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America needs a democratic revolution

Fixing systemic inequities in voting power should be a high priority for Democrats.

People participate in the Women’s March in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2020.
Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The outcome of the 2020 presidential race is very much in question, but nobody — including President Donald Trump’s biggest boosters — thinks he stands much of a chance of winning more votes than former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump fell well short of that benchmark in 2016; he has never had an average job approval rating of 50 percent or higher; and he’s running weaker this year than he did four years ago.

Trump’s strategy — which some analysts say has a decent chance of working — is to take advantage of the fact that the tipping point states in the Electoral College are likely 2 to 3 percentage points more favorable to him than the national electorate.

If Biden wins the election, the Democratic Party will almost certainly gain seats in the US Senate. But it’s far from clear whether Democrats will be able to secure a majority. In the 2018 Senate races that led to Republican gains, most votes were cast for Democrats. Democrats also won a majority of votes in Senate races in 2016, but again, Republicans secured a majority.

Republicans benefit from similar dynamics in states across the country. Two years ago in Wisconsin, for example, Democrats swept narrow victories in the statewide races and also secured 53 percent of the votes cast in elections for the lower house of the state legislature. But because of gerrymandering, the GOP won more than 60 percent of the seats. And knowing they’d be insulated from public backlash, the legislature held a special lame-duck session during which they stripped power from the state executive branch and reassigned it to themselves. Something similar happened in Michigan that same year, and in North Carolina two years earlier.

All of these outcomes — in which Republicans hold power despite winning fewer votes — are baked into the American system. They won’t go away if Trump is removed from office. It’s become commonplace for Democrats’ rhetoric to cast Trump’s presidency as a threat to American democracy. But it would be more accurate to say his presidency is a consequence of our constitutional system’s democratic shortcomings. If Democrats manage to win in November, they owe it to their voters to make a serious effort to lead a democratic revolution in the United States that would truly bury Trumpism once and for all.

The skewed Senate

“Democracy,” in the American context, is often taken to mean something like direct popular control through elections. So when George Mason University economist Garrett Jones writes a book titled 10 Percent Less Democracy, he means we should conduct more policymaking in institutions like the Federal Reserve that empower technical experts rather than being responsive to mass opinion.

That’s an interesting topic for debate. But the soul of democracy is not just in the act of voting for politicians. Nobody voted for Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, but he, rather than Merrick Garland, is sitting on the Supreme Court as a direct consequence of election outcomes. And there’s nothing undemocratic about that. The core principle of democracy is political equality — the idea that all citizens are equal under the law and deserve to have their interests considered equally by the political system. That’s where Gorsuch becomes a problem for democracy.

Not only did Trump ascend to the presidency while winning fewer votes than his opponent, but the Senate that blocked Garland’s confirmation in 2016 was one where most Americans were represented by a Democrat — but most senators were Republicans, because the entire Senate is a massive violation of the principle of political equality.

America’s founders did not believe in either concept of democracy, so the fact that the hardboiled compromise between large and small states is inegalitarian did not bother them very much.

Over the past 230 years, the population gap between the smallest and largest states has only grown. At the time of the 1790 census, Virginia had a bit less than 13 times the population of Delaware. Today that’s about the gap between Wyoming and Washington state, but Washington has only about one-fifth the population of California.

But the significance of the Senate’s skew has also changed. In the early years of the republic, the Senate overrepresented the slower-growing South, and many political battles were fought over the admission of new states that could shift the balance between North and South. During the relatively low polarization politics of the 20th century, the key thing about the Senate was it overrepresented rural interests — distorting policy around farm subsidies, for example — but mostly in ways that were unimportant to the main themes of political conflict.

Today, however, the electorate is increasingly polarizing around the interrelated lines of urbanization, population density, and race. The Senate, by happenstance rather than design, has evolved into what Jonathan Chait aptly terms “the most powerful source of institutional racism in American life.” Right now there are about 0.3 senators for every million people. But because the states that are overrepresented in the Senate are whiter than the national average, there are 0.35 senators for every million white people and only 0.26 for every million African Americans and just 0.19 for every million Hispanics.

“The Senate gives the average black American only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American,” writes David Leonhardt in the New York Times. “And the average Hispanic American? Only 55 percent as much.”

And yet the Senate is only the beginning of the ways racial inequity is perpetuated by America’s failures of political equality.

The scourge of gerrymandering

The term gerrymandering comes from an 1812 political cartoon that rendered it in essentially aesthetic terms. The district, drawn up by Massachusetts’s then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry, was characterized by his political opponents as a monstrous beast, the Gerrymander, rather than a more conventional shape.

The 1812 political cartoon that gave us the term “gerrymander.”
Elkanah Tisdale/Boston Gazette

This focus on aesthetics leads to the conclusion that “both sides do it” since you can unquestionably find funny-looking maps drawn by both Democratic and Republican state legislatures.

The real issue, once again, is political equality. And the segregated nature of American housing patterns means it’s generally not possible for Democrats to gerrymander as effectively as Republicans do. A healthy chunk of the Democratic base vote consists of nonwhite people living in overwhelmingly nonwhite neighborhoods that lend themselves to “packing” Democrats into inefficient lopsided districts.

Before the 2018 midterm elections, redistricting expert Dave Wasserman worked with the team at FiveThirtyEight to create an Atlas of Redistricting that makes the point well. Take a highly competitive state like Pennsylvania, for example. Under the most efficient GOP gerrymander, there are likely 13 safe Republican seats, with the Democrats packed into one Pittsburgh seat and four in and around Philadelphia. Under an aggressive pro-Democratic gerrymander, they likely secure just nine safe seats. Even in a blue-leaning state like Minnesota, the best Democratic gerrymander likely secures five safe seats while the best Republican one secures six.

