Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Four: Gerrymandering and Modern Technology

To begin, a lesson from history. In 1948 the Union of South Africa held a national election in which the conservative Reunited National Party won a majority of seats in Parliament despite losing the popular vote to the more liberal United Party. South Africa at that time had a constitution that located many parliamentary seats in thinly-populated rural areas that favored conservatives at the disadvantage to more heavily populated (and more liberal) urban areas; thus the conservative victory despite losing the popular vote 37.7% to 49.2%. In power for the first time, the openly white-supremacist RNP proceeded to institute the apartheid system that completely disenfranchised non-whites and otherwise put the country on a path to becoming a dictatorship that allowed no civil liberties at all.

The parallels between 1940s South Africa and the United States in the 21st century are striking. In parts one and three of this series, I discussed how the bigotry of today's Republican party is damaging to democracy in our multi-cultural society. In this and future posts, I'll cover how Republicans are using and abusing the law to make sure they stay in power in spite of, and not because of, the fact that the United States is a representative democracy.

Gerrymandering, the practice of establishing a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries, has been around for centuries. But leave it to 21st-century Republicans to take it to extremes; everywhere they can use gerrymandering to maximize their advantage, they do so. Modern technology makes it possible to do this with great precision. Consider the case of the gerrymandering of the Wisconsin state legislature, now the subject of a case before the US Supreme Court.

From a 2017 article by Jordan Ellenberg of the New York Times:

"About as many Democrats live in Wisconsin as Republicans do. But you wouldn’t know it from the Wisconsin State Assembly, where Republicans hold 65 percent of the seats, a bigger majority than Republican legislators enjoy in conservative states like Texas and Kentucky."

"The United States Supreme Court is trying to understand how that happened. On Tuesday, the justices heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, reviewing a three-judge panel’s determination that Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn district map is so flagrantly gerrymandered that it denies Wisconsinites their full right to vote. A long list of elected officials, representing both parties, have filed briefs asking the justices to uphold the panel’s ruling."

"Gerrymandering used to be an art, but advanced computation has made it a science. Wisconsin’s Republican legislators, after their victory in the census year of 2010, tried out map after map, tweak after tweak. They ran each potential map through computer algorithms that tested its performance in a wide range of political climates. The map they adopted is precisely engineered to assure Republican control in all but the most extreme circumstances."

The model for today's Republican gerrymandering strategy was established by Texas in 2002, and was quickly copied by other Republican-controlled states. I wrote about this in a 2013 post; here are some highlights:

"The redistricting of Congressional seats is traditionally done once every ten years, soon after the national census. In the 2000 election, Texas elected 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to the US House, and did so again two years later after the decennial redistricting. However, in the 2002 election the Republicans also gained control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the 19th century. The newly elected Republican legislature then engaged in an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting plan.  After a protracted partisan struggle, the legislature enacted a new congressional districting map, as a result of which Republicans won 21 seats to the Democrats' 11 in the 2004 election. The plan was personally shepherded through the Texas legislature by US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Texas Senator John Cornyn was quick to congratulate DeLay and to brag about the success of the redistricting plan, saying, "Everybody who knows Tom knows that he's a fighter and a competitor, and he saw an opportunity to help the Republicans stay in power in Washington.""

Republicans won very big in the 2010 mid-term elections, gaining control of legislatures and Governor's offices in many states in the south and the rust-belt. The result of course was the re-drawing of both Congressional districts and state legislative districts to maximum advantage. The Republican party's State Leadership Committee is quite proud of the way in which they manipulated the results of the 2012 U.S. House election, and has written an analysis for me. Boasting about the success of their "REDMAP" plan, the Committee reported:

"After REDMAP’s success on Election Day 2010, Republicans held majorities in 10 of the 15 states that gained or lost U.S. House seats and where the legislature played a role in redrawing the state legislative and congressional district map.  In the 70 congressional districts that were labeled by National Public Radio as "competitive" in 2010, Republicans controlled the redrawing of at least 47 of those districts; Democrats were responsible for 15, and a non-partisan process determined eight."

"REDMAP’s effect on the 2012 election is plain when analyzing the results: Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates than their Republican opponents, but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington; Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress.  Nationwide, Republicans won 54 percent of the U.S. House seats, along with 58 of 99 state legislative chambers, while winning only 8 of 33 U.S. Senate races and carrying only 47.8 percent of the national presidential vote."

The Report also brags that gerrymandering also helped Republicans win in 2012 at the state level: 
"In Ohio, for instance, Republicans actually expanded their state House and state Senate majorities in 2012, to 60-39 in the House and 23-10 in the Senate, even as Obama carried the state by three points." "Another good example is the Virginia House. Republicans retained a 67-31 edge there, despite Obama having carried the state by four points."

But hey, don't Democrats also gerrymander when they get the chance? Actually they do so quite rarely. True, the Supreme Court has taken up the case of Benisek v. Lamone, in which the plaintiffs claim that Maryland Democrats deliberately redrew the state's 6th Congressional district with partisan intent. (Maryland Democrats have admitted that they did draw the district with partisan intent, the question before the Court is whether they did so illegally).

The frustrating thing here is false equivalence. The Hill notes that, "Legal analysts say the court likely took the Maryland case in addition to the Wisconsin case to settle the issue in a neutral way without siding with one political party over another". So on the one hand, Republicans have gerrymandered virtually all congressional seats and state legislative seats across all of the south, most of the plains states and much of the rust-belt, while Democrats are accused of gerrymandering a single congressional seat in Maryland. So of course we get headlines such as (from the Washington Post), "Maryland’s redistricting case reminds us: Both parties gerrymander. A lot."

