to another analogy, I feel like a biologist trying to explain to people the germ theory of disease so that we can work together to change public health approaches to infections while many people are still asserting traditional reasons for illness.
Again, an imperfect analogy.
In the interest of “fairness and balance” I note that the gerrymandered state of New York is totally controlled by Democrats who reconfigured the state to protect themselves. Ditto -Maryland which is the most egregious effort of Democrats. Ohio’s Democrat district along Lake Erie is a close second.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Ok, but the systemic level change can’t actually happen without certain other things happening, like 3/4 of state legislatures affirmatively supporting the change. And that has to happen by action that takes place in the states. My point is that you can’t get to the moon without that happening. If there’s some other way to get to the moon without convincing 3/4 of state legislatures to support what you want, then I’m all ears. If Colorado makes the rocket, then you need other states to make the LEM, Command Module, etc. How do you do that without convincing states to take that on?
And that’s fine. But explaining the problem and proposing possible end states doesn’t change the fact that someone has to figure out how to get from here to there. Raising awareness is necessary, but it isn’t a strategy and it doesn’t produce outcomes on its own.
And what I don’t understand is that you say here that amendments will be necessary, but then also downplay state-level action. But the reality is that a Constitutional amendment cannot succeed in this country without state-level action because state have to approve it. Full stop. The amendments that you want to see happen cannot happen without state-level action.
How do you account for this? How do you expect Constitutional amendments to pass while suggesting that state-level action in an unimportant distraction?
It’s a stretch to think that Congress has this authority. What’s the “plan B” when this doesn’t work since you’ve declared that state action can’t do anything?
@Andy: I think the problem is that you want to have a different conversation than the one I tend want to have. That is certainly fair, but you kind of come across as wanting me to have a different conversation than the one I have obviously been forwarding for years.
Rather obviously, I understand that constitutional amendmends require state action, but we aren’t going to get to amendments if people don’t see the need for amendment, yes?
In my view, discussing strategy before there is awareness is an order of operations mistake.
@John430: I think you will find, if you actually read the piece, a reference to Illinois, a democratically run state, as well as other discussions of how this a general problem for our democracy.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Well, I would disagree with that strongly as a student of strategic theory. Raising awareness is definitely a part of any strategy – it’s a key part in fact. Lines of operation can also run in parallel so the notion that we need to wait for some arbitrary amount of awareness before doing other stuff is simply wrong.
But the biggest flaw with this argument is that action at the state level would also build awareness – that is a big part of the reason it’s important to focus at the state and local level because it raises awareness of the issue with people who aren’t plugged into DC or political blogs, and it also builds and develops the organizations and structures to do the work that will actually change policy – engaging with politicians, outreach (which also raises awareness) and promoting legislation or ballot initiatives on the issue. This is political action 101 and it’s historically how successful movements have actually operated.
Colorado didn’t just stumble into a good redistricting system. The change here wasn’t driven by national-level awareness. It was the product of a lot of organization and work across the state to make the idea popular as well as successfully promote it and get it on the ballot. The people who organized this effort planned their strategy years in advance intending for the new system to be in place by the 2020 redistricting cycle. And they succeeded! For people in states that didn’t do this or otherwise failed, there is nothing to be done about 2020, but work can certainly start to change things before the next round in 2030. My view is that people in states who want this reform should not wait for elites to raise awareness, nor should they wrap their hopes on Congress to do anything.
Consider for a minute the changes regarding drugs and especially marijuana in the US. Actions at the state level have undeniably moved the needle on this issue at the national level. Those who want to end the drug war did not wait around for federal action hoping that Congress would do something. Actually, they did wait around for a very long time and found it didn’t work. So they started working at the state level – and that snowball is starting to roll downhill (thanks again, in part, to efforts in Colorado). Those actions of fighting the drug war by promoting the decriminalization of marijuana at the state level are working. And those efforts are what are changing the national politics on this, not the other way around.
Regardless of the conversation you want to have, my point is that the efforts I describe cannot be avoided if one wants the changes that you seek. That you don’t want to talk about that has long been obvious, but I don’t feel like I have any obligation to limit my discussion of structural political changes to the narrow (in my view) framework that you desire. I do not expect to convince you or James, but for me, it’s important to give a different perspective than what you and James focus on. I’m happy to agree to disagree on this and let readers make up their own minds.
With that, I think that will be my last post in this thread, as my blog time is running out.
@Andy: I suppose I would point out that I never argued against state action.
But I did say, and still believe, that the specific state actions you have noted won’t solve the problem introduced in the post.