This also filters down to state legislatures, where “Republican-drawn maps in 2012 had a much larger partisan bias than Democratic ones,” says David Shor, a Democratic data analyst. He calculates that none of the 15 most skewed maps were drawn by Democratic legislatures — not because Democrats are uniquely virtuous, but because residential patterns in the United States don’t lend themselves to hyper-aggressive Democratic gerrymanders.

A lot of time and energy is wasted among analysts in debating how exactly to characterize skewed maps that result from residential segregation. Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden, for example, argue that “while conventional wisdom holds that partisan bias in U.S. legislative elections results from intentional partisan and racial gerrymandering, we demonstrate that substantial bias can also emerge from patterns of human geography.”

Intent, however, is simply not the main issue here. The Senate’s biases are largely unintentional but even more severe. The problem is that state legislatures, the House of Representatives, and the Senate are all biased in the same way — and further reinforced by the Electoral College. If Democrats want to pull the country out of its current state of madness, they need to address it.

Political inequality is the source of our crisis

In June, Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) warned that if Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, become states, “Republicans will never be in the majority in the United States Senate.”

Mathematically, this is absurd. Right now, the are 53 Republican senators and 47 in the Democratic caucus. If Puerto Rico and DC became states tomorrow and sent four Democrats to Washington, the balance would shift to 53-51 and Republicans would be still in the majority. One key reason: Admitting these two states would narrow the racial inequality in Senate representation, it would not eliminate it.

What’s telling about Risch’s remarks, however, is less the math than the defeatism behind it. The notion that Republican electoral victories require massive political inequality flies in the face of all kinds of common sense. Republicans are serving today as the governors of Massachusetts, Maryland, and Vermont while Democrats govern Kansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky. There’s always a pivotal voter somewhere, and always a basic contestation between the principles of the left and the right.

But Republicans — not just Trump but mainstream ones like Risch — have just given up on the idea of formulating an agenda that appeals to the majority of the population. That’s contrary to the interests of most people. But it also fuels dysfunctional habits like hyper-engagement with Fox News over external reality. And once you’ve habituated yourself to ignoring the normative force of political equality, you end up on a very slippery slope.

Today’s Republicans strip power from governors in lame-duck legislative sessions. They not only defend the lifelong disenfranchisement of ex-convicts, they use control of the courts to subvert referendums that pass to reenfranchise them. They try to subvert the accuracy of census counts, and block the use of safe voting methods in the middle of a pandemic.

In their defense, tradition is on their side. The United States de facto or de jure denied the vote to African Americans for most of its history, and until the Baker v. Carr (1962) ruling, it was standard practice to draw state legislative districts that violated the one person one vote principle. The generation or so after the passage of the Voting Rights, when the Electoral College never made a practical difference in presidential elections, was an exception rather than the rule. But the principle of political equality is a good one and worth fighting for.

The time for structural reform

If Democrats do well in November, pressure will be overwhelming on members of Congress to deliver in key ways for interest groups that supported them. For members representing swing districts, it will seem risky to spend time and energy on process issues that might be seen as partisan power grabs. But these are not power grabs.

People of color who live in cities should have equal voting rights as rural whites. It’s a core demand for justice, and the fact that the system does not work that way makes it exceptionally difficult to make enduring progress on any economic, racial, or environmental justice topic. These inequities have never been justifiable, and the fact that they align sharply with partisan politics makes them worse, not better.

The good news is that Democrats have begun some of the necessary work to get changes done. In 2019, House Democrats wisely made political reform a top priority by writing and passing HR 1 — a package of election reform measures that included automatic voter registration and federal curbs on partisan gerrymandering. It went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Senate, but that could change if the majority flips.

Senate staffers generally say it’s good to look at what’s already passed in the House to get a sense of what a hypothetical Democratic-controlled Senate might take up. The House has also passed legislation to turn DC into a state. This could get 50 or 51 votes in the Senate, too, if Democrats do well in November.

But as Vox’s Ian Millhiser writes, neither bill has any chance of securing 60 votes, so hopes for Democratic reform hinge entirely on the prospects for enacting another democratic reform — abolition of the filibuster.

If change happens, historians may look back on former President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Rep. John Lewis as a watershed. Speaking at Lewis’s funeral, he called for an end to gerrymandering, statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, a national holiday on Election Day, and other democratic reforms. Most of all, “if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.

Just because Obama says it doesn’t mean the rest of the party will agree. But Obama sees his role in the present moment as guiding a consensus among Democrats, not picking fights. He wouldn’t have taken those positions if he didn’t think they were viable as priorities with the party establishment. And the framing around Lewis was exactly right, underscoring that there can be no meaningful “reckoning” on race in America without reckoning with the way American institutions embed racial inequity in representation.

Structural reforms designed to advance political equality are also a viable legislative agenda in terms of public opinion. Civis Analytics, a top Democratic polling firm, tested a wide range of reform ideas complete with partisan framing to try to determine those popular enough to move forward on. They found that DC and Puerto Rico statehood, automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, reenfranchising ex-felons, requiring the use of independent redistricting commissions, and blocking corporate campaign contributions are all above water with the public. To get any of that done, Democrats would need to first secure a majority in the Senate and then end the filibuster.

Busting the filibuster and using a newly unleashed majority to uncork several major changes to the structure of American politics would be a shocking turn of events. Pressure will be intense after the madness of the Trump years to declare that things are “back to normal” and to avoid taking actions that the GOP will easily agree to oppose. But Democrats should consider how frequently and somberly they’ve intoned that the future of American democracy is at stake. The fact is that an undemocratic system doesn’t go away just because Democrats win one time.