There were a lot of disgruntled liberals in 2010. They didn’t like the healthcare bill without single payer. They wanted the war in Afghanistan to be over. They didn’t think the economy was recovering fast enough. They wanted to see Wall Street prosecuted for its many crimes. Obama didn’t turn out to be as progressive as they hoped. So, millions sat out the election, particularly young people, whose voter turnout dropped from 19% of the electorate to 9%. Unfortunately, there’s a strong chance this choice will haunt the country for at least a decade, and the consequences are getting more dire with each passing day. It was a redistricting year. They only come around every ten years, so maybe people who vote Democratic just forgot the importance of showing up when lines are being drawn. In addition, Democratic voters didn’t seem to be processing the growing threat of their nemesis, and the lengths to which the GOP would go to change/abuse the rules of how the game is played.
Paul Krugman wrote:
It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.
Like any wounded beast, Republicans facing a demographic reckoning are using desperate survival tactics. This loud death knell may be a particular feature of the 2012 election, but the Republican Party has been seeing this coming for years, and they’ve been plotting. Democrats didn’t realize that by letting Republicans win in 2010, they would unleash unprecedented efforts to rig the electoral map and manipulate the very machinery by which we elect our representatives at both the state and federal level. But, that is what is happening.
Besides bringing to power some of the most notoriously wretched politicians in modern memory, including Rick Scott, Scott Walker, Allen West, Jon Husted and Ken Cuccenelli (just a smattering, that list could fill an article), the 2010 election brought us such spectacles as the Texas redistricting morass where despite having huge increases in Democratic- leaning populations, the Republicans managed to use the state’s overall population increase to create more Republican seats. Texas Democrats valiantly and futilely fled to Oklahoma to deny the Republican legislature their quorum for voting in this injustice, but in the end, it didn’t work.
The next step in their plan, voter suppression, has sometimes been honestly divulged in moments of candor. Pennsylvania’s Mark Turzai (R) and Wisconsin’s Glenn Grothman (R) have admitted that voter ID was intended to get Romney elected. Florida’s Dennis Baxley (R) admitted that disenfranchisement of college students was his goal in the last election, because they vote too liberally.
Now, the latest step in their plan is the most appalling for democracy. For over a year, the Pennsylvania GOP has been threatening to butcher the way they count their electoral votes, and this month, Dominic Pileggi (R) has promised to introduce legislation to actually do it. Instead of being a winner-take-all state, electoral votes would be allocated proportionally. This has the ring of being more democratic than the current system, except that in combination with their extremely successful gerrymandering in 2010, called “grotesque” by one political scientist, proportional voting based on congressional districts would be a nightmare. To put this in perspective, Obama would have gotten approximately 7 electoral votes out of 20 in Pennsylvania despite winning the state under the system the Republicans are proposing. As always, Rachel Maddow laid out the issue masterfully as she reminded viewers that in state after state more votes were cast for Democrats, yet more Republicans are being sent to Congress next year.
Even in the states where Democrats lost, their vote totals exceed the proportion of representation they will get in the next Congress. Given how advantageous this electoral legislation would be to a demographically weak GOP, the cascade of copycat legislation in other states is guaranteed to follow, including talk already starting in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. Had they put these electoral changes in place before the 2012 election, Obama would have lost, despite winning the popular vote.
It’s a strategic checkmate, and there’s next to nothing the Democrats can do about it. In most of the “blue” states considering this giant giveaway to the GOP, all three branches of government are controlled by the Republicans. Thanks to the gerrymandering from 2010, they will continue to be controlled by Republicans for the foreseeable future. The only failsafe is if they manage to abuse their power so egregiously that even conservative voters stop voting for them. Don’t hold your breath. Conservatives have shown absolutely no sign of jumping ship no matter how far to the right their party leans.
The conservatives had been (and of course, continue to be) visibly at their most extreme, but this was apparently not a sufficient forewarning for liberal voters in 2010. Because “blue” states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are controlled by Republicans at the legislative and gubernatorial level, Democrats are effectively locked out from preventing their reprehensible lawmaking. Union members are losing their rights. Womens’ access to reproductive healthcare, especially abortion, is being shut down. Voting rights are being suppressed. More than a dozen states are refusing to participate in implementing the Affordable Care Act. Unbelievably, even after voters handily chose to eliminate the emergency manager law in Michigan, Republicans there passed a new emergency manager law within a month, this one harder to overturn. Again, Democrats are powerless to stop these changes. They can’t even vow to vote the bastards out next election, because the districts have been so gerrymandered, it is going to take a colossal effort to overcome the skewed districts, if it’s even possible. We can’t even get rid of the loathsome Michele Bachmann (although frustratingly, it was close; redistricting saved her). Kevin Drum at Mother Jones isn’t too worried about how the Republicans have positioned themselves, because he says it proves they are fighting a losing battle. However, he doesn’t mention how many casualties there have to be before Democrats come out on top or how long it will take. Our saving grace may be that recent polling shows the majority of Americans are starting to identify the Republicans as too extreme. Unfortunately, these people may be gerrymandered such that their impact is diluted.
Everyone is talking about the GOP doing some soul searching, but the issues on the horizon suggest the Democrats have some thinking to do as well. The importance of midterm elections must be learned. Clamoring for who gets to be President has become too distracting. The down ballot elections at the state level need to be seen as critical. This includes elevating the position of state Secretary of State in the minds of Democratic voters. Of course, this position should be unelected and nonpartisan, but it is not and the office needs to be treated as the critical lynchpin of fair elections that it is. Democrats need to believe it is just as important as showing up to vote for the Presidency.
The damage has been done for now. Redistricting doesn’t happen again until 2020, and for now the lines are drawn to negate any demographic advantages Democrats may be starting to realize. The only possible good that can come of this is wisdom. Liberals across the country need to seize on this lesson in democracy and vow, “Never again.”
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.
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