Tag Archives: gerrymandering

Looking For My Inner Pollyanna–Roe v. Wade Edition

Along with all the other legal mayhem we can now expect from the most reactionary Supreme Court in over a century, most observers predict the demise of Roe v. Wade, despite polling that suggests most Americans would strongly disapprove.

If Roe is overruled, there will certainly be some horrendous consequences. But there may also be some unanticipated positives. Bear with me, here.

We have all recognized the intransigence of the “one issue” anti-choice voter. Without Roe, it’s conceivable (no pun intended) that the wind will go out of that sail. (It will be much more difficult to energize a national movement against birth control, which is actually a target of the most rabid anti-choice activists.) Anti-choice voters have been a mainstay of the GOP–and they will arguably be considerably less motivated.

If Roe is no longer the law of the land, the issue will revert to the states, and a number of states will opt for reproductive choice. Those of us who care about women’s autonomy will need to do some serious fundraising to make it possible for poor women in Red states to travel to states where abortion is legal, and that’s a pain. But even now, with abortion theoretically legal, there are many places in the U.S. where clinics are few and far between; women have to travel long distances, put up with bogus “counseling,” and deal with other barriers to the exercise of the currently constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

What the confirmation of Kavanaugh and the de-nationalization of Roe might do–should do–is redirect liberal and pro-choice energies from national to state-level political action. And that could be a huge game-changer.

The current dominance of the Republican Party doesn’t reflect the desires of the American majority–far from it. GOP numbers have been shrinking steadily; some 24% of voters self-identify as Republican. Their dominance is due primarily to the 2011 gerrymander, and that was made possible because they controlled a large number of state governments. The GOP vote suppression tactics that depressed Democratic turnout and disenfranchised Democratic voters have also been facilitated by state-level control.

The next redistricting will occur in 2021. Between now and then, women, Democrats, liberal-leaning Independents and new voters need to focus their efforts on statehouses around the country. We need to eliminate gerrymandering wherever possible, and we need to put an end to vote suppression tactics.

There will be other strategic decisions necessitated by a rogue Supreme Court. Lawsuits implicating civil rights and civil liberties, for example, may have better prospects in state courts interpreting state constitutions than in the federal system. (When the Supreme Court was less open to arguments from the LGBTQ community, the ACLU and Lambda Legal had some considerable successes in state courts.)

The next few years will be critical. Success will depend upon the “staying power” of those Americans for whom the 2016 election and the travesty of Kavanaugh’s confirmation have been wake-up calls. It’s one thing to post despairing messages to like-minded friends on social media; it’s another thing entirely to continue the day-to-day drudgery of organizing and registering our fellow citizens, and getting out the vote.

If we are going to reclaim the America we thought we had, however, anger and determination are great motivators.

Gerrymandering Is A Two-Sided Sword….

There’s an old adage heard among real-estate developers and businesspeople: If you owe the bank several thousand dollars, you have a problem; if you owe the bank several million dollars, the bank has a problem. Guess which debtor is most likely to be successful in renegotiating the terms of the loan?

So–I hear you asking–what in the world does that have to do with our currently dysfunctional GOP, or with partisan redistricting, aka gerrymandering?

Among the Republicans in Congress, there are plenty of “true believers”–fanatics and zealots of various types. (Honesty compels me to note that there are also some nut jobs among the Democrats, although not as many.) The crazies in the GOP, however, are widely outnumbered by people who do actually know better, people who have managed to get elected by playing to the ignorance and bigotries and extremism of voters who probably do not represent the majority of their constituents, but who can be depended upon to turn out, volunteer and vote.

The problem is, once they have energized that “base,” it owns them. The voters who make up the GOP base–in both senses of that word–demand fidelity to their passions, and their Representatives know it. That base controls a significant number of districts.

When the national Republican Party engaged in a wholesale redistricting coup after the 2010 census, that effort was wildly successful. (I have referred to the book “Ratf**ked” before; it sets out chapter and verse of “Operation Redmap.”)

Too successful.

There were two consequences of that wholesale gerrymander. The first was intended: Republicans won many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have garnered. The second consequence, however, was both unanticipated and extremely damaging. The people elected to Congress from those deep-red districts the mapmakers created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party, or to reasonable or productive policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the voters to whom they are beholden, and avoiding a primary battle that–thanks to the gerrymander–can only come from the right.

The political reporters babbling on cable news consistently express surprise at the inability of the Republican part to govern, to control the factions that range from Hard Right to “wow, that guy’s a Nazi.” The answer is the success of their 2011 gerrymander.

The sane among them have a problem–and a choice.

If they have any integrity, they can follow their consciences, risk being primaried and defeated, or quit. (Every day, it seems, a GOP Representative announces a decision not to run again, and it isn’t hard to see why.) If they don’t have any integrity, they accept that they are wholly owned by the most rabid members of their base, and they simply pander accordingly. (In Indiana, we have a delegation composed entirely of True Believers and panderers. If you live in the state, you can decide who’s who.)

Unfortunately, this country needs two rational parties populated with adults in order to function. So not only is the GOP broken, our whole government is broken.

Happy Valentine’s Day…

 

And The Hits Keep Coming

Very few voters know–or care– much about the census. Counting the people who live in the land between “sea and shining sea” is one of those boring, technical tasks that government does, but  I doubt that a single vote has ever been cast because the voter felt that  it was done well or poorly.

Just because the census doesn’t arouse much in the way of passion, however, doesn’t make it unimportant. In fact, it is very important.

