Thursday, June 23, 2005There have been a series of posts/articles stemming from a Mother Jones piece by Steven Hill on the institutional disadvantage faced by the Democratic Party. Hill argues that in all national elections, Democrats face major hurdles in recovering political majorities. Because Democrats are more urbanized (and hence more compact), they are easier to gerrymander in the House. In the Senate, the equality of representation by state amounts to a pro-Republican gerrymander, since it effectively districts by geography rather than population. This small-state bias also gives the Republicans an edge in the electoral college. These pro-Republican biases in the electoral system are compounded by the compactness and contiguity standards adopted by the Supreme Court, as well as the provisions for majority-minority districts in the Voting Rights Act (which pack minority..i.e. Democratic...voters into supermajority seats), as noted by Stirling Newberry.
But should we worry? Newberry and Billmon both believe that a major backlash against this gaming of the system is inevitable. Ruy Teixeira recognizes the difficulty of pushing institutional change, particularly when we are in the minority (which is sort of the whole problem, isn't it?) and basically argues that we do the best we can with what we have.
First, I am essentially an institutional conservative. I am very uneasy in tinkering with basic constitutional design, because you never know what the unintended consequences would be. So I am hesistant about any thorough-going reform.
Second, I'm not sure that the obvious reforms to this problem would be all that desirable. Hill in other work has come out in favor of a multi-member district/proportional representation system with multiple parties, and his attack on the pro-Republican gerrymander irresistably pushes in this direction. A direction to which I am unalterably opposed, since I think it would make conservatives even stronger (not weaker).
Third, fundamental political change to eliminate these problems is probably impractical. You would have to amend the Constitution, which would mean you'd have to get the small states to agree to their very political dimunition. Not going to happen. Changing districting lines is one thing - that happens all the time. Rewriting the rules of the entire political system is something else altogether.
And finally, I don't think such a massive overhaul is really necessary. If the Republican biases are so great and permanent, why is it that Democrats held such a durable political majority for fifty years (sixty in the House) following the New Deal? If the advantages are so mighty, why have the Republicans held on to only a very tiny majority? These guys are only barely winning! It's not like we're getting drubbed by 20 points every election!
The fact is that these biases are not pro-Republican, they are anti-urban. Those are very different things. If the biases are partisan, then they are inescapable. If they are demographic, then we can do something about it: namely focus on winning more rural votes. One of the major causes of the Democrats' political failure in the last few cycles is our total collapse in small towns and rural areas. If we begin to improve our standing in those regions, then suddenly the apparent Republican advantage will evaporate. We don't even have to win these areas - we just have to do well enough to make our margin in urban areas decisive.
The other solution to our gerrymandering problem is also something we should be doing anyway. The reason that the racial gerrymandering happened in the 1990's (which created a bunch of majority-minority seats AND a Republican majority) is that constituent elements of the Democratic party decided that their short-term political interest was more important than the fate of the party. It is long past time that we realized we are all in the same boat. Labor unions, environmentalists, feminists, blacks, gays, latinos - we are all going to sink or swim together.
It is long past time we got our act together. Fostering internal cohesion and organization and reaching out to swing constituencies is what is going to get us back in the majority. Whining about how the political system is unfair is just a big waste of time.