Note finally that drawing districts through computer modeling of voter demographics is only one way that Republicans cheat to win through gerrymandering. Next time I'll cover how Republicans manipulate laws designed to protect minority voters so that the intent of those laws is turned upside down for most folks.

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Three: President Trump

In future posts in this series on how Republicans are unapologetically attacking democratic institutions in America, I'll be focusing on their legal actions. For example, when North Carolina went to draw new boundaries for state congressional districts in 2016, State Representative David Lewis, the Republican who led the redrawing process, said that he proposed "we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats."

But before we get to gerrymandering, voter suppression and a lot of other fun topics, let's discuss the orange-haired elephant in the room: President Donald Trump. Democratic institutions only survive while people respect them, something our President is unwilling to do. A good summary of the new normal for the leader of the free world was written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of the New York Times in December, 2016, before Trump even took office:

"In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters; pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton; threatened legal action against unfriendly media; and suggested that he might not accept the election results.

This anti-democratic behavior has continued since the election. With the false claim that he lost the popular vote because of  "millions of people who voted illegally," Mr. Trump openly challenged the legitimacy of the electoral process. At the same time, he has been remarkably dismissive of United States intelligence agencies’ reports of Russian hacking to tilt the election in his favor.

Mr. Trump is not the first American politician with authoritarian tendencies. (Other notable authoritarians include Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.) But he is the first in modern American history to be elected president. This is not necessarily because Americans have grown more authoritarian (the United States electorate has always had an authoritarian streak). Rather it’s because the institutional filters that we assumed would protect us from extremists, like the party nomination system and the news media, failed."

When it's easy to enumerate half a dozen different ways that Mr. Trump managed to undermine democracy before he was even inaugurated President, you know we're in trouble. Fast forward a year into Trump's Presidency, here's some observations on what we've seen so far from John Shattuck of the American ProspectShattuck points out:

"Donald Trump has gone beyond previous presidents in attacking the mainstream media, undermining its objectivity, distorting truth, and proliferating falsehoods."

"The federal judiciary is similarly under attack. Trump has extended his influence over the judiciary by nominating 77 judges in his first year, some of whom are unqualified and ideologically extreme. He has criticized the federal judiciary as an institution and individual judges for failing to support his agenda."

"The president has sought to derail any investigation of his presidential campaign or his administration in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and he has lied about his efforts to do so."

"Trump has appointed family members to sensitive positions, refused to release his tax returns, failed to meet conflict-of-interest standards and mixed government and personal business activities. This has created a growing public perception that the Trump administration is a breeding ground for corruption, favoritism, and further erosion of trust in the political system".

"Trump has attacked civil society by stirring up racial and religious animosity, stimulating social and cultural division, and undercutting civic activism. His anti-pluralist statements have encouraged extremists, denigrated minorities, discouraged moderates, and increased political polarization.

* "The Trump administration has decimated the professional civil service in many federal departments and agencies, promoting partisanship and undermining morale and efficiency, particularly in the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency."

- and finally -

"By repeatedly lying and manipulating factual reality, he has promoted the view that there is no objective truth. By attacking and insulting opponents, he has degraded public discussion of issues and politicized the institutions that are normally seen as nonpartisan guardrails of democracy."

To summarize, last month President Trump told an audience that China’s president, Xi Jinping, was now "president for life," and added: "I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday." Although the New York Times wrote that the remark, "appeared to be in jest," I'm not sure who was laughing.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Eclipse of American Democracy, Part Two: Money Talks, Everyone Else Shut Up

In December, Republicans pushed through Congress a tax cut for corporations and the 1% that has support of only 32% of the public, making it the most unpopular legislation in decades. To be fair, most Republican voters support the cut. But the question remains: Why are Americans getting a law that less than one-third of them want?

Republicans, you see, don't believe in participatory democracy the way Democrats and other folks do. They believe in "freedom", which is not the same thing at all. Here's a hypothetical conversation I think illustrates the opposing philosophies:
Democrat: The local chemical company has been poisoning the ground water. We need to pass a law limiting the amount of chemical runoff. That way the water stays safe, and the chemical company has clear guidelines that allow it to protect its reputation. Everybody wins.
Republican: Government regulations impinge on freedom.

Let's dig into the philosophical backing of this particular brand of freedom. Probably the single biggest private influence on American elections and the crafting of legislation is the dark-money machine built by Charles and David Koch. From a 2015 New York Times article: "The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history."

The Koch brothers aren't just a couple of billionaires who want a public policy environment favorable to their interests as oil tycoons. They want to destroy government entirely, except as a vehicle to protect them from democracy. An article in the Guardian by George Monbiot explains how Charles Koch spent millions sponsoring the work of an economist named James McGill Buchanan:
"Buchanan, in collaboration with business tycoons and the institutes they founded, developed a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich. The programme is now reshaping politics, and not just in the US.

Buchanan was strongly influenced by both the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the property supremacism of John C Calhoun, who argued in the first half of the 19th century that freedom consists of the absolute right to use your property (including your slaves) however you may wish; any institution that impinges on this right is an agent of oppression, exploiting men of property on behalf of the undeserving masses.

James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called public choice theory. He argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes were forms of "differential or discriminatory legislation" against the owners of capital.

Any clash between "freedom" (allowing the rich to do as they wish) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that "despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe." Despotism in defence of freedom."

To summarize, the 2017 tax cut and other unpopular federal government actions were "despotism in defence of freedom" in action. First Republicans gain power through illicit means including extreme gerrymandering and a lot of other anti-democratic tactics (which I'll discuss in future posts in this series). Then they pass laws that people don't want, but most definitely protect the "freedom" of corporations and billionaires to pay little if any taxes, destroy the environment, allow the public infrastructure they depend on to crumble and keep the real generators of profit, America's highly-productive workforce, in poverty.