The Constitution requires that the count be conducted every year that ends in zero–that is, every ten years. The census ensures that citizens of each state have the “correct” number of representatives, a number based upon population. It also tells us just how diverse the country is, which categories are growing and which are shrinking. One of the most important functions of the census is that it gives analysts–not just government analysts, but those working for a multitude of businesses and nonprofit organizations– the data they need in order to make important decisions and avoid wasteful efforts.

In a recent survey, 74% of city officials said they relied on the data collected by the census–that it was very important to the discharge of their duties. In a recent article, Think Progress reported

Ethnic minorities and traditionally underrepresented groups especially rely on the census for the voice it gives them in government — and are at risk if the survey goes awry or if their communities are not accurately counted. Because the Census Bureau uses this data to draw congressional maps, an undercount of diverse populations that traditionally vote Democrat could end up benefiting Republican districts.

That last sentence may hold a clue to the present straits in which the Census Bureau finds itself.

The Republican Congress has declined to fund the Bureau at the levels required–even cutting its budget despite the fact that significant population growth has expanded its workload. Worse still, the agency has been without leadership since the resignation of its previous director, and Talking Points Memo reports that Trump is proposing to appoint a pro-gerrymandering professor to the position.

The 2020 U.S. Census will determine which states gain or lose electoral power for years to come, and President Donald Trump is leaning towards appointing a pro-gerrymandering professor with no government experience to help lead the effort.

Politico reported Tuesday that Trump may soon tap Thomas Brunell, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who has no background in statistics, for a powerful deputy position that doesn’t require congressional approval.

He authored a 2008 book titled Competitive Elections are Bad for America.

This is a position that has historically been held by a career civil servant who has served many years in the Census Bureau. Brunell would come to the post from stints as a “consultant” for a number of Republican-controlled states that have been sued for racial and partisan gerrymandering, including Ohio and North Carolina.

Civil and voting rights advocates have been sounding the alarm since the beginning of this year about the fate of the 2020 Census, and the bureau currently has no director and faces a severe budget shortfall.

Now, there are fears that the appointment of an ideological conservative could lead to changes in the Census that could have repercussions for many years to come. For example, conservatives have long argued for adding a question about citizenship status to the Census, which may scare immigrants away from responding and being counted. As deputy director, Brunell would also have power over the ad budget used to encourage people to participate in the Census, and could potentially steer those resources in a way that favors conservative strongholds.

While most rational (and terrified) Americans are fixated on Trump’s more high-profile unstable and erratic behaviors, and upon Congressional Republicans’ passage of  irresponsible legislation that earlier iterations of their party would have loudly condemned, the knee-capping of the Census Bureau illustrates the real danger posed by this collection of crazies and incompetents.

This is the problem with putting people who hate government in charge of government. They will destroy its effectiveness in order to justify a return to that pre-social “state of nature” which Hobbes accurately described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.’

Design Defect?

In the short time it has existed, Vox has proved to be one of the smartest sources on the internet; its “explains the news” feature, credible reporting and excellent writing have made it a “must go to” for many of us.

Recently, the site had a political science meditation by Lee Drutman, titled “Yes, the Republican Party has become pathological. But why?”

The article began by quoting an often-cited paragraph from Mann and Ornstein:

In Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s now-classic and still-true description of the party, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Drutman doesn’t quarrel with this observation, but says that the pressing question is why did the GOP go insane? And unlike those who pin the problem on flawed leadership, or the Christian Right, or even the racism that has become embarrassingly obvious, he argues that the opportunities and incentives that are built into the system are “design defects,” that have caused the astonishing dysfunction we now see.

My argument is that the modern Republican Party is a direct result of the design flaws of the American political system — our winner-take-all single-member electoral districts, our reliance on private money to finance elections, and our increasingly presidentialist system of government. You simply can’t understand the GOP’s pathologies without understanding the larger political system in which it operates.

Drutman’s argument begins with America’s  two-party system. When voters are given only two choices, the key to victory is being less unappealing than those other guys. “Such is the twisted logic of negative partisanship.”

Drutman dismisses the widespread belief that American politics are ideological; that may be true for the so-called “elites” who are perhaps 10-15% of the voting public, but it doesn’t hold true for the average voter. Instead, voters look to their political parties to decide what policies they embrace, and they choose their party affiliation by deciding which “tribe,” is composed of people “most like me.”

At heart, when we vote, we ask the question: “Who represents people like me?” We support candidates who we think share our values. And here, party is a very strong cue…

Certainly we shouldn’t overstate the level of blind partisanship. But one of the most remarkable and consistent political science findings is how little voters really think for themselves. This is why many previously moderate Republicans didn’t leave the party as it moved rightward — they just became less moderate. Their ideology was far more flexible than their partisanship, because it was less deeply rooted.

All well and good–but if it is the system that has produced today’s cult-like GOP, why haven’t the Democrats similarly gone off the rails? Drutman quotes Jonathan Chait:

The] Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike.

… There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites.

But what about Drutman’s assertion that America’s political design has incentivized the GOP’s troubling behaviors?

One factor is that the past three decades have been a very unusual period in American politics, in which national elections have all been quite competitive, with the balance of partisan control of institutions hanging in the balance. Because American institutions are majoritarian, and because the president has considerable power, a small number of votes can mean the balance between two very different outcomes. When the stakes are this high, the political incentives push hard on gaining every little advantage.

Drutman points to gerrymandering and the single-member plurality-winner district  design feature that makes gerrymandering possible. And at the end of his essay, he comes back to the (considerable) drawbacks of a two-party system.

It’s long, but the entire thing is well worth